Fate of traditional houses remains in question
in Shanghai, noted that the ambiguous line between private and public life is the very essence of life in shikumen, and dubbed these occupied public spaces “the middle ground that makes the city tick”.
In one of his early projects, a boutique hotel along the Bund, Neri massively used glasses as walls to intentionally offer people outside the hotel a peek inside and essentially, to recreate the vitality of shikumen life.
But some residents think there is a romanticized image of life in shikumen.
“Some say there are no distinct four seasons in Shanghai, but you can always tell (by living) in shikumen, with the help of different insects and pests,” said a woman who would only give her surname as Jin.
The 56-year-old native of Yangzhou, a neighboring city of Shanghai in Jiangsu province, spent her first two decades of marriage in a less-than-40square-meter duplex shared with her in-laws in downtown Shanghai. Yet, what annoyed her most was the “unexpected guests” regardless of day and night, instead of the privacy issue.
Rats celebrate the arrival of spring; summer marks the carnival for flies and mosquitoes; spiders help decorate the house with their webs in autumn; and cockroaches take the rein of winter, as Jin put it.
The construction of shikumen ended in 1949, according to the municipal chronicle, when the People’s Republic of China was established. By then, there were over 9,000 complexes of shikumen in the city, accounting for 65 percent of the local residences.
Many of these decades-old shikumen houses have been in a state of disrepair, as both the government and locals preferred spending money on building or buying new apartment houses. Moreover, with the explosion of the population largely because of the pouring emigrants from other places, it has been more than common to see one shikumen house shared by five or six families.
“We cook or shower not when we want to or need to, but when it’s our time slot,” said Jin. There was usually one kitchen and one bathroom in one shikumen house.
“Living in a house that, in the eye of some experts, is historically important or valuable, doesn’t make our life any better or easier if it’s cramped and inconvenient in the first place,” she added.
Jin joined the city’s first wave of what locals called “voluntary dwelling upgrading” late in the 1990’s, when the country’s real estate market started to pick up. Her family moved out of the shikumen house in downtown and invested all of the household savings in a two-room apartment that boasts individual washroom and kitchen.
But advocates for preserving shikumen houses like Lou believe there should be a compromise between tearing the houses down and uneasy life of living there.
Possible solutions include having the original residents moving into better apartment buildings while preserving the houses for other commercial use, though some scholars, again, have argued that shikumen houses are dead as long as there is no real life there.
“Even if it’s an empty shell, there will be a shell years, or centuries later,” as Lou put it.
have experienced living in shikumen houses, which are crowded, noisy and at times even chaotic, but also hold happy memories.