Shanghai Shikumen

The end of an era for some of Shanghai's old residences

shikumen houses

The Shanghai Shikumen are a type of 'lane house' which are found throughout Shanghai - or were found throughout Shanghai. Typically, these residences were fronted by a thick stone frame which encased the entrance of the building. Above the wooden doors would be found a horizontal inscription with a motto, family name or lucky characters and the top of the gate might be decorated with circular or rectangular patterns.

After 1870, Shikumen became the dominant form of housing in Shanghai although the heyday of construction was probably in the 1920s and 1930s. They offered more sturdy and reliable housing for the urban masses than the previous wooden dwellings. While popular with the local population, Shikumen aren't without their downsides - the older residences tend to lack indoor plumbing and communal facilities are the norm. Families often share kitchens and bathrooms (if there are any) in the building while some families rely on chamber pots and nearby public washrooms. Thin walls can mean that peace and quiet is hard to come by while insufficient foundations can make for damp conditions at times.

Shanghai Shikumen - a busy lane house street with bikes and washing hung out to dry
Shanghai Shikumen - Qiaojia Road Community is a large neighbourhood of streets full of Shikumen which will soon be demolished

the end of one community

We recently visited one traditional neighbourhood which is coming to an end very soon. The majority of images here are of what remains of Qiaojia Road Community which is located closed to Xiaonanmen and the Bund, right in the heart of Shanghai. The community formerly housed thousands of families including notable scholars and artists - it was even visited by Albert Einstein in 1922. These streets were bustling just a few months ago with a plethora of small stores, attractive smells from the cooking which was carried out outdoors and the noise of people chatting and playing music. 

Over the next few months these properties will be mostly destroyed and around 98% of the community has already been relocated to bigger and more comfortable (more bland?) apartments in the suburbs of Shanghai. Buildings where residents have left have been boarded up (or windows and doors have been concreted over) and fixtures have been removed. All that remains are a few elderly residents clinging on for now and the occasional tourist taking photos of a community on its way out.

Defining Shikumen

In addition to the stone entrance frames and wooden doors, there are other aspects which describe most Shikumen residences. Being largely built before motor vehicles became popular they are mostly situated along narrow lanes making access for cars (and emergency vehicles) quite difficult. These are properties built for the urban working classes but there were decorative features included in most buildings. Gable ends would be more detailed with larger windows and decorative features near the roof. Many entrances feature half doors allowing for more ventilation while maintaining privacy. Blinds were found on many windows offering greater comfort and allowing for cooling during the intense summers before air conditioning became common place.

As can be seen in many of these images, dormer windows are common on the roofs of many Shikumen houses and archways lead to interior courtyards and gardens. A few residences were equipped with balconies, often long and narrow. Over the years almost all buildings were connected to mains electricity but limited space meant that many buildings only had communal kitchens and bathrooms with much of the cooking taking place outside where people were afforded better light. Over time many of the ground floor spaces were converted into small shops and studios. Washing lines were strung up between buildings or out across the street and any extra space was used for plants or storage.

The city recognises that Shikumen are part of Shanghai's history and culture and efforts are being made to save and restore some neighbourhoods. A few have been totally rebuilt almost brick for brick including the area around Xintiandi where the Communist Party of China was founded in 1921 in a Shikumen.

Shanghai Shikumen - This Shikumen building dating to around 1930 will soon be destroyed