An Inside Look at Lilong Housing and Shikumen Architecture

Shikumen, as a well-known residential architecture that appeared since the early 20th century, has been a unique treasure for Shanghai dwellings. Even nowadays, it is easy to notice that shikumen lilongs impact a large proportion of architectures in the coastal cities of South East China, which accurately reflects its historical values. Therefore, for any people who are interested in the history of this city, it seems a great idea to walk through a shikumen building and experience the feeling of walking back in time. In this blog, we will explore the evolution of shikumen lilongs settlements in response to the social transformation, which helps you learn a bit more about the city.

Lilong, which refers to the collective settlement of shikumen buildings, is a term that combines li and long. Li simply means a row of houses, and long means a small alley. So lilong can be interpreted as a neighborhood of lanes populated by a few rows of houses. It has a history of more than 140 years. According to a post on Shanghai Street Stories, lilongs can be categorized into five types, which are old shikumen lilongs, new shikumen lilongs, new-type lilongs, garden lilongs and apartment lilongs. All of these five types play a significant role in reflecting the evolution of lilong housings. And we are going to mainly focus on the new shikumen lilong in particular, which differs from traditional housing forms in that it is impacted by the Western dwelling concept.

Meanwhile, shikumen can be simply translated as stone warehouse gate. As the name implies, the distinctive carved gateway is regarded as a symbol of this kind of architecture. Typically, it is a narrow stone building that consists of a shared courtyard and different housing units that attached side by side. In terms of the structure, there are two lanes in shikumen, one of which is in the front and the other is at the back. Each lane is lined with residences. Commonly, the front housing units will be integrated into shops. Compared to some contemporary housing design, new shikumen lilongs is a special style of housing that blends both Chinese and Western structural elements. To be more specific, it is a combination of Chinese traditional courtyard house and British row house, which reflects the impact of Western culture on this port city. Since 1870, due to the growing population of the city, the density of shikumen housing increased substantially, which resulted from the housing shortage in Shanghai. Meanwhile, as a growing number of residents started to live together in the same lilong, an interesting phenomenon emerged. People started to spend more time hanging outside their houses, which gradually blurred the distinction between private and public living areas. On the one hand, some amenities like sinks are placed in the shared spaces. On the other hand, residents will do things such as chatting, doing laundry, drinking tea and playing cards in the long alleys, which forms a harmonious and pleasant living atmosphere.

However, due to the acceleration of urbanization and westernization in Shanghai, these traditional housing architectures face great challenges such as the lack of maintenance. Many old shikumen lilongs were torn down by the district government in the name of urban renewal. Meanwhile, while the old generation is accustomed to living in old lilongs, currently, few young people choose to live in these settlements because many shikumen housings are not in good condition. It is estimated that there used to be 9000 lanes of shikumen housing, and currently there are only less than 100 remaining, which demonstrates the huge problem of preservation.

Overall, the heritage properties are disappearing. But there are still some places for tourists to observe the old Shanghai architectures closely, which is Tianzifang. This place is considered as a successful transformation from historic shikumen residential houses to a popular self-organized community where the original shikumen is retained. Thus, in order to give people more information about the shikumen and lilong culture, more blogs will be found on my website that explores the details of this distinctive architecture.


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