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November 16, 2013

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Stone-gate houses became city’s soul

Chen Zhaodi, 90 years old, still remembers the old days when she yelled at and chased after her two younger brothers, trying to get them off the rooftops of the old shikumen (stone-gate 石库门) houses in the different longtangs (lanes 弄堂) where they roamed.

“My brothers loved climbing and jumping across the rooftop tiles to play hide-and-seek with other kids in the longtang,” Chen recalls. “My parents were always working, so I had to act like a mom.”

Chen’s parents ran a small shop in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, before they moved to look for more opportunities in Shanghai, invited by a wealthy relative who established a business here. They first settled in Hongkou District, where the relative’s company was located.

In 1937, shortly after Japanese troops bombed and took over the area, they moved in and stayed for nearly three years in Si Wen Li (Gentle Lane) on today’s Datian Road in Jing’an District.

There were more than 700 houses built around a dozen of connected lanes and many refugees found a roof there that year.

It was built around 1914 by a British businesswoman, later renamed after the firm that purchased it, and is now being demolished and rebuilt into modern houses and department stores.

At first, Chen’s family of five took two rooms on the first floor, but as refugees arrived to join them, they ended up sharing one room with another family of four. A curtain divided the families, but “we could see and hear everything,” Chen says softly.

“The idea of privacy didn’t exist. Since we juggled so many people in one house, it was important to keep a good relationship, and my parents often warned us to stay quiet and to be polite to all our neighbors. It was the same for other families. We all helped each other in the difficult years,” she recalls.

Shikumen houses, named for the stone-gate entryway frames carved with simple patterns and the wooden door often painted black with bronze door knockers, stand as proof of the early cultural fusion between the East and the West in Shanghai.

Shortly after Shanghai opened as a treaty port in 1843, the national Taiping Rebellion and the regional Small Swords Rebellion brought floods of refugees from nearby Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces into the city and later into the foreign concessions.

Real estate firms, mostly foreign ones at the time, built hundreds of housing complexes connected by urban alleyways, the longtang, across different districts starting in the 1870s.

Designers adopted the architectural features of both Chinese courtyard houses and Anglo-American terrace houses. The idea was to keep the basic structure of traditional Chinese houses with many separate rooms, since Chinese were used to living with their big families with three or four generations.

To save space, though, the gardens were turned into front courtyards (and sometimes also an additional back courtyard) and the houses were aligned close to each other like Anglo-American townhouses. The lanes were often interconnected with multiple entrances to the nearby avenues.

The city’s population continued to grow, while its residents started adopting Western ideas and family sizes started to get smaller as young people lived by themselves. A new type of stone-gate house, with fewer rooms, appeared.

In the early 1900s, old and new stone-gate houses took up more than 60 percent of the housing in the city and around 80 percent of the people lived there.

As the population expanded further, the houses became even more compact, while the enclosed courtyard became open gardens. Soon, early apartments, often owned, built and designed by foreign firms, started to appear, many bearing features of European architectural styles.

The Embankment Building

400 North Suzhou Rd

The Embankment Building, finished in 1933, is one of the early apartments in Shanghai, financed by real estate tycoon Victor Sassoon. In the 1920s and 1930s, the city’s population continued to grow and real estate firms soon introduced apartment buildings to replace urban alleys.

Sassoon demolished the alley community that was also financed by ED Sassoon & Co less than 30 years earlier, in 1887, to turn it into an eight-floor apartment building, the largest in the city at the time.

The land where the alley stood had an irregular shape, so the designers made it into a horizontal “S” to accommodate the shape and also to signify the Sassoon “S.” It was also one of the few fancy buildings that offered a view of the Suzhou Creek.

It was equipped with eight entrances, seven staircases, nine elevators, a heating system and a swimming pool, with more than 700 rooms, mainly rented to expatriates.

The geometric patterns in the lobby and detailed carvings on some staircases are symbolic of the Art Deco style that was popular at the time.

In 1938, many Jewish people took refuge in Shanghai and Sassoon used the building to house them until they moved out to a shelter in Hongkou District a year later. After 1949, the apartments were re-assigned, mostly to teachers, researchers and those who worked in government offices.

“The apartment was assigned to my grandfather, who worked for a state-owned company,” says Jerry Li, who grew up in the building shortly after it was expanded with three additional floors in 1978.

“Some of my classmates also live here and I used to hide our bad exam papers in the staircase at one of the corners, because my parents often took the other staircase,” he recalls.

Lane 749, Yuyuan Road

In Chinese espionage novels and dramas, lanes in Shanghai often play an important role.

A spy would get into a lane that he is familiar with and easily lose a tail by hopping through the front and back doors in the maze-like longtang.

Such scenes were not strange to Lane 749 on Yuyuan Road in 1940s Shanghai, as it once housed the top spies from the Wang Jingwei regime that collaborated with the Japanese.

The lane is not far from the regime’s spy agency headquarters at 76 Wanhangdu Road, which has been torn down and turned into a vocational school.

The protagonist Mr Yi in Ang Lee’s award-winning “Lust, Caution” (2007) was also based on a famous spy who worked for Wang.

In real life, these spies did face attempted assassinations from both Kuomintang and Communist agents, which may explain why they chose to build houses in this little-known lane, structured in a strange way with many small, hidden passageways that could easily confuse pursuers. In many parts, the numbers are not consecutive, making it difficult to find a targeted house.

The houses in the lane, mostly built in the 1930s, are a combination of various styles, from the newer type of small longtang and stone houses to larger lanes with wide pathways to allow passenger cars and fancy European-style garden houses.

At least three high officials of the Wang regime, the No. 2 in the spy agency Li Shiqun, his Shanghai mayor Zhou Fohai and the agency’s big stick Wu Sibao, resided in No. 63, 65 and 67, respectively, in this lane.

The three houses are all hidden in the most complicated part of the alley, where a few small passageways lead in different directions. Today, some companies have rented the houses as offices.

Blackstone Apartments

1331 Fuxing Road M.

Built in 1924, the six-floor apartment building was originally named Fuxing Apartments and soon became better known as Blackstone, for its signature use of black stone in the building’s façade.

In the 1940s, it was briefly used as the office for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which came to China to help distribute relief after World War II.

“What I enjoyed most about the year at the Blackstone was the large garden at the back,” says 80-year-old Betty Barr Wang, who’s married to a Shanghai man. She spent a year in the Blackstone between 1946 and 1947.

“Along one wall was a bamboo grove and I remember spending many hours there with my young teenage friends, most of whom were American. Our neighbors in the apartment building were both foreign and Chinese and I presume that the rents must have been high in those post-war years,” she adds.

Her family was interned in Lunghwa Civil Assembly Center and their house in Hongkou District was destroyed during the war. The family left Shanghai for the United States and Scotland after the war, considering whether to leave the children in Europe.

Her parents decided to have her continue education at Shanghai American School, which was within walking distance of the apartment.

When a former Shanghai American School classmate visited Shanghai about 10 years ago, Wang revisited the apartment where her friend lived in her teens, thanks to the current owner, who invited them.

Part of the building now houses a Xuhui District administrative office, while the rest hasn’t changed much, especially the large balcony on the second floor and the old floors in the lobby.

Yu Qing Fang

1906 Sichuan Rd N.

Like many old lanes in the city, Yu Qing Fang was financed by ED Sassoon & Co and completed construction in 1872, when the earliest groups of urban alleys were built to accommodate the influx of refugees from nearby areas.

Many old lanes in Hongkou District were financed by British and later Chinese and Japanese merchants. One can still find some of the early stone-gate houses, rather simplistic without much carving on the stone frames, at this lane.

It was most famous as the former residence of top Shanghai film star Hu Die between 1924 and 1932, a time that coincides with her rise from anonymity to the charming “Sing-Song Girl Red Peony,” China’s first “talkie” movie.


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