A new day for old houses in Shang­hai

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

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - CITY PANORAMA - This ar­ti­cle was trans­lated based on a re­port by Shang­hai Ob­server.

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.

Hous­ing chal­lenges

Lo­cated at 281 Huanghe Road, Chengx­ingli is com­prised of sev­eral red­brick 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.

“We have been do­ing our best to ex­plain that the project will be a great op­por­tu­nity to im­prove their liv­ing stan­dards.” Pang Yong A lo­cal of­fi­cial in charge of neigh­bor­hood safety in Chengx­ingli

Photo: VCG

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

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