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August 5, 2014

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Fears for the last of city’s historic shikumen

SHANGHAI has lost 30 percent of its distinctive shikumen residential communities in the past five years, an expert said yesterday.

With the city’s rapid development in recent decades, most of these stone-gated residential buildings have been demolished with their residents relocated.

In their heyday, there were more than 9,000 shikumen lanes in the city, said Ruan Yisan, director of the National Historic Cities Research Center at Tongji University.

Five years ago, this figure was down to just 150, and now there are less than 100, said Ruan.

The 80-year-old Ruan is known as China’s “historic building protector.” He is famous for standing in front of bulldozers to protect historic buildings, and says it’s increasingly urgent to protect the city’s unique shikumen communities.

Ruan says Shanghai has lost some of its most valuable remaining shikumen over the last five years, making way to urban development.

“The West Siwenli Lane, for instance, one of the city’s earliest shikumen lanes on the south bank of Suzhou Creek, has been demolished, while the East Siwenli Lane was planned to be next,” said Ruan.

The city’s top urban planning body has just halted the planned demolition plan, after many historians and experts, including Ruan, petitioned to the government.

Shikumen are the unique architectural style of Shanghai, combining Western building style and China’s courtyard structures. They were first built in the city in the 1850s by Europeans in foreign concessions to rent to Chinese residents.

At one stage, up to 80 percent of the city’s population lived in this type of house.

Critics accuse the city government of demolishing many remaining shikumen in the early 1990s without providing a solution on how to protect the remainder.

Xintiandi and Tianzifang are both renovated shikumen areas, now housing boutique shops and restaurants, and deemed successful examples of protecting the buildings.

However, Ruan said Xintiandi is actually “fake shikumen,” as most of the buildings were demolished and rebuilt, with only the appearance of shikumen  style.

Ruan said Tianzifang on Taikang Road was once an ideal example of how to protect shikumen communities, as residents rent part of their apartments on the ground floors to art galleries and fashion stores.

However, it later became too commercialized, said Ruan.

But restoring shikumen communities for residents has not always been a success either.

The Cite Bourgogne community on Shaanxi Road saw their homes renovated, but many complained afterward that their living conditions were hardly improved, and instead asked to be relocated to newly built residential buildings.

‘Relocation is best hope’

“Relocation remains best our hope,” said Wan Yongli, an elderly resident in the Cite Bourgogne. Wan said the old house still suffers from leaks and cramped living conditions.

Shanghai had a total of 9,214 shikumen lanes with more than 200,000 such buildings covering 20 million square meters in the 1950s, according to Jiefang Daily.

Neighbors chatting in the courtyard and in front of the their houses, fanning themselves in the summer heat, or lining up to buy groceries in the small store were typical scenes for older Shanghai residents.

But this traditional close-knit community has disappeared with shikumen lanes.

Qiu, an old resident in the Gaofuli Lane, one of the few shikumen neighborhoods in downtown Huangpu District, still runs an old store there.

He admits that he can hardly make the ends meet with the shop alone, but keeps it open.

Old neighbors still like to come to call and chat, he says. Much, in fact, as residents of Shanghai’s shikumen have done for more than 150 years.

Tell us what you think

Shikumen are unique to Shanghai, yet many of the few remaining communities are under threat of disappearing to urban development.

While historians want to preserve them, some residents complain that living conditions inside are poor and favor relocation.

But once relocated, shikumen will often be demolished by developers.

Yet without developers, the government would struggle to afford the huge amount of compensation and relocation fees for former residents.

So how should the city protect its shikumen?

Xintiandi remains the most successful but also controversial example, as developers tore down the real thing and replaced them with “fake shikumen” to turn into bars, shops and restaurants.

And Tianzifang on Taikang Road has been described as becoming too commercialized.

At Shanghai Daily we’d love to hear from you and, who knows, your ideas might even provide inspiration to the city government.

Even if they don’t, we’ll still publish some of the best ones.

So get thinking, and e-mail your thoughts and ideas to


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