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Shikumen Living In Shanghai

The more I wander around the back streets of Shanghai, the more obsessed I become by shikumen, the low townhouses that used to stand throughout central Shanghai.

The ones that still exist are abuzz with the sounds and smells of life being lived. Old women chop garlic in the longtan lanes, children run and shout, chasing colourful balls or stray cats, and men on scooters blast their horns while pedestrians jump out of the way.

I would love to be invited inside these homes, to chat with the people who live there and understand more about what their lives are like, where they’ve come from, and what they dream about. Sadly, it would be hard for me to be more of a Western outsider tourist here, and that, combined with my dislike of probing, make the chances slim.

The shikumen that have been torn down to make room for tall, expensive apartments and malls leave a ghostly aura behind them.

Shikumen demolition site, Shanghai.

Shikumen demolition site, Shanghai.

Thousands of families have been relocated to make way for developer’s schemes, and I can’t help but wonder where those people are now as I walk down the city streets lined with steel and glass giants.

While doing research for this post, I came across the amazing Shanghai Street Stories blog, which does a much better job than I do of capturing the real life of Shanghai. I highly recommend this story about visiting a shikumen, and this one about a shikumen demolition site.

Exploring The Past, Imagining The Present

The Shikumen Open House Museum in Xiatiandi, which Stephen and I visited today, offers a tiny window into the lives of past residents, and those who remain.

Leaves on the skylight, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

Leaves on the skylight, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

The glimpse it offers is undoubtedly a cleaned-up, whitewashed, and gentrified version of the truth. The house is an immaculately restored 1930s shikumen, where a “typical Chinese family” might have lived. I’m guessing this really means it’s where a very rich Chinese family might have lived, unless the typical Chinese were far more affluent back in the 30s than I know.

Entrance hall, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

Entrance hall, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

The house is on three levels, the rooms decorated with highly polished rosewood furniture, Chinese watercolours, and old photographs.

Vanity, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

Vanity, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

There is information in English about what day-to-day life might have been like for this family. I imagine this is how my grandmother might have lived when she first came to Shanghai – the furniture and art that decorate the house are of the same style and quality as the pieces that filled her home when I was growing up.

The old ways, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

The old ways, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

As we walked around the house, I tried to imagine this building with 80 years of decay and lots of families living in the rooms that were once meant for four people.

Tidy kitchen, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

Tidy kitchen, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

I layered in the sounds and smells I’ve observed while walking the streets of Shanghai. I pictured grannies cooking and babies squalling and a TV blaring in the corner.

Ugly pretty, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

Ugly pretty, Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai.

Today’s shikumen are full of life, but they are also falling apart. As much as I hate the thought of what happens once people are moved out and their homes destroyed, it’s hard to know what the right solution is.

Should the buildings be left to decay, until they are destroyed in a monsoon or other catastrophe? Should they be refurbished and sold to the highest bidder? Should they make way for modernism, materialism, and capitalism, as thousands before have already done?

All I know for sure is that I’m glad I’ve had a chance to see and experience them while there are still some left.  

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