Placing Shanghai: Housing, Heritage, and the Conflicts over Contested Urban Space

“Why are you interested in our neighborhood, Mr. Wang?”

While showing me around the neighborhood where he lived, Mr. Zhang could not help but inquire. Wang is my Chinese name, as my grandparents are all overseas Chinese. I always go by my Chinese name whenever I go to China because I feel people in China are more comfortable when they know that I am also ethnically Chinese. My answer to Mr. Zhang was similar to those I gave to almost everyone in the neighborhood, “because your neighborhood is very interesting.” Then I went on to talk about how I was interested in the sense of community, and how people in the neighborhood interact with and rely on each other to maintain their social livability. Mr. Zhang raised his eyebrows a few times. The reason for that could be either that my Chinese was so poor that he did not understand me, or that it was always difficult to explain to the informants why someone was interested in their way of life, something they found mundane, ordinary, and boring. In this essay, I want to tell stories of the urban neighborhood in which Mr. Zhang and millions of Shanghai residents are living.

Shanghai: A critical introduction

There are debates as to when the period of “modern China” began. If one is to rely upon the popular perception that China became modern as a result of the influence of western modernity (usually by force), then the defeat of the Qing Empire in the Opium War in the mid-eighteen century marked the beginning of modern China. Shanghai was one of a few coastal cities in which the defeated China was forced to allow foreigners to enjoy extraterritorial rights in their new treaty ports. Thus, Shanghai had changed drastically from a small town into the most important port in Asia, where the world’s largest trading and banking city were located. A series of wars (e.g., Sino-Japanese War, Civil War) and political campaigns (e.g., Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution) disrupted the city’s growth, but since its treaty port era there has not been any city in that is more economically viable than Shanghai.

Shanghai is strategically situated in the Yangtze River Delta. It is the most convenient point of access for foreign goods traveling to China by sea to enter the hinterland, as well as for Chinese products traveling outside China. As commerce blossomed, the city became urbanized. The British were the first to come to Shanghai, beginning in the late 1840’s. British developers re-organized the city’s spatial structure to accommodate the treaty port’s commercial activities. By ways of what they called “the land regulations,” they imposed a new comprehensive planning to the traditional organically-grown medium-sized market town. Due to Shanghai’s flat geography, the European-style gridiron structure was conveniently imposed. Rectangular blocks became the basis of land division and property investment. The British were credited for changing Shanghai into a “modern” city in the Western sense. They introduced modern infrastructure such as gaslight electricity, paved roads, and trams. The British also introduced, for the first time, western architecture for commercial use (which was different from the sophisticated Summer Palace in Beijing as a gift to the Emperor). As the logic of the extraterritoriality entailed, the British were not prohibited from exploiting the locals, but under some certain jurisdictions and their concerns for social stability, the fullest form of exploitation they were allowed to do was to hire local Chinese laborers at a low cost.

That is, Shanghai is the quintessential reflection of China’s modernity, as well as China’s most economically viable city. Visitors come to Shanghai to see the glittering bright lights of the historic waterfront that was once the pinnacle of Asia modernity, the expensive retail and entertainment districts in an area that was once the French Concession, and the cutting-edge skyscrapers of the new business district that features what is most likely the most mesmerizing skyline in the world. So, when I told them that I was not interested in any of those things, but rather in their run-down neighborhoods, I was met with puzzled expressions. Before the residents knew where I came from, many of them thought that I was a journalist reporting about poverty and housing shortages, thanks to my ethnic Chinese appearance. After I introduced myself as a researcher from America, I still sensed their skepticism that I might just be one of the foreigners who just want to come to look down at their unpleasant living condition.

Figure 1: An isometric rendering showing the basic structure of a lilong neighborhood. Diagrams courtesy of Wenjun Ge.

Frankly, I did not see anything unpleasant at all. The small alleyways in the neighborhood were very clean and organized. All trash was collected at the entrance of the neighborhood. Everyone brought their trash to this main collecting point when they went out, making the alleyways simply spotless. The houses, although I didn’t get to see the interior clearly, were also clean and organized. In front of these houses, there were plants and flowers. I often saw senior residents spending time watering, trimming, and decorating the plants and the flowers. I didn’t see why the residents would feel that their houses are embarrassing. Like Mr. Zhang, many residents laughed when I told them I thought that their neighborhood was quite romantic. I liked the small scale of the houses. The small alleyways (sometimes called lanes) reminded me of streets in European cities. Because the neighborhood was small, everybody seemed to know each other. When I was in the lanes, I could hear what was going on from all directions.

In the lilong neighborhoods

Since Shanghai was originally a medium-sized market town, it had no infrastructure to support large-scale commercial activities and industries. Hence, a new form of housing had to be invented. It was obvious at this point that typical Chinese courtyard houses would be too luxurious for the laborers, and the British needed housing that was quick and cheap to build. They resorted to the idea of replicating traditional British row houses, a series of short-width houses joined by common sidewalls. The typology of this kind of housing was easy not only for the construction, but also for replication. This typology was the most “economical” form of housing in Shanghai. Between the row houses were small lanes for the access to each unit. There were not any open space besides these lanes, which automatically served as open spaces for cooking, meeting, washing, and so on, which was perhaps the reason why these row houses have since adopted the name the “lilong” – as “li” means neighborhood and “long” means lanes). Moreover, with the geometric structure of the row houses, they could be fit perfectly into the newly imposed rectangular urban blocks. With the success of the few first units, the lilong neighborhoods had become the dominant, if not only, housing norm in the city of Shanghai. Later, when China was forced to sign more unequal treaties with the French and the Americans, it saw even more exploding of the building of the lilong neighborhoods from the newcomers, but with creativity to make some of them exclusive for the foreigners (therefore bigger). With the more spacious lilong houses built for foreigners, the more “super small” lilongs were built for the local Chinese residents. Some of them were about half of the size of the original lilong but had twice as many residents living in them as the family grew bigger.\

Figure 2: A map of Shanghai in the early 20th century showing the “gridiron structure” of the city that the British planners introduced to Shanghai. The rectangular block were the perfect shape of land division for the building of the lilong neighborhoods. Map courtesy of the Virtual Shanghai Project.

Having said that, a tiny courtyard was designed to accommodate the frontal of each lilong house to resemble “some sense of the open space,” which was missing from these row houses to save the construction cost (although it was later removed completely from the later lilong units – to, further, save the construction cost). Unlike the British row houses whose frontages faced each other to share access way, the frontage of the Chinese version faced only the south, where the natural exposure to the sun could be maximized in order to accommodate the local residents’ need for fengshui, or a system of laws considered to govern spatial arrangement and orientation in relation to the flow of energy. Hence, the frontage of the row, then, had to face the back to the previous row. This blurred the line between the different functions of space, as the usage of the front (entrance) was different from the back (e.g., cooking, washing). Besides, since this orientation practically removed the sense of being front or back, it had brought a new meaning of public space unique to Shanghai as a whole. Residents living on the same block in which their lilong houses were located and wrapped around by the “shophouses” (special peripherals unit for the commercial purpose), were considered living in the same “lilong neighborhoods.”

Figure 3: An aerial view of the Public Recreation Ground and surroundings in central Shanghai, circa 1935. All the low-rise houses in this picture are lilong houses. Photograph courtesy of Virtual Shanghai Project.

At the peak of its commercial boom in the 1930s, there were more than 200,000 units of lilong houses in the city of Shanghai. Its population was around 3 million people. Most of Chinese residents were living in the lilong houses. For more than a hundred years, the lilong houses had, not only epitomized, but also were, essentially, the “physical form” of Shanghai dwelling culture. It was only until the early 2000s, about twenty years after the economic reform that brought about rapid change in China’s economy, that more people in Shanghai were living in buildings other than the lilong houses, such as in high-rise apartment units.

Western foreigners lived in Shanghai until the Sino-Japanese War broke out in the late 1930s, followed by the World War II. The Japanese themselves were the only foreigners with the permission to stay in Shanghai by force, but only for a short period of time until the Allied Force defeated it in 1945. After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over China from the Nationalist Party in the 1949, there was no foreign presence in China and the lilong houses were redistributed back to the local residents, who would live there for the next thirty years throughout several periods of calamity due to the CCP political campaigns. The CCP implemented the system called the “danwei” (literally translated as the “work unit”), influenced by the USSR socialist commune system, to provide the “iron rice bowl” system of permanent employment and welfare to residents in urban areas. The physical structure of a lilong neighborhood was perfect for this system as the residential units were enclosed by the walls of peripheral commercial units, giving both the sense of division between different danwei and, at the same time, the sense of belonging to a single work unit among the residents living inside the same walls.

Figure 4: An aerial photograph of Shanghai circa 1930 (left) and present-day (right), showing that modern high-rise buildings have replaced a large percentage of lilong houses. Photograph courtesy of Virtual Shanghai Project and Google Earth.

After the “open door” economic reform of the early 1980s, the market replaced the central planned economy. The danwei program, based on the central planned economy, could no longer provide enough housing for the influx of migrants coming to Shanghai, one of the few coastal cities that was allowed to re-engage in market-oriented commercial activities. The 200,000 lilong units were just adequate for 3 million residents in the 1930s, but was not enough to accommodate 11 million residents in the early 1980s. As impeding the economic growth would go against the open door economic campaign of the central government, the local government resorted to the market to build more housing for the new residents. Thousands of the lilong neighborhoods, no longer the most “economic” form of housing, were removed during this period to make way for higher-density housing typologies, such as mid-rise walkups and high-rise apartments we see in Shanghai today.

More than a physical structure

From this historical sketch, one might see how the lilong is, to Shanghai, more than just a physical structure but a culture in itself. Nevertheless, amidst the social change due to the unprecedented economic growth, the discussion on a non-economic topic such as “what constitutes culture?” did not gain attention from the public, who were more interested in the prospect of the future after a long period of obtuse economic policy. Only until the mid 1990s was the discussion brought back to light, ironically, by the influences of the western historic preservation paradigm. The local government of Shanghai looked up to “global cities,” like New York, London, and Tokyo, with the interest in replicating them to put Shanghai back on the map. Those cities are global because the urban forms and cultures represent the blend of history and modernity. Compared to those cities, Shanghai is relatively young, and the only history it seems to have is the heritage of the colonial legacies, i.e., the historic waterfront called “The Bund,” and, of course, the “was-ubiquitous” houses and neighborhoods called the “lilong.” In 1992, the Shanghai local government initially listed 398 municipal preserved buildings that were yet to include any lilong houses. Eventually, this list was expanded in 2004 to cover not only buildings but also city districts. Twelve districts were given the status “conservation areas,” covering ten square miles in the French Concession area and therefore most of the remaining lilong houses.

Figure 5: The “new” skyline of Shanghai, showing the ultramodern picturequeness of the city’s new urbanscape. I took this photo during my visit to Shanghai in January 2012.

Today, lilong houses and neighborhoods are facing many issues. First and foremost, the houses are physically old and most of them are dilapidated. Most houses have limited infrastructure; for instance, all tap water faucets are located outside the outer wall of the house. In addition, most of the houses do not have private bathrooms, and so on. Before the historical conservation laws, these dilapidated neighborhoods had been easy targets for demolition by the property developers to make way for high-rise apartments that bear higher return. Many original residents, who had the vertical ties with the local officials or have been appropriately compensated, have moved to more comfortable apartments. The residents who are still living in the lilong neighborhoods are either original residents or new residents who could not afford the higher rent of modern apartment.

Figure 6: An aerial view of downtown Shanghai, showing the still-dominating lilong urban fabric. But for how long?

Second, there is a two-fold dilemma due to the politics of historical preservation. On the one hand, the local government wants to preserve the “physical structure” of the lilong houses without any plan to maintain the “social structure” of the house simply because they could rationalize the high cost of doing it against doing something else cheaper, i.e., building new housing units. On the other hand, they want to implement policies that would help to maintain the livability of the neighborhoods, but also by the limited acknowledgment of the problems that the open door market economy has posed (e.g., complicated property rights for migrant workers living in these houses).

Third, the local government seems to agree that gentrification, or the process of renovation to conform to the new middle-class taste, is the easiest way to save the physical structure at the minimum cost to the local government. There are a few examples of successful commercial districts that were once rundown lilong neighborhoods. However, the other side of the story regarding forced eviction and brutal removal of original residents often accompany the success story. This is not to mention that the idea of gentrification by moving out the original residents and replacing them with new richer residents is nothing more than “disnification,” which goes against the idea of global city – as a city with the blend of history and modernity – the idea that the local Shanghai government wants to assimilate.

Figure 7: An interior view of a typical lilong neighborhood. Photograph by the author.

While Mr. Zhang walked with me in the lane, he greeted neighbors, played with children, and said hello to senior neighbors who were sitting in front of their houses. I only understood a little because he did not use standard Mandarin, but rather spoke in the local Shanghainese dialect. I guessed that they were only greetings and pleasantries, as everyone reciprocated his smiles. The lane was about six feet wide and objects on the lane – such as outdoor sinks, cooking tables, chairs, and jardinières – made the space for walking even smaller than that. Taking into consideration the three-story-height of the houses, the lane appeared as a very narrow space sandwiched by two walls. Hence, it was impossible to walk past anyone without acknowledging his or her presence. Mr. Zhang talked to about 10-15 people every five minutes in each lane, and every time he did so, he would also introduce me, saying “Here is Mr. Wang from America…he likes our neighborhood.” There is only so much about the “sense of community” that words can capture.

Non Arkaraprasertkul is a Thai researcher from Bangkok. He is an ethnographic filmmaker, trained architect and urban planner, historian, and anthropologist-in-training. Currently, he is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at Harvard University, and an adjunct lecturer at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has a degree and professional certificate in architecture and urban design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was a J. William Fulbright and Asian Cultural Council Scholar, and a master’s in Modern Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford, where he was a Harvard-Yenching Institute Scholar and a recipient of the Oxford China Research Award.