Distinctive alley neighborhoods in Shanghai

Lilong (neighborhood of lane houses) residences in Shanghai are a combination of Western and Chinese architecture.


Elderly men sit on chairs in the afternoon sun in an old shikumen (stone gate) neighborhood, watching pedestrians and time go by. In a sense, their environment, too, is a testament to passing eras.

“No two lilong (neighborhood of lane houses) are alike,” says Li Yanbo, associate professor of architecture at Tongji University. “They are the earliest commercial real estate in Shanghai. Their layout was designed in light of Western architecture, while the buildings took into consideration the traditional Chinese lifestyle. For example, the courtyards.”

Due to limited land area, the courtyards of lilong residences are quite small.

Lilong residences actually originated in wooden houses built for refugees in the 1850s when the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion forced thousands of Chinese people to resort to the former foreign settlements for refuge.

Many foreigners seized on the commercial opportunities, constructing and selling houses to the Chinese. The resulting lilong residences are a combination of Western and Chinese architecture.

It includes shikumen residences built mainly from 1924 to 1938, villa-style residences built through the 1940s, and apartment-style residences built between 1931 and 1945.

The shikumen style generally refers to two- or three-story structures resembling Western terrace houses. It is distinguished by high brick walls enclosing narrow courtyards, with stone gateways. The style has undergone several phases since it first appeared in rough style in the late 19th century.

Lilong residences have undergone many changes as popular preferences shifted. Many old areas were razed to make way for more modern housing.

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Tianzifang comprises several lilong neighborhoods including a shikumen complex built in 1933.

Tianzifang

Tianzifang, home to galleries, boutique shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, has become a popular destination for tourists. Located on Taikang Road, the area comprises several lilong neighborhoods including a shikumen complex called Zhichengfang that was built in 1933.

“It is an accidental product,” says Li, also one of the appointed planners for the regeneration of Tianzifang.

According to Li, the architecture of the area was set to be demolished for real estate development, but it was later saved thanks to the construction of Metro Line 9 nearby, which prevented the commercialization of this area.

“You can find about seven styles of lilong residences in Tianzifang,” says Li.

Unlike Xintiandi, where the original residents were displaced, a group of residents still lives in Tianzifang, Others have leased out their houses to businesses in what Li calls “bottom-up management.”

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An elderly woman, a resident in Tianzifang, chats with her neighbor.

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“It respects what the residents want, and some can improve their living conditions by renting out their houses,” Li says. “However, it is easy for conflicts between residents and merchants to arise. And fire hazards and low-bearing capacities of the old facilities are two urgent problems facing Tianzifang.”

Stepping into Lane 55 off Jianguo Road M., which is now part of Tianzifang, I was surprised by the changes that have taken place in the last 13 years since I used to come to the area for saxophone lessons.

Quiet has been replaced by noise. Houses have been replaced by shops and restaurants. Even a distinctive smell in the area has changed.

“Many neighbors have leased their houses but I haven’t,” says a saxophone teacher. “The house was bought by my grandparents in the 1920s. It’s part of my life. My 104-year-old mother still lives on the second floor.”

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Tianzifang has become a popular destination for tourists.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Guojielou, or overhead rooms, often loom above lanes, a typical shikumen element found in Tianzifang.

Siming Sports Lane

The villa-style Siming Sports Lane is located on Yuyuan Road in Jing’an District. Its three-story Spanish-style buildings were constructed in 1936 and now house 107 households.

The name of the lane was coined in the 1990s, when the residents organized many sporting activities outside their homes.

“A sports carnival is held in the lane every spring and autumn,” says Huang Yuling, Party secretary of the Siming neighborhood committee. “The festival includes bicycle-riding contests, ping pong, hopscotch and other traditional games.”

Professor Li and his students have stressed the importance of engaging local residents in the regeneration of the community.

One key plank of the plan is fitness facilities. A former gym that ended up as a clothes-drying area has been restored as a fitness center and community, with drying facilities modernized and retained.

“We aim to create a space where residents can get fit, have a chat and still dry their clothes, no matter what the weather,” says Li.

Li’s team also designed a rainwater storage system, providing water for cleaning duties, fire response and watering plants.

A resident surnamed Hu proudly displayed the lilies, osmanthus, grape vines and azaleas he grows in the courtyard.

An old well has been preserved as a memento of the past. In the old days, residents often used well water to freeze watermelon in the summer.

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The villa-style Siming Sports Lane features three-story Spanish-style buildings.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Taking its name seriously, Siming Sports Lane provides a variety of outdoor activities, including hopscotch.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Vines cover an old building in Siming Sports Lane.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE


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