New strategy to protect shikumen

Yang Jian
A trial project is under way to relocate some residents while renovating the living spaces of those who choose to remain.
Yang Jian
New strategy to protect shikumen
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A resident collects her laundry in a shikumen lane in the Chengxingli Community. 

At a downtown shikumen community, a trial project is under way to relocate some residents while renovating the living spaces of those who choose to remain.

The renovation of Chengxingli in downtown Huangpu District, which is known for hosting annual “alley games” competitions, is a new attempt at protecting the city’s remaining stone-gated houses.

If the project, the first phase of which is expected to be completed by early 2019, satisfies both residents and heritage experts, it is expected to be promoted as a model of preservation at other shikumen communities.

As part of the project, 32 of the 150 households in a row of shikumen buildings have agreed to be relocated with compensation and subsidies.

These relocated families will free up space for each remaining household. This space will be used for new kitchen and toilet facilities, according to the Huangpu District government.

Shikumen communities combine Western building styles and traditional Chinese courtyard structures. They were first built in the 1850s by Europeans living in foreign concessions and then rented to Chinese tenants.

In their heyday, there were more than 9,000 shikumen lanes across the city, but only 1,900 remain today. Each unit inside these lanes was originally meant for a single family, but they were later subdivided to accommodate multiple households.

At Chengxingli, where most buildings were built around 1920, about five households on average are living in a single unit, said Wang Xinyu, manager of the trial project.

Each household occupies between four and 10 square meters, and many families are still using chamber pots since there are only shared toilets for most households in the old neighborhood, Wang added.

The community’s brick-and-wood houses have suffered severe weathering and damage from both termites and inhabitants, Wang said. Residents have also built over 1,000 square meters of illegal structures, mostly on the tops of buildings to increase their living space.

“Nobody wants to live in such cramped quarters with no private kitchen or toilet,” said Xu Anmei, 67, who has spent three decades in a loft apartment in the community. “I think the best solution is to relocate all the residents and turn the community into a commercial project like the Jianyeli community,” Xu said.

The Jianyeli project in Xuhui District retains 22 rows of shikumen buildings which have been turned into luxury hotels. Some sections of this neighborhood have been completely rebuilt.

Xu’s neighbor, surnamed Yin, said he prefers to live in the community where he was born, especially given its convenient location.

“My home is 10 minutes’ walk from People’s Square. I don’t want to be relocated to some outskirts regions,” Yin said. After retirement, Yin often plays chess or chats with his neighbors, which are another reason for him to stay.

The trial project is meant to satisfy the likes of both Xu and Yin. Those who want to leave can be relocated with government support, while others can remain in upgraded homes.

During renovations, structures and key parts of the shikumen buildings will be preserved, while wooden interior structures will be demolished and rebuilt, according to Wang.

Designers have been asked to re-divide the units fairly among the remaining residents. Each household must have a separate kitchen and toilet covering at least 3.5 square meters, Wang explained.

Renovation work has started on the first row of buildings. The residents are expected to be able to move back to their brand-new homes in early 2019, according to the district government.

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