Shikumen are Shanghai’s traditional townhouses – usually two or three storeys - built in the late 19th to early 20th century as Chinese settlements in the Western quarters. Possessing a unique architectural style which is a blend of Western and traditional Lower Yangtze design elements, Shikumen made up 80% of the housing settlements back in those days.
Today, the proportion has dwindled to a much lower percentage, but such houses can still be found in areas such as Xintiandi, Dunrenli, Mianyangli and Jixiangli.
In every shikumen settlement, the houses are connected to each other terrace-like with straight, narrow alleys in-between, called lòngtang. A stone arch marks the entrance to each lòngtang, and a tall brick wall marks the entrance to each house – which is where its name came from; ‘shikumen’ literally translates to ‘stone gate’ in Chinese. The history of shikumen settlements can be traced back to the 1860s. Back then, due to the advancement of the Taiping Rebels eastwards which had led to several vital towns being conquered, people from affected towns migrated to other parts of China, including Shanghai.
To accommodate the high influx of refugees, local merchants had invested in proper housing for these people, and in order to efficiently use the limited land available, terrace-style houses with narrow alleys in-between were built. Living conditions were quite rough in those days, with fights out in the streets happening on a daily basis as well as theft and vandalism, so high brick walls were built at the entrance to each house as a means of protection during this critical period of social upheaval. Xintiandi is a popular tourist area in Shanghai where these kind of settlements can still be found. Also a well-known dining, shopping and entertainment district, the buildings here consist of restored traditional shikumen which have been converted to cafés, restaurants, bookstores and art galleries, creating a romanticised atmosphere of old Shanghai.
The Shikumen ‘Wulixiang’ Exhibition Hall in Xintiandi offers a glimpse into the past when shikumen settlements were still in abundance. The building itself is a restored shikumen built in the 1920s. There are seven exhibition ‘halls’ within – the sitting room, the study, the elderly people’s room, the master bedroom, the daughter’s room, the son’s room and the kitchen. Aside from showing visitors how a typical shikumen looks like inside-out, the building also displays the development process and progress of the Xintiandi shikumen-restoration project. What’s interesting is that all items on display in the house – from cooking utensils to ashtrays – are all genuine articles from those days.