Understanding lilong housing and shikumen architecture

What exactly is shikumen architecture and how does it fit into lilong housing? And why is it so unique to Shanghai?

“Longtang is what Shangahinese refer to as lilongs, lilong housing is longtang architecture. Longtang is a unique Shanghai product and belongs to Shanghai people.”

“弄堂”是上海人对里弄的俗称,”里弄房子”就是弄堂建筑。弄堂是上海的特产,是属于上海人的。” ~ 上海人

Longtang (弄堂) is a colloquial term for lilong (里弄), a neighborhood of lanes populated by houses which had evolved since its creation from 1842 to about 1949, coinciding with the Western presence in this port city. They have evolved into five types: 1) the old shikumen (石库门) longtangs, 2) the new shikumen longtangs, 3) the new-type longtangs, 4) the garden longtangs, and 5) the apartment longtangs.

Below is an aerial photograph of Huahai Fang (淮海坊) encased by Huahia Lu (淮海路) and Nanchang Lu (南昌路).

Huaihai Lu Lilong

Shikumen (石库门), or translated as “stone gate”, is a style of housing unique to Shanghai that blends Chinese and Western structural styles.  Shikumen houses are two or three-story townhouses, with the front yard protected by a high brick wall. The entrance to each alley is usually surmounted by a stylistic stone arch. The influences could be found in everything from intricate carvings in wooden doors, stone archways and door steps.

Below is a photograph of one of tens of lanes in Siwen Li (斯文里), one of the largest clusters of shikumen housing located in now-Jingan district. Completed in early 1920s, this lilong housed 2,700 families in 700 shikumen homes at its peak occupancy. The western compound was demolished years earlier to make way for the Shanghai Natural History Museum while the eastern part of the compound is a ghost town as the district government contemplates its fate.

Siwen Alley Shikumen 01

At the height of their popularity in the 1930s, there were 9,000 shikumen-style buildings in Shanghai, comprising 60% of the total housing stock of the city, according to Ruan Yisan, director of the National Historic Cities Research Center at Tongji University. Sadly, more than three thirds of the city’s shikumen housing has since been demolished. Weighed down by overcrowding and worsening infrastructure, many Shanghainese families had been eager to move to newer and more spacious residential homes, especially during the housing reform period in the 1990s. Older residents, accustomed to the intimacy and conveniences of their neighborhoods, have a more difficult time leaving lilong life behind.

The process of negotiating and moving residents of old lilongs in order to demolish the structures to make way for new buildings is a sensitive and dark topic. The trajectory of accelerated urbanization, emboldened by escalating real estate prices, is often underpinned by accounts of violent clashes between residents with district governments and property developers, failed petitions to the district, municipality and even Beijing for fairer compensation. The Shanghai government has sought to prioritize properties for preservation, the most successful being landmarks on the Bund and former villas in the former French Concessions. However, lilongs seem more challenged in gaining support for mass preservation. Below is the remnants of shikumen in Xingping Lane (星平里) lilong, near the luxury shopping district of Xintiandi.

Xinping Lu demolished

The historical demographic makeup of lilongs are just as fascinating. In the early 20th century, these residential structures were often owned by a single landlord who would house a multi-generational family and sometimes rent out smaller rooms to migrants. After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, all private properties were taken over by the central government and reallocated to families according to their “political labels”. Those tainted by personal capitalist backgrounds were relegated four or five to a tiny room. Overcrowding ensued when tens of individuals are forced to live cheek by jowl, sharing amenities and utilities with a ruthless eye on who pays what.

A great book that captures the human elements of lilong living under Mao Zedong’s communism and later Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening of China is author Jie Li’s book “Shanghai Homes”, my interview with her here. Below is a contrast of a cross-section of a unit in a lilong pre and post 1949 courtesy of Jie Li.

Shanghai Homes Jie LI cross section of 111 alliance lane 1940s

A cross-section view of an unmodified individual unit in No. 111 Alliance Lane in the 1940s. Courtesy of Jie Li.

Shanghai Homes Jie LI cross section of 111 alliance lane

A cross-section view of No. 111 Alliance lane around the 1960s. In contrast to the unmodified unit in 1940s, five families lived in different rooms of the house from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s. Courtesy of Jie Li.

What makes a shikumen (石库门) header an architectural tapestry so emblematic of Shanghai? [Source: “The Diversity of Design in Shikumen Headers”, 13 May 2016]

The grey stone pediment, shaped in a triangle or semi-circle, contains designs that range from the simple to the elaborate. In their heyday, headers (and the width of lanes) reflected the economic class of the neighborhood. Some lanes had cookie cutter European flower designs stamped overhead in narrow alleys, other lanes enjoyed beautiful and intricate carvings that more well-off residents enjoyed. The most unique are standalone shikumens that captured the spirit and influence of a household, with carefully chosen symbols of peaches for longevity or an elephant to signify wisdom.

Below, one of my favorite cul de sacs off Kongjia Nong (孔家弄) or Confucius Lane in Old Town.

Shikumen 03

It’s impossible to miss how Art Deco is woven into Shanghai’s architectural landscape, from the iconic Peace Hotel on the Bund to the modern interpretation in form of the Jinmao Tower in Pudong. We also see them in beautiful old apartments like the Astrid on Nanchang Lu (南昌路) or the Georgia Apartments on Hengshan Lu (衡山路). But my favorite is the application of Deco motifs in Shanghai’s lilongs. Did native residents in the 1930s, as shikumens were built extensively across the city, find the design modern and novel? Did they feel an affinity to the landmark tall buildings dotting the International and French concessions? I’ve previously written about the influence of Art Deco design in Shanghai’s shikumen.

Shikumen Entrance Facade Art Deco 01

This repainted shikumen header is located in Wangyima Lane (王医马弄), one of the oldest lanes in Old Town dating back to the 13th century. The elephant in the shikumen header is regarded as a symbol of wisdom and wealth, and in this case, represents a prominent and illustrious career.

“According to one source, a certain Wang (王) was a veterinary doctor (yi 医) specializing in treating horses (ma 马); he lived here in the Song era and evidently was famous for his skill. Horses were used primarily for official dispatches, so it is no surprise that Wang’s practice would be so close to the seat of government (magistrate’s yamen) and the city temple.”

Elephant Shikumen

See these guardian lions (石獅) playfully poised with their paws on a decorated ball. Above the arch rests two small European gables. Jiuan Fang (久安坊) or very loosely translated “Long Peace Compound”, is an excellent example of new-styled shikumen lilong housing located near Yuyuan Garden.

Shikumen Header 04

Located a few blocks south of the affluent shopping cluster that is Xintiandi, Chengyu Lane (成裕里) (or Achieving Abundance Lane) was part of a large swathe of lilong housing demolished from 2013 to 2015 to accommodate the roll out of high-end malls and office buildings that now take its place. The shikumen headers are modest, simple rectangular frames with simple flower motifs.

Its modesty captures subtle threads of Communist history. It was in Chengyu Lane that Chen Duxiu (陈独秀) (1879–1942), one of two founding members of the CCP and an early student of Karl Marx’s works, assembled a printing press in House no. 12 to produce the first Chinese copy of The Communist Manifesto in 1920.

Printing of Communist Manifesto 01


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