Shikumen in Shanghai – a peek at Zhang Yuan

Shanghai Zhang Yuan Doorway Motorbike
Shikumen of Shanghai

While researching for my weekend trip to Shanghai with Spring Airlines, I came across Shanghai Street Stories, a lovely looking blog that was very focused on Shanghai’s architecture. I was intrigued by the many pictures, and this talk of ‘Shikumen’, rather beautiful looking stone houses that are a big part of Shanghai’s historical culture.

Shanghai Spring - Me and Sue Anne
Me and Sue Anne at Tianzifang before parting ways! Photobombed by a random dude in the background. She’s surprisingly small, but rather energetic.

The owner of Shanghai Street Stories Sue Anne very kindly agreed to meet up with me and give me a quick tour and rundown of Shikumen in Shanghai. It turned out to be a very educational experience indeed, as she brought me to Zhang Yuan, or Zhang Gardens, a private housing settlement for a walk-about, and then to Tianzifang later on for a more modern take. While I can’t say I remember everything she told me exactly, I definitely do appreciate and understand the history and culture of this form of architecture a little more. Also, I had the rare opportunity to actually walk through one of these Shikumen houses, which was quite an interesting experience. More on that below.

Shanghai Zhang Yuan Entrance
Zhang Yuan is a private housing estate. Many people do cut through it as a convenient shortcut, and you can wander around the estate, but remember that real people stay there so don’t go wandering into any houses uninvited, and be considerate of people’s privacy!

Shikumen (or literally Stone Warehouse Gate) is used to describe a particular traditional style of housing found in Shanghai that combines Western and Chinese elements together, a layover from the days when European developers were figuring out housing development in Shanghai. Typically, it’s a long and narrow 2-3 storey stone building with a courtyard in the front and several rooms in its various levels.

Shanghai Zhang Yuan Shikumen Stair
Narrow alleyways are typical of Lilong housing settlements. The longs were made up on the front of one lane of houses on one side, and the backs of the next row of houses on the other side

Unique to Shanghai, sadly not many of the original structures still remain as they are torn down in the name of progress, kinda like Singapore’s own shophouses. A popular area which still retains the original Shikumen is Tianzifang, though the houses have been refurbished and repurposed into hipster shops.

Shanghai Zhang Yuan Trishaw
Old and new coexist side by side in the alleyways

Another term you’ll often hear in relation to Shikumen will be Lilong or Longtang, which quite loosely refers to the collective settlement in which you can find Shikumen houses. It usually follows a bit of a cross-grid system, where Li are the main roads that run through the settlement and often have little shops along it (I saw a community hall, some eating places, and a hairdresser even), with several Long or narrow alleyways running perpendicular to them in which the Shikumen are neatly side by side, all facing a North-South direction as the Chinese are wont to. Still, it’s easy to get lost and disoriented – I never quite knew where I was at any one point!

Shanghai Zhang Yuan Boundary Corner
If you look close to the ground, these Boundary Corners demarcated the various plots and ownership. Not many of these remain though, as they have been covered up by raised street levels. This one was left intact as a heritage marker, and comes complete with a little plaque on the wall explaining what it is in Chinese
Shanghai Zhang Yuan Chair
Signs of alleyway life – perhaps there might have been more people outside if it hadn’t been raining!

Because the houses were generally quite narrow and small, some of the amenities like sinks and toilets were places in the Longs, and most of the time residents spent their time hanging out outside their houses, and formed a close knit community that way. In my head that seems akin to kampung style culture back in the olden days of Singapore.

Shanghai Zhang Yuan Shikumen Doorways
Examples of elaborately decorated Shikumen doorways.

The front doorways of these Shikumen are usually quite grand looking, and have some auspicious name above the doorway. They usually open up into a small courtyard, before the actual entrance into the house. Extended families used to stay together in one Shikumen house, and later on in the days of communism, various families were squeezed into these narrow houses.

Sue Anne had visited Zhang Yuan several times before, and even made friends with some of the residents along the way, one of which was this little old lady who let us walk through her house.

Shanghai Zhang Yuan Shikumen Interior
Inside a shikumen house – talk about a tight space! It felt a little bit like walking back in time, like as if time had stopped inside this house. The top left picture was taken with me crammed as far into the corner of the landing as possible, with the top right showing what I was next to. Bottom left is the rather rundown communal kitchen, and bottom right shows a series of water and gas meters that belong to different families. You have to be careful which switch or tap you turn on in the shared bathroom, or be accused of freeloading of other people’s utilities!

Walking through one of these houses was quite the experience. The house was really narrow, and a little claustrophobic and dark; the one thing I noticed was the intense quiet that closed in on me as soon as I entered the house, but perhaps that might be in part due to the fact that most of the Shikumen houses aren’t in very good condition nowadays, and these days mostly poorer old folk and cash strapped immigrants to Shanghai are found living in these settlements, which seems to me like quite a sad fate for such an iconic part of Shanghai’s culture and history.

Shanghai Zhang Yuan Pole Holders
Don’t forget to look up – these are pole holders for your laundry

Once again I have to thank Sue Anne for an awesome tour and taking time out of her busy schedule for me. For those who want to know more history and facts, refer to this detailed thesis on Lilong housing for more scholarly reading.

Zhang Yuan is located at We walked from the subway stop Nanjing Road West (Exit 4) – look for Taixing Road and head down it. You can find some other photos of Zhang Yuan here. Another nice example of Shikumen and Lilong housing that Sue Anne recommended can also be found at Cite Bourgogne, which despite its very fancy French name, is actually rather traditional looking. You can walk from there to Tianzifang directly – Check out this post at ShanghaiSquared for more details.

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2 comments to Shikumen in Shanghai – a peek at Zhang Yuan

  1. Looks like you had an interesting time and the benefit of finding a fellow blogger in person to help you grasp the sense of the place. When we were in Singapore, a fellow blogger helped us find the highest roof bar. 😉

    • heh you gotta pass on the good karma Suzanne 🙂
      Yeah walking around the place on your own gives you one perspective, but having someone who lives there can give you insights and access you might not have on your own!

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