The rise and fall of Shanghai Shikumen

The second in our series exploring housing typologies in China.  Here Dai Yiqing explores Shanghai’s shikumens.

The first concession in Shanghai was that of the British in 1842 after the Treaty of Nanjing. In the early years of the Shanghai concession, it was explicitly stipulated that foreigners and Chinese residents would live separately. However, with the outbreak of civil uprising in the 1850s the Chinese rushed into foreign settlements to seek asylum. Seeing this as a business opportunities, the foreigners built cheap, compact housing for rent. Often built out of timber, these houses were known to be a fire risk for everyone not just the residents, and so the standards needed to be improved.

In the 1870s, as Shanghai became a leading world port and a centre of industry and commerce. Foreigners began to make better-constructed houses in slate-gray brick and stone within their foreign settlements, often modelled on the British terraced or row housing. These started to appeal to the increasing number of affluent Chinese too. These became known as shikumen houses and by the 1930s there were around 9,000 shikumen homes in Shanghai

What is Shikumen? 

150 years ago, a wealthy Chinese family might live in a three-section compound in which there are three rooms in the east, north, west, a wall to the southern boundary and a small private courtyard in the middle. Placing these the independent buildings into rows and leaving pathways between each row, we have what the Shanghai people at that time called Longtang, or lilong (meaning a row or alleyway).

Plan of Gongshunli, 1872

Plan of Gongshunli, 1872

shikumen-planShikumen was named after its stone doorway (石 库 门). Author Xuefei Ren says that, in the Shanghai dialect Shikumen means “gates-wrapped-in-stone”. However, the gates or doorway, an external symbol, is neither its essence nor its substantive characteristic.

The first Chinese residents of the Shikumen houses were by no means ordinary, they are referred to, in today’s terms as the upper class. Passing through the stone entranceway, we enter a small courtyard (which for many families might have bamboos and plum trees planted near the wall). Crossing the courtyard we come to main door into the living room and two wing-rooms on sides. These two spaces: the living room and the courtyard are the heart of the Shikumen, and by throwing open the French windows, the living room and the courtyard are as one. In the early winter, sunlight floods into the room while the breeze comes in during the middle of the spring. The family might gather near the door with landscape in sight and children playing around.


The wing rooms are usually used as bedrooms or study rooms. The staircase leading to the second floor is placed behind the living room and the kitchen is on the north side of the ground floor. Passing through the kitchen we are at the back door of the house. (In many ways, this reflects the opposite direction of travel in the terraced housing in working class neighbourhoods in the UK where the courtyard is considered to be the rear of the property rather than the entrance, albeit sometimes the informal main entrance).

The most notable element within the Shikumen housing is its symmetrical layout which is also characteristic of traditional Chinese architecture. Another distinctive component is its enclosed space that forms a complete enclosure around the family and protects the living spaces from outsiders. The courtyard, though it was slightly criticized by many people in the earlier years for not being grand and imposing enough, it serves several basic functions such as washing, drying, relaxing, conversing. It is a sociable space outside the confines of the building

At the start of the 20th century, the population of the foreign settlement began to increase and recent arrivals scrambled for shikumen housing despite their financial condition.

Since then, from the English settlements to the French settlements, the south to the north, and even the surburbs, Shanghai was inundated with shikumen. The price of the land was rising rapidly, especially within the International Settlement. Developers jumped at the chance. Some rooms were taken out, internal re-arrangements made and the number of the storeys was increased.

Elevation of new style Shikumen

Elevation of new style Shikumen

The style of the exterior also changed since local craftsmen were getting adept with the integration of Chinese and Western elements. For example, the original lintel were hardly Western but now they were becoming stone and brick carved units – or even concrete – with western geometric patterns in a variety of styles and with ubiquitous Chinese characters embellished in the middle. The newly built shikumen began to discard the original colours and use black and white bricks and maybe with red tiles for the roof

Xinzha Road, Shanghai

Xinzha Road, Shanghai

The new tenants in shikumen had quietly changed into the fledgling middle classes of Shanghai. These people had never thought about an independent three-room housing so this was socially transformative. These residents were now engineers, scholars, lawyers, writers, doctors, journalists, actors, artists, businessmen: well educated professionals becoming aware of a western style, fashion ad lifestyle. What shikumen offered them was the chance to infiltrate into an upper social circle, to build a better future for themselves.

On the wall of the shikumen, there were always two wooden or iron boxes. One is the milk box in which the milkman would put one bottle of fresh milk every morning. The other is the mailbox in which the letter from hometown, newspapers (or love-letters from the boyfriend) would be secreted. Around the doorway, there would be all kinds of flowers, hung on the walls or in a flower pots.

shikumen_disrepair02Sadly, as time went by – and as the social changes began to impact on Shanghai’s fortunes – the overall housing demand began to outgrow the supply. Meanwhile Shanghainese purchasing power was decreasing. Subletting began to prevail. After 1920s, the continuous rising demand meant that subletting was truly getting out of hand. From three rooms for a family down to two rooms; and then down to a single room, the style of the southern residential housing was degrading. At this point, the once graceful shikumen seemed to have little to do with style, utility or convenient function.

At first, shikumen had been the residences of the gentry, the declaration of southern wealth. Then, it became the symbol of the fairly well-off middle class. At last, Shikumen fell into disrepair and became a shelter for the poor.

In a movie that was on in 1944 in Shanghai, a song sings:

The dung-cart heralds the break of day
The sound of crying is the landlord’s little brother
Kids bouncing is on the third floor
Only the peddling of newspaper is of some scholar’s style