In a previous post [to be re-posted in expanded form soon], I mentioned China’s “economic miracle.” The most miraculous thing about it is that it has not (so far) been accompanied by crippling social instability or insurmountable problems. However, the costs of this revolution are also quite real and multifaceted. One of these costs is the rapid loss of China’s traditional culture, including the environments in which this traditional culture was born and has thrived. Although the government is making efforts to preserve the most important examples of its cultural heritage (especially sites that are of value to the tourism industry), in many places old buildings and other manifestations of China’s historical legacy are being destroyed wholesale in favor of rapid modernization.

In Shanghai, for example, vast tracts of the city filled with traditional buildings are being razed and replaced with new high-rise buildings. Though they provide people with cleaner, more comfortable, more modern living and working environments, these new buildings seem to result in a much more isolated and less intimate community atmosphere than the traditional neighborhoods that the majority of Shanghai’s population used to live in. These neighborhoods were built around a style of house called “shíkùmén,” or “stone gates,” which over time often became extremely crowded as they were subdivided into smaller units.

Shanghai - shikumen doors - 250 x 188 Shanghai - shikumen laundry and furniture - 250 x 188
Shikumen doors
(photo by CIT)
Laundry and furniture in a shikumen lane
(photo by CIT)

When I first visited my wife’s grandmother’s neighborhood nine years ago, my impression of these shikumen was that they were usually dirty and unbelievably cramped, and that no one who lived in them could have any privacy whatsoever, or even real comfort. Some of them, in fact, reminded me of rabbit warrens or bunkers of some sort, with ladders, steep stairways, and narrow, dimly-lit hallways connecting their cramped rooms. They were definitely not the kind of place I could see myself ever getting used to.

Shanghai - shikumen residents 1 - 250 x 188 Shanghai - shikumen propaganda 1 - 250 x 188
Shikumen residents
(photo by CIT)
“Humankind has only one planet
Everybody attend to the population problem”

(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - shikumen kitten - 250 x 188 Shanghai - shikumen kitten closeup - 250 x 188
Tiny kitten on a shikumen ledge
(photo by CIT)
A shikumen haiku: Kitten on the edge
Small patch of urban ledge-grass
Precarious life

After having spent some time there and having observed the residents’ lifestyle, however, I came to see the other side of life in the shikumen: the sense of intimacy, interconnectedness, and community responsibility that they fostered, especially given the fact that the same families have often inhabited these houses for generations. For someone who had grown up in such a place, the shikumen way of life would no doubt seem natural and comfortable in a way that life in one of the newer buildings could probably never be. With activities like washing clothes and playing chess often done outside, in the small lanes on which these houses are located, neighbors inevitably interact every day and come to know one another well. In Shanghai’s newer buildings, on the other hand, neighbors often don’t seem to know each other, and they have little incentive to get to know each other, because they’re all comfortably shut away and don’t have to interact. I’ll admit that, yes, I too would much rather live in one of these comfortable new units, which are much more like the apartments many Americans are used to living in. But l can’t help feeling that the disappearance of the shikumen and the resulting fragmentation of Shanghai’s communities has a tragic side as well.

This, then, is a tribute to Shanghai’s shikumen, in the form of these photos I took during a 2007 visit to my wife’s grandmother’s neighborhood. It’s entirely possible that in the next few years these homes, too, and with them a great deal of history, will disappear.

Shanghai - shikumen skyscraper 2 - 267 x 200 Shanghai - shikumen propaganda 2 - 150 x 200
Looming skyscraper in the haze:
Better than the shikumen?

(photo by CIT)
More increasingly rare
propaganda: “Proposal for
establishing a safe family”

(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - shikumen residents 2 - 267 x 200 Shanghai - shikumen skyscraper 1 - 150 x 200
Shikumen residents:
A disappearing way of life

(photo by CIT)
The face of change
(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - shikumen - curving lane - 267 x 200 Shanghai - shikumen walls - 150 x 200
A curving shikumen lane
(photo by CIT)
Shikumen walls
(photo by CIT)
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