Fate of tra­di­tional houses re­mains in ques­tion

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

PHOTOS BY SHOU ZHUSEN FOR CHINA DAILY

have ex­pe­ri­enced liv­ing in shiku­men houses, which are crowded, noisy and at times even chaotic, but also hold happy mem­o­ries.

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