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Notes on the Geography of China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi

Don't be put off by this esoteric-sounding title, which translates as "stone gate door" and "new heaven and earth."  We're looking first at the quintessential housing type of the Chinese middle-classes during the period of the European concessions in Shanghai and, second, at a current attempt to renovate those houses and put them to new uses.

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China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 1

By accident, we've landed in a neighborhood just south of Hong Kong Plaza.  It's laid out in massive blocks penetrated by a rectangular network of alleys.  Looks like barrack-style slums.

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 2

First impression: could this be worker's housing in a socialist paradise?

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The short answer is no; it's the work of the same big European firms--Jardine, Sassoon, Hardoon--who built the Bund and Shanghai's European monuments.  Their customers in this case, however, were Chinese families fearful of civil unrest (the Taiping rebellion was a fresh memory for many). The safest place was in the European concessions.  The French one, granted in 1849, began in a narrow strip north of the Chinese city and including the southern section of the Bund.  It was extended west in 1900 and then dramatically so in 1914, by which time it was perhaps four times the size of the Chinese city.  North of the French Concession was the International Settlement, a fusion of a British settlement along the northern Bund and an American one to its north and beyond Suzhou Creek.  The amalgamation took place in 1863, and the combined settlement was enlarged in 1899, by which time it was larger than the French concession at its maximum.  In modern parlance, there was a lot of prime development property here.

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 4

The logic was to make as much money as possible, as fast as possible.  Blocks were laid out, with shops around the perimeter and with stone-framed gate (shikumen) leading to gated alleys like this one.  Houses varied in size but were typically three or five bays wide, with a miniscule courtyard.

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 5

A bit of greenery makes them a lot more presentable. 

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 6

Here's one in good shape, displaying a form so embedded in Shanghai that it has been said that without them there would be no Shanghai and no Shanghainese.  A few years ago, this one was derelict, with Party slogans on the wall. Now it's a museum.  Here, an upstairs office. 

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 7

Upstairs bedroom.

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 8

A view of the courtyard--a nod to Chinese tradition--and wing rooms.  

See Chunlan Zhao's "From shikumen to new-style: a rereading of lilong housing in modern Shanghai," Journal of Architecture, Spring 2004.  Lilong is a broad term, composed of two words, the first meaning neighborhood and the second meaning a street; the idea of the "neighborhood street" conjures up the kind of crowded residential alleys that Jane Jacobs would love.  Zhao contrasts the classic shikumen with germinal forms and with later, 20th century ones lacking the alley entrance gate and perimeter shophouses.

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 9

And here we slide over to Xintiandi, the "New Heaven and Earth" redevelopment project of Hong Kong's Shui An group, financed by Vincent Lo.  Two blocks of shikumen have been converted into what an American developer would call festive retail.

The result, comparable to many renovations in the United States, preserves the historic facade but completely reorganizes the interior space, to the extent of relocating load-bearing walls. Shui An was supposed to renovate the buildings, not transform them into modern commercial buildings.

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 10

In high irony, on July 23, 1932, the First National  Congress of the Communist Part of China met in a shikumen that now adjoins Xiantiandi.  There's also room here for an exclusive club.

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 11

We should drive up in our Rolls.

China: Shanghai: Shikumen to Xintiandi picture 12

Juxtaposition: Xintiandi and the New World Tower. 


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