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March 23, 2011

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A gateway to lane house living

Shang Xian Fang, a red-brick shikumen (stone-gate) residential compound is famous for two men in modern Shanghai history - American missionary Gilbert Reid and Chinese writer Yu Dafu.

The complex, literally meaning "respect intellectual lane," has a decent gate, a white Baroque-style facade, which is located opposite the red-brick former Municipal Council Building of the French concession, now the Shanghai Central Plaza, on Huaihai Road.

According to the book "Shanghai American Cultural Map," the name comes from "Shang Xian Tang" or Shang Xian Hall, the former International Institute of China built by American missionary Gilbert Reid (1857-1927) with sponsorship from Chinese tycoons in 1903. It is also a name inspired by lines from classic Chinese text "I Ching," which means "to respect the intelligent people."

The institute employed Chinese and Western faculties to teach English, business, law and politics to Chinese students. It was also a popular venue for Western chambers of commerce to host events.

"Reid was an open-minded missionary who was quite good at networking with Chinese elite in the political and commercial circles," says co-author Zhang Sheng from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "In a word, Shang Xian Tang was actually a place for the elite to gather and do some good things together."

In 1924, a real estate company used its reputation to construct a property, a compound of lane houses on the lawn of the institute, which is Shang Xian Fang.

Covering an area of around 6,000 square meters, the compound features three lines of 52 lane houses which are 3.6 meters wide and as much as 15 meters deep.

As I walked through the elegant gate, it became another world. Numerous items of clothing and sheets were hanging out to dry everywhere - below a roof, at a window or across the passageways.

I came across a man with a chamber pot in hand walking hurriedly to the public toilet near the gate. It's incredible that a Huaihai Road neighborhood today has no private toilets, especially when it is so close to the fancy Xintiandi.

According to Zheng Shiling's book "The Evolution of Shanghai Architecture in Modern Times," shikumen is a unique East-meets-West architectural style, a result of the booming real estate development in modern Shanghai.

"Shikumen is like a lot of traditional Chinese houses jammed together," says researcher Zhang Sheng. "Shikumen maintained a strong feature of traditional residences in the region south of the Yangtze River, but it saved space because it was arranged in a Western townhouse layout. Shikumen well suited the tight land use of Shanghai."

The earliest shikumen houses were built in the 1870s but were gradually replaced by the late style which emerged after the 1910s and had a larger scale, a more open style and usually grew from the original two floors to three floors.

The traditional white walls were replaced with red or gray bricks, or a mixture of both. More Western details have been adapted, such as Western pediments above a shikumen gate.

Zheng's book classifies Shang Xian Fang as "a typical example of the late shikumen lane house style," which had red-brick walls and some Baroque decorations. All houses were hidden behind a tall, thick black wooden gate in a stone frame, a strong feature of shikumen.

After more careful observation, I found this place demonstrated more of an original Shanghai lifestyle than the Xintiandi lane houses which have only a traditional "shell" after undergoing "plastic surgery."

Most residents at Shang Xian Fang seem to be ordinary locals, and are using an outdoor faucet, which I haven't seen for years. The narrow lanes between houses are sprinkled with everyday objects from another era, such as old-fashioned bicycles, sun-bleached bamboo chairs, wooden nightstools and even a mop made of white rope which has "specially for the toilet" written on the handle.

Shang Xian Fang also has a famous connection to Chinese writer Yu Dafu (1896-1945), a talented novelist/poet who knew five languages.

On a chilly day in January 1927, Yu visited his former classmate Sun Baigang who lived at Shang Xian Fang. The married writer fell in love with a beautiful 19-year-old girl named Wang Yingxia, granddaughter of a Hangzhou scholar who happened to live in Sun's home.

After ardent pursuit and continuous love letters, Wang accepted the writer and they married in 1928 at the West Lake in Hangzhou. The marriage ended unhappily in 1940. Five years later, Yu went missing in Sumatra and was said to be killed by Japanese soldiers.

A legendary school laced with love stories. Layers and layers of history hidden behind each black wooden gate had made my first shikumen exploration so much interesting.


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