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May 24, 2011

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A long time ago in a lane not so far away

A man has turned his family's shikumen home, where they lived for decades, into a museum about traditional Shanghai life. The museum is filled with items sure to bring back memories, writes Hu Min.

Walking along a narrow lane and passing blocks of old buildings, Li Yisheng finally reached his destination - a three-story shikumen (stone-gate) house hidden away in an inconspicuous block on Yongkang Road in Shanghai's Luwan District.

"I know the shikumen style well as I once lived at a shikumen lane house in Caojiadu area for many years until it was torn down for urban redevelopment," says the 62-year-old.

The house in downtown area has been owned by the family of 58-year-old Da Shiping since 1942. Now Da has turned his former home into a private museum about traditional Shanghai life.

The museum is free, but reservations are required, says Da, who is dedicated to research into Chinese culture and also teaches Chinese to foreigners at Shanghai Normal University.

"Shikumen is a symbolic style of housing in Shanghai that integrates features of traditional residences in Jiangnan (regions south of the Yangtze River) with Western-style townhouses," Da says.

"Just like most residences in the region and siheyuan, a historical type of courtyard home in Beijing, shikumen buildings also had a front courtyard, but the distinction lies in that a shikumen house usually has two or three floors in order to make good use of space as land is expensive in Shanghai," Da says.

Shikumen houses are brick-and-wood townhouses, side-by-side, each with a small front courtyard enclosed by a high brick wall.

Each residence is connected and arranged in alleys, known as longtang (alleyway) in Shanghainese, and the entrance to each lane is usually marked by a stylistic stone arch.

Many shikumen houses feature gates at either end.

The courtyard allows sunlight and adequate ventilation into the rooms.

"Western elements have been adopted, like the stone, wood or brick engraving decorations on the walls or pediments above gates, which is also a shikumen feature," Da says.

This private-home-turned-Shikumen Museum, built in 1925, is a veritable treasure trove. It bears silent witness to history.

"The building embodies the memories of four generations of my family and epitomizes the paths we have chosen in life," owner Da says.

At one time, his grandmother, parents, uncle, aunt and himself all lived there.

The second and third floors of a shikumen were often erected later to make better use of space in the face of dense urban living.

"Shikumen houses were heavily subdivided and can be shared by as many as seven families with four or five people living in a 10-square-meter room," Da says.

Exploring different rooms inside the museum is fun given Da's rich collection of everyday items of a bygone era. It's just like walking into somebody's home.

Unlike Wulixiang, or Shikumen Open House, in Xintiandi which presents a replica of a shikumen house, everything at Da's museum is authentic, from the building itself to daily objects.

"Shikumen Open House collected items from antique stores, but my exhibits were passed from generation to generation," he says.

The traditional Chinese red-wood furniture brings one back to a different era. Honor certificates, graduation certificates and paintings of Da's family hang on the walls.

In the bedroom on the second floor, Da opened the door of a wardrobe, where his aunt's 80-year-old qipao is placed in immaculate order.

"Wearing a qipao was a fashion craze at that time," Da says.

An old-fashioned copper hot water bottle used by Da's parents is on the bed.

Da's parents wrote and drew a picture book to celebrate China's first Marriage Law going into effect in 1950 and it is considered the most precious exhibit in the museum.

"It was a landmark event at the time, therefore, my parents, who established a publishing house together, hoped to do something in celebration," Da says.

Even famed Chinese painters Chen Shifa and He Youzhi contributed some pictures for the book.

The terrace of the house has walls, which separate two household. "In the past, there was no wall dividing the terrace, which was a public area where people hung out clothing to dry," Da says. "Neighbors sat together and gossiped. Sometimes, I gave a bowl of dumplings cooked by my mother to the neighbor when we met at the terrace. Even when the wall was erected, the friendliness among neighbors was not disrupted. I climbed over the wall to play with my neighbor."

Da is obviously proud of the private museum and is more than happy to show visitors around.

In the living room, Da opens the window.

"It is called lao hu chuang in Shanghai dialect, which got its name from 'roof window' in English due to the similar pronunciation," Da says.

Ting zi jian, at the turn of the staircase, is another prominent feature of shikumen.

Facing north, ting zi jian is typically the smallest room - about 6 to 7 square meters - in a shikumen building. The room is usually above the kitchen and below the terrace.

"Ting zi jian is the worst room for sleeping as it's too chilly in the winter and sizzling hot in summer," Da explains.

It was rented out sometimes.

Da says the room does have some advantages. "Unlike other rooms, ting zi jian is a relatively enclosed area, therefore, many people used it as a reading room."

During the 1920s and 1930s, many well-educated people came to Shanghai to escape social and political unrest in other parts of China. They often rented out ting zi jian rooms, where they studied arduously and wrote prodigiously.

Literary giants Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, Mao Dun and Ba Jin all used to live in ting zi jian. Many of their works also reflected life in ting zi jian and shikumen. Their writings have been dubbed "ting zi jian literature."

For the museum, Da turned the ting zi jian room into a mini research center on Chinese characters. It displays the evolution of Chinese characters with exhibits such as tortoise shells related with oracle bone script. There is also calligraphy works on display.

There is a desk, two bamboo chairs nestle near the window, alongside a bamboo bed. Four old camphor wood chests are piled up in the corner.

In the sitting room on the first floor, several visitors marveled at a cluster of time-honored objects - an old electric fan, a noiseless typewriter that still works, a famous Sanwu brand clock that is still ticking, a phonograph and a radio from the 1930s or 1940s.

There's also a Superman comic book published in 1937 and a candy box from the 1940s.

"When I was opening the candy box, I just felt like I returned to my childhood," says Wang Cuilan, 55, a visitor. "It brings back so many memories."

She then found a pen inside the box, another old-time item.

The room is decorated in an East-meets-West style. The sofa is Western style and oil paintings drawn by Da's younger brother hang on the walls. There are also cups produced in Egypt, a clock made in Germany and knives once used by American sailors.

Da even exhibits a piece of the shikumen structure. He wiped out the lime of the wall to expose the brick and wood structure of the building. "I want to show visitors the authentic architecture of shikumen," he says, grinning.

A huge Da family tree diagram is on the opposite wall, and behind this wall is the former residence of famous movie actress Wang Danfeng. Wang sold the home to Da's family in 1944 after she moved out when she became popular.

The museum even has a strong flavor of the countryside as Da was once sent to Jiangxi Province for labor work from 1969 to 1975. A chamber pot, a small wood bath tub and a bamboo tool used for cleaning night stools, are displayed in one room.

Bamboo baskets are hung high, just below the roof.

"In the past, people put cooked meat and vegetables up high to preserve them as long as possible as there were no refrigerators," Da says.

Da's family moved from Shaoxing Road to the house in 1942. They moved out in 2003 after learning the house would possibly be dismantled for urban development.

But the government decided to preserve the block, sparking Da's idea to turn it into a private museum. Da's family was fortunate as they occupied the whole building. Most shikumen houses have always accommodated more than one family.

In the shikumen home, the kitchen, passageway and terrace are public areas. These areas served as a platform for social activities as neighbors usually had very good relationships, but disputes also erupted from time to time, which was part of shikumen life, Da says.

He says people liked dining outside in the alley. Food was placed on chairs, sometimes, instead of tables. Men sipped yellow wine and ate as women gossiped loudly and neighborhood kids played alley games such as hopscotch.

It was a time many Shanghai residents remember fondly.

Address: Bldg 35, 38 Yongkang Rd

Tel: 1891-6084-112 (Da Shiping)

About shikumen houses

Shikumen is a representative style of housing in Shanghai that integrates East and West features.

Shikumen houses are two- or three-story townhouses with the front yard protected by a high brick wall. The literal meaning "stone gate" refers to the tall black wooden door in a stone frame.

Each residence is connected and arranged in straight alleys, known as longtang, in Shanghai dialect.

Shikumen incorporates features of traditional residences in the regions south of the Yangtze River, like its front courtyard, but is arranged in a Western-style townhouse layout.

It has been the most prominent residential way of life in Shanghai as they first emerged in Shanghai during the 1870s before becoming most popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

At one time, there were 9,000 shikumen-style buildings in Shanghai, comprising 60 percent of the total dwellings in the city. Even today, some 2 million Shanghai residents still live in shikumen communities.

Many shikumen houses are heavily subdivided due to the massive population increases in the city. The spacious living area is often divided into three or four rooms, each lent out to a family.


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