With its flawless blend of Chinese and Western aesthetics, Shanghai’s architecture underpins not only the city’s enthusiasm for adapting international ideas, but also offers a window into the city’s turbulent history.
And among the many styles on display — renaissance, modernist, and art deco — few represent Shanghai better than the syncretic architecture of the Shikumen buildings.
A style unique to Shanghai, Shikumen — loosely translated as “stone gate” — are viewed today as symbols of the city’s fashionable identity. They began appearing in Shanghai’s British concession in the 1850s and 60s, making them more than 150 years old.
They were perhaps dubbed Shikumen because each had an immense door made of black lacquered wood with a round stone frame. This design was called shigumen, or “stone-framed door.”
But in the Shanghai dialect, gu and ku are pronounced the same, and the structures eventually became known as Shikumen. Over years of rapid urbanization, however, this once-ubiquitous structure is now increasingly hard to come by.
The origins of this building, drawing on its fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetics, can be traced back to the opening of Shanghai’s ports in 1843 and the establishment of the first concession in 1845.
Then, Shanghai was merely a county, whose seat — called Laochengxiang, or “the old city proper” — was located on the bank of the Bund in the southeast of today’s Huangpu District. Back then, it comprised largely traditional Chinese brick and wood structures.
From 1845, as concessions were established and then expanded, the city spread beyond the walls of the county seat and took the form of two independent zones: the foreign concessions and the Chinese city.
A boundary stone marking the border of the foreign settlement in Shanghai, 1899. From Harvard Yenching Library
As the presence of Western powers in China gradually increased, the concessions flourished disproportionately and replaced the original county, thus becoming the city’s new emblem.
The expansion of the concessions introduced Western architectural influences to China, laying the foundation for the emergence of Shikumen.
Incidentally, the architectural style may not have existed were it not for two peasant uprisings in and around Shanghai during the 1850s and ’60s.
It began with the peasant uprisings of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in 1853. By March that year, the Taiping army had occupied Nanjing — 300 kilometers west of Shanghai — and its surrounding areas, forcing many wealthy merchants, landlords, officials, and gentry to flee eastward to Shanghai and the safety of its concessions.
A few months later, drawing inspiration from the Taiping army, the Xiaodaohui, or “Small Swords Society,” revolted against the Qing dynasty in Shanghai’s Laochengxiang beginning September 1853 and lasting until 1855.
The ensuing turmoil drove more locals — in particular, government officials and merchants — into the concessions. From then on, westerners no longer inhabited the concessions exclusively; instead, a new state of affairs emerged in which Chinese and foreigners co-existed in close proximity.
From 1860 to 1862, the main forces of the Taiping army moved east towards Suzhou and Hangzhou, drawing closer and closer to Shanghai. Soon, more refugees poured into the concessions, increasing the Chinese population to anywhere from 300,000 to as high as 500,000.
Initially, concession authorities opposed this change because of the tremendous difficulties it posed to maintaining order — for instance, the crude dwellings refugees erected posed significant obstacles to proper urban management and hygiene. Foreign merchants, however, welcomed them with open arms.
The dramatic population surge soon created a boom in the construction of rental properties as well as the rental market. Officials and merchants of the concessions set about constructing dwellings specifically for Chinese inhabitants.
A detailed view of a European-style building in Shanghai, 1910. From Virtual Shanghai
These dwellings originated in the concessions and were planned and designed by Westerners, though conceived for and rented out to Chinese people.
Shikumen uses the traditional layout of Jiangnan architecture — two storeys in a three-walled or four-walled formation. Usually, the entrance includes a small courtyard, behind which is a living room, and then a second courtyard, which houses the kitchen and back gate.
On the storey above the kitchen is a small room; and above that, a terrace. While on the inside Shikumen feature the courtyards, guest rooms, and wings typical of traditional Jiangnan dwellings, their exteriors embody the structural characteristics of European townhouses.
Shikumen are largely made of bricks and their sloped roofs often have windows, known as laohuchuang or “tiger windows” owing to the similarity in pronunciation between “tiger” in the Shanghai dialect and “roof” in English.
Their exterior walls are usually made of red bricks, while the lanes they are located in are often adorned with pailou, or traditional Chinese archways.
On the second and third storeys of Shikumen are balconies that bolster their resemblance to European townhouses. Shikumen were built in dense neighborhoods consisting of vertical or horizontal rows. They occupied less space than Beijing’s siheyuan, or courtyard houses, and were cheaper to build than Western houses, making them attractive to Chinese buyers and renters.
“Shikumen” buildings along Nanjing Road in Shanghai, 1928. From Virtual Shanghai
Shikumen buildings essentially preserve the closed-off quality of traditional Chinese dwellings. Though they are situated in the bustling city center, once the front entrance is closed, inhabitants immediately gain a sense of privacy.
They therefore responded to the security concerns of affluent refugees as they attempted to adapt to a foreign environment in a time of great turmoil.
To ensure safety, and respect traditional Chinese residential architecture’s emphasis on three-walled and four-walled courtyards hidden behind large entrances, considerable attention was placed on the details of the front doors during the construction of Shikumen.
These doors were generally made from sturdy wood and framed with granite slabs. They feature door knockers; which when opened and closed, produce a boom that resounds throughout the ancient laneways where they are located.
The entrances to Shikumen are not only tall and sturdy but also often feature elaborate decorations. Since Shikumen were named after their entrances, it was only fitting that these entrances were as intricate as possible.
In early Shikumen constructions, doors were often crowned with brick carvings and tile awnings that imitated the lintels above entrances to ritual grounds in traditional Jiangnan structures.
Later, under the influence of Western architecture, they commonly featured triangular, half-moon-shaped, or oblong pediments bearing ornate engravings.
Entryway arches in “shikumen” buildings. Courtesy of Xu Guangshou
By the 1930s, Shikumen were found all throughout the city — and housed approximately two-thirds of Shanghai’s residents.
The population surge led to the emergence of “secondary landlords.” They rented an entire Shikumen from a main landlord, lived in one room, and sublet the others to various tenants.
Many secondary landlords attempted to rake in profits by charging their tenants more than what they paid themselves. Initially, they merely sought to reduce their financial burden through rent sharing, but from the 1920s onward, as the population of concessions increased, secondary landlords took advantage of the growing housing crisis.
But towards the end of the 1930s, the demand for Shikumen buildings gradually declined. Following the large-scale construction of new-style lanes and garden villas, Shikumen slowly fell out of favor and devolved into settlements inhabited only by residents of low socioeconomic status.
By 1949, the percentage of Shanghai residents living in Shikumen dropped to 40%. In the 40 years that followed until the large-scale urban renewal and construction initiative of the 1990s, Shikumen continued to form the bulk of structures in Shanghai’s central districts.
Today, most of the Shikumen that once stood in the city center have been demolished; only a few have been preserved, peppered throughout some of the central districts.
The people of Shanghai have a special sentimental bond with these buildings. No one feels this bond more strongly than Professor Ruan Yisan, who is considered the “guardian of urban heritage.”
He underscores that Shikumen are a type of residence unique to Shanghai and were the most common working-class dwelling in the city’s early development. These buildings are at the heart of the city’s culture and house many of its memories.
People talk near renovated “shikumen” buildings near the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Shanghai, July 20, 2021. Yuan Huanhuan/VCG
To better protect Shanghai’s most iconic dwelling, the city has launched the Shikumen Conservation Plan, with approaches such as “historical appearance conservation zones,” “immovable buildings,” and “buildings of outstanding historical significance.”
Today, groups of Shikumen buildings such as the Xintiandi and Tianzifang neighborhoods have become commercial and touristic landmarks of the city; their streets bustle with pedestrians.
However, as a form of dwelling, these Shikumen are now far-removed from the vast majority of people’s daily lives. They exist only in nostalgia, mere emblems of the city they call home.
A version of this article originally appeared in the book “Xintiandi, A Perfect Mix of Old and New”, published by the Shanghai Local Chronicles Library. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and Apurva.
(Header image: A night view of a “shikumen” building in Shanghai. 500px/VCG)