Only 10 years ago, the idea of living in a shikumen-style apartment was anathema to most middle-class Chinese, let alone the foreigners who were beginning to descend on Shanghai.
Around 9,000 shikumen-style neighborhoods dotted Shanghai at their peak, accounting for around 60% of the city’s total housing space. But many were torn down and replaced by modern apartment blocks during Shanghai’s 1990s building boom. Those that remained were left to decay on sagging foundations.
The shikumen, or ‘stone gate’ is a type of tenement housing unique to Shanghai. It dates from the late 19th century and was designed to house Chinese white collar workers in the city’s western quarters. It resembles a hybrid of the British row house and the traditional Chinese courtyard house, typically organized in dense, two-story blocks connected by internal alleyways.
Kate Whitton of Ark International, a Shanghai orientation and housing company focused on expatriates, said shikumen offer new arrivals a chance to experience the romance of the city of old, but that was tempered by the gritty reality of cockroaches, ancient plumbing and a lack of modern amenities like air conditioning.
“They are very romantic,” she said. “But few people wanted to live there.”
But newly renovated shikumen-style apartments are changing this. Complete with radiators, underfloor heating and new wiring and plumbing, they are proving attractive to buyers who can afford them.
At the heart of this renewed interest in shikumen living are government efforts to hold onto the city’s heritage. Starting in 1989, but rapidly accelerating at the end of the 1990s, the Shanghai city government began passing a series of preservation laws and approving a large number of preservation projects.
Today, more than 700 buildings are designated for preservation. Many are located in 12 heritage areas that occupy about one third of inner-city Shanghai. The government said it was happy for private investors and developers to preserve these areas.
Shui On Group quickly took up that offer. In 1996, it developed Xintiandi with Shanghai’s Luwan district government, creating the definitive updated shikumen compound. But some critics derided it for playing home to expensive restaurants, bars and boutiques rather than middle-class tenants.
Portman Holdings is planning to pay more attention to the shikumen’s original purpose with its US$100 million-plus redevelopment of a block on the corner of Jianguo and Yueyang Road in Xuhui District. The group, having eyed the block for over three and-a-half years, formed a consortium with Citigroup and Luo Shi Real Estate to bid for the redevelopment rights when the Xuhui district government put it up for public tender in 2005.
Portman, operating in a joint venture with state-owned Shanghai Hengfu Group, a company formed specifically to help redevelop protected buildings in the Hengshan and Fuxing road protected zone, will restore the site into a mix of serviced apartments and retail space.
The development will be a 23,000-square-meter site called Jian Ye Li located in the center of the French Concession. The current shikumen on the site were built in two stages in 1930 and 1938 as residences for a foreign firm’s management staff. The exteriors of these structures will be preserved while the interiors are renovated. The project is expected to be completed by 2009.
One of the conditions set for the developers was that they would have to retain the flavor of the surroundings and architectural style of the historical neighborhood.
“That brings the uniqueness to the project.” said Portman Holdings’ Mark Jared.
He added that the addition of a retail area would allow residents and tourists to experience Jian Ye Li’s unique architecture while shopping and dining.
Indeed, it looks like Shanghai’s humble shikumen will remain a part of the city for years to come, in one form or another.