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March 25, 2010

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Celebrating shikumen life

VIRTUALLY most of Shanghai's signature shikumen (stone-gated) houses in cozy longtang (lanes) have been bulldozed to make room for modern construction, so the distinctive architecture and its community way of life evoke yellowed photographs from the 1920s and 1930s.

Some gussied-up-for-Expo shikumen and longtang neighborhoods can be visited here and there as the city promotes the World Expo theme of "Better City, Better Life."

The idea being that living in close quarters in shikumen lanes makes for a comfortable, neighborly way of life, an overlapping of private and public space.

A vivid slice of this old Shanghai life can be enjoyed through Monday during Shikumen Cultural Week at Xintiandi, a complex of shikumen-style architecture that is also a tourist attraction, high-end dining and shopping hub. Xintiandi has been named a Model Unit for the Tour of the Theme of World Expo 2010 in the Yangtze River Delta.

Attractions and events include old-time Shanghai snacks, qipao fashion shows, a ballroom dancing party, drawings and photos of old Shanghai, malt-sugar craftsmen selling their statues, rickshaws and jazz.


Shikumen is a style of housing in Shanghai that blends features of the East and West. The heavy wooden doors were painted black, the entire door framed in long bars of stone, hence the name "stone gate."

Shanghai-native artist Li Shoubai, known as "Mr Shikumen" because he paints the kaleidoscopic life within the vanishing alleyway houses, writes on his Website:

"Passing the lane alone, facing the old shikumen, a familiar feeling breaks into my mind and inspires me to create. The elegant shikumen style gives expression to the imagination and creativity of the people who live here. This architecture is terse, economical and not extravagant.

"Shikumen houses integrate all the stories and demonstrate that the times are rich and full," he says.

At one time an estimated 60 percent of the city's housing area was occupied by shikumen that can be traced back to the 1860s but were better known in the 1920s and 1930s.

Shikumen houses were two- or three-story brick and wood townhouses, side-by-side, each with a small front courtyard protected by a high brick wall. The houses were arranged along straight alleys or lanes known as longtang; the entrance to each lane was usually marked by a stone arch.

Over the years, many were hastily built and subdivided, much like slum dwellings. Many others were sturdier, well designed and equipped with modern amenities. Some doorways were ornate.

In Xintiandi, the Shikumen Open House Museum is an authentic recreation of a shikumen family dwelling in the 1920s.

Once symbolic of Shanghai's modern architecture, the historic shikumen buildings receded from the historical stage as they could no longer satisfy people's demands for modern residences.

However, according to Howard Tseng, a noted Taiwan architect, this special architectural style has its charms.

"Shikumen houses boast a unique combination of traditionalism-meets-modernism, demonstrating Shanghai's own distinct character and personality," Tseng says.

"Preservation has been a hot topic for a long time. Some of them have been transformed into landmarks for culture, lifestyle, dining and fashion like Xintiandi. Some will be restored and re-decorated as high-end property for sales and for rent," he says.

Typical life in a shikumen community had tremendous influence on generations of local people such as famous Shanghai farce artist Wang Rugang.

Wang, 58, known for his "Wang Xiaomao" radio comedy series, lived for 20 years in a shikumen house on Kunming Road in Hongkou District. Though there wasn't much outside entertainment, Wang enjoyed playing alley games such as eagle and chicken, and hopscotch with neighbor children.

"When I was a teenager, a group of Jewish people visited our house," Want recalls. "My neighbors told me that they were among the thousands of Jewish refugees who took shelter in Hongkou District during World War II. At that moment I suddenly realized the essence of shikumen life - great tolerance for different cultures and people."

Many shikumen were crowded as houses were subdivided. Wang says the "shikumen way of life" features a very close connection between neighbors. Many of them got along well (some, of course, did not). They shared recipes, books, and even the TV set.

"Because old shikumen houses didn't have soundproofing, I used to hear the radio shows my neighbors listened to. This was my first introduction to comedy," says Wang.


Living close to other people and interacting regularly, Wang developed good communication skills.

When Wang's parents passed away, he even carved a shikumen gateway on their tomb in memory of their long lives within that architecture.

Shanghai writer Cheng Naishan, born in 1946, says scenes from shikumen life inspired parts of her novels. To her, life in shikumen houses means harmonious living with neighbors in a real community.

A dear neighbor is better than a distant cousin, she notes, adding that in the old days people used to leave spare keys with their neighbors. Trust is a big part of the shikumen community, she says.

On her personal blog, Cheng says people today may feel isolated or lonely living in modern high-rise apartments and their children surf the Internet and play online games instead of playing outdoor team games with others.

But not everyone is nostalgic. Many old buildings were shabby, unheated, lacked plumbing - and privacy.

Jane Song, who grew up in a shikumen house in a longtang in Jing'an District, says it's necessary to demolish the old shikumen slums because they can no longer satisfy people's demands for privacy and a bigger, brighter living area.

"Some well-kept unique lanes should be preserved as part of history and culture, but for some really old houses, it is not such a bad thing to be demolished," she says.


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