The earliest types of Shanghai's 20th century mass housing

The Chinese housing boom started a long time ago. While the rest of the world suffered from the great recession, Shanghai experienced a major property boom.

Longtang (弄堂 - alleyways) or also known as Lilong (里弄 small living quarter with lanes ) is a collective name for a neighborhood of narrow lanes and shikumen houses which first were occupied by refugees arriving in Shanghai in the 1840s. The spatial concept is based on the traditional Southeast Chinese dwellings. This form of living and architectural structure met the refugees' psychological need of security. The gate of the shikumen (石库门 - stone gate) houses are framed by stone with stylistic carvings on it. The decoration of each door - head or gable wall always distinguish themselves from others as they are like logos for each lilong.

Later the shikumen houses evolved with the rapid growing of Shanghai and became a fusion of Chinese and Western style as the earliest types of mass housing in China. By the middle of the 20th century this type of housing was accounted for 60% of the total dwelling areas in Shanghai.

During the decades they developed into 5 types: old shikumen longtang, new shikumen longtang, new-type longtang, the garden longtang and the apartment longtang.

What I find the most amazing in the lilongs is the way how life was preserved within its walls: like a little oasis in the bustling city. While Shanghai spreads and grows so quickly, stepping in one of the few remaining shikumen neighborhoods one can feel that life has slowed down once again. The alleys are dominated by people because they are too narrow for cars. There is friendliness, intimacy and strong social cohesion between the residents: elderly people sitting and playing while enjoying the sunshine, dogs and cats walking around, women are cooking or washing clothes and here or there we can find some surprising feature like a shower rose hung out through a window like an outdoor shower and so on.

However many lilongs were victims of Shanghai's urban renewal and new commercial land speculation, there are still quite a lot remained preserved or rebuilt or are now given a new use (for eg. Xintiandi designed by Benjamin Wood Studio Shanghai).

Althrough the most of the shikumen houses don't have proper sewage system and in many cases the structure is in a very bad condition,  they are the only human scale dwelling types left in the center of Shanghai.

Fortunately, the Chinese government and the citizens seem to realize the importance of preserving these heritage buildings and there is more and more effort taken in order to restore and protect these unique type of houses in Shanghai.


(However, things like this can always happen in China: )




Shanghai Shikumen 上海石库门阮仪三,张晨杰,张杰,郑宪章 / 上海人民美术出版社 / 



Lilong Housing