As Shanghai’s ancient shikumen houses crumble, one shikumen community begins to bring new life to old Shanghai

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/26 20:33:42

A new day for old houses in Shanghai

For tourists, Shanghai's shikumen (stone gates, a traditional local architecture) houses are a signature part of the Shanghai cityscape. Their unique interweaving of both Western and Chinese design have been as much a part of Shanghai's architectural identity as the tradition-steeped courtyards of Beijing, Shanghai Observer reported Wednesday. 

But for the residents who live in Shanghai's shikumen, these storied houses are not as picturesque as one's WeChat moments might suggest. Many of the alleyway complexes date back as early as the 1860s, and have seen little to no maintenance since then. Cramped living conditions and constant battles against crumbling infrastructure mar the lives of residents. Many of the houses lack indoor plumbing, and must share communal toilets with other households.

This is beginning to change.

In Chengxingli, a nearly 100-year-old shikumen neighborhood in Huangpu district, the local government is exploring ways to improve living standards in the ancient lane houses. By revamping the interior of the houses, maximizing the living spaces, and allowing all apartments to be equipped with a kitchen and a toilet, the residents of the shikumen need no longer remain in the shadows of Shanghai's rapid development. All of this will be done without changing the exterior of these architectural icons, preserving them for generations to come.

This renovation however, will not come without its own costs to shikumen residents. Some residents have to temporarily leave the buildings until the revamp is completed, and others will possibly need to relocate permanently.

Chengxingli, a Shanghai shikumen neighborhood on Huanghe Road in Huangpu district Photo: VCG

Housing challenges

Located at 281 Huanghe Road, Chengxingli is comprised of several red-brick shikumen complexes built in the 1930s. The neighborhood is divided into two areas; the old lane and the new lane, and is known for being the birthplace of Shanghai's longtang (Shanghai style lanes) sports games in 1988.

While the exterior of the shikumen houses in Chengxingli still retains their charm, their interiors share common problems with most shikumen houses in Shanghai. A lot of walls in the buildings have cracked. Some wooden parts have been decayed by termites and are structurally unsound. Many residents, in an attempt to increase their living spaces, have built illegal structures to the building which pose safety risks to the public as well as to the integrity of the buildings.

For its trial program to restore the shikumen houses, the local government selected two buildings in the new lane and one in the old lane for reconstruction. Altogether, these buildings house 261 households with a total area of 5,489 square meters.

In the old lane, 150 households and 7 public institutions occupy a total area of over 2,000 square meters. The biggest apartments are a little over 10 square meters, with the smallest apartments at a mere 4 square meters. Most of these households are still using buckets as toilets. The new lane, while slightly more spacious than the old lane, is also quite densely populated, with 103 households that live in a total area of approximately 3,000 square meters.

New lane

Renovation of the new lane began in April, and residents have been asked to move out temporarily until the projects are completed next Spring.

Construction teams have already restored the exterior of the houses, and strengthened the foundation of the houses with steel. The biggest challenge, however, comes from restructuring the interiors so that more space can be utilized.

Surprisingly, the secret to this lies in the stairs.

Currently, each unit has its own separate staircase, which is an inefficient use of space. By making this a shared space between apartments, each unit will be able additional room for independent kitchens and toilets. These will not be only of modest size; each kitchen and toilet share a total area of 3.5 square meters, but satisfy cooking and hygiene needs that are now expected from a modern city. Residents will be able to customize several aspects of their new amenities, including the color of the kitchen counter and cupboard and the location of the sockets

But what of the people currently living in the shikumen houses?

The reconstruction plans will be a rather large disruption to daily life for residents in the ancient homes, as the renovations would require all residents to temporarily move. Local officials have to pay a lot of effort to not only clearly communicate the plans, but also to understand the benefits of the plan.

"Some residents simply want to be relocated and receive compensation pay," said Chengxingli Residential Party Chief Lu Jianghai to the Shanghai Observer, "so they have no interest in the reconstruction. Others have expressed hope that the reconstruction will expand the size of their homes, and the residents who have built illegal structures outside their homes wish to maintain these structures."

However the conversation has not always been easy.

"We have been doing our best to explain that the project will be a great opportunity to improve their living standards," said Pang Yong, a local official in charge of neighborhood safety in Chengxingli, and assured residents that "the project will follow the principals of "openness, fairness, and equality."

Luckily, most of the residents in Chengxingli have so far supported the project.


Compared with the new lane, however, the revamp of the old lane is much more challenging. The project would need to add 650 square meters of space to achieve its goal of allowing every household to be equipped with a kitchen and toilet.

"Due to the high living density, merely minimizing public areas will not provide enough space to allow each household an independent kitchen and toilet," said Zhang Xiaojie, vice director of the neighborhood office of Nanjing Road East. "Therefore we explored the possibility to relocate some residents so that more space is available."

The official plan was to offer financial compensation to the residents who are willing to move away. The compensation, according to the officials, would be according to the size of their apartments at above current market prices. This is an unprecedented move; relocating some residents to allow for a better living environment is groundbreaking new policy in Shanghai. Moreover there are there are few conventions to follow on critical issues, such as which residents to relocate and how to implement their relocation.

Surveys among the residents showed that two types of residents are more willing to be relocated than the others; those whose apartments are so small that the addition of a kitchen and a toilet won't fundamentally raise their living standard, and residents who have other properties already available to move to.

However progress is already being made; seven public institutions and around 30 households have already signed agreements and have been moved out. Next, the revamping team will need to communicate and sign contracts with the remaining 100 households, which they say is a daunting task. Vice Director Zhang said that in order to fit these households into larger spaces, some residents will need to move to a different floor, and others will move to a different units. The negotiations are currently ongoing, and it is hoped that both residents and officials alike will be able to forge an agreement that benefits all, and bring new life to Old Shanghai by one shikumen house at a time.

This article was translated based on a report by Shanghai Observer.


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