Shanghai’s shikumen: When East and West came together in one architectural phenomenon

A defining look of Shanghai, shikumen was at crossroads of East and West culture.

Shikumen houses surrounded by high rises in Zhang Garden, Shanghai. Qin Chen

A few weeks ago, in the backyard of a dive bar, I was explaining shikumen houses, an unique architecture style in Shanghai, to an interior designer who was moving to Asia: “built in colonial days,” — sip of beer — “a mixed…style of the East and West” — pause — “lots of renovations and demolition” — pause — “quintessential Shanghai…”

“Hum, how are the styles mixed? ”

It was a simple question that went to the heart of a look that I love but rarely researched. I didn’t have an answer then. Here I’ll try to explain it better.

Like Professor Snape, Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, shikumen is also a half-blood prince — from a marriage between the East and West architecture style, that is. Take its entrance design: a pair of Chinese style black wooden doors with brass ring door knockers, surrounded by Romanesque stone arch and pillars, lintel decorated with sculpted flower and swirls.

Left: Shikumen entrance in Xintiandi, Shanghai. CC Image courtesy of Jessielein on Flickr. Right: Site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party also happen to be a classic shikumen complex, Xintiandi, Shanghai. CC Image courtesy of Benjamin Chan on Flickr

In fact, this juxtaposition of two distinct architectural styles was so unique that they named shikumen after the entrance. In mandarin, the word shikumen simply means, “gates wrapped in stone” or “stone gate”(shi means stone, ku is a verb means stabilize, and men means doors).

Bird’s-eye view of shikumen reveals more Western styling. Pitched roof replaced the standard Chinese curved roof. Stone and bricks replaced timber and tiles. From above, rows of shikumen remind you more of row houses in northern English cities or townhouses in Newbury, Boston, than a residential neighborhood in old China.

Rooftop view of Shikumen complex in Zhang Garden, Shanghai. Qin Chen

The interior floor plan of a shikumen, however, was inspired by traditional folk houses in East China — south of the Yangtze River. A key thing that differs Chinese folk house from Western townhouse is its love of courtyard. Chinese love courtyard not just for obvious practical reasons — air circulation, water drainage; but more importantly, because a courtyard is regarded as the center of chi (force and power) and fortune in Feng Shui. In the old days, multi-generational East Chinese family would live together in a courtyard house — three or four houses surrounding a private courtyard from three or four sides. Downsize these houses into rooms and move the courtyard to the front, we have the floor plan of a shikumen.

Overhead drawing of a standard Chinese folk house. Qin Chen
Overhead drawing of a standard shikumen house. Qin Chen

​To understand this seemingly illogical choice of mixing East and West architecture styles, though, some history is needed. Shikumen was created around the 1850's, flourished in the 1920's, and stopped in the 1950’s, a period when Chinese intellectual and governing class was losing confidence of their own culture. In 1842, Britain won against Qing in the First Opium War. As a result, they were granted the freedom to settle and do business with whomever they wished in five “port cities” (including Shanghai). Other countries like France and America and Portugal and Spain followed Britain’s footstep soon after. The century was traumatic for Chinese, but bustling with opportunities for the Westerners, creating a hotbed for culture experiment like shikumen.

In 1853, Small Swords Rebellion and Taiping Revolution broke out in East and Southeast China, driving migrants and refugees from countryside to Shanghai. Many were wealthy Chinese business owners, bringing capital and families, yearning for housing. British and French developers were eager to court Chinese cash, but encountered a dilemma: new development in settlement areas were required to build in Western style by the settlers, yet villas, cottages or townhouses were too costly to build in bulk and too foreign to sell Chinese. To work around the dilemma, Western developers commissioned local contractors, who drew upon the exterior look of European row houses and the interior floor plans of Chinese courtyard houses, a style later known as shikumen.

Developments peaked in 1930s, stopped after Chinese Communist Party took over the country in 1950s. Currently, there are about 50,000 shikumen buildings left in Shanghai, in 1950, there were about 200,000 buildings, housing 65% the population. These days, shikumen buildings were either kept as residential buildings, or renovated into shops and cafés, like Xintiandi, or demolished as the city makes room for high rises and shopping malls.

Shikumen in the process of demolition in Siwenli, Shanghai. Qin Chen

While not all shikumen will stay as Shanghai keeps scaling up, the design philosophy of shikumen remains relevant. After all, culture crossovers live in many forms. Even here in the Asian-American food scene, you can find traces of shikumen logic — Roy Choi serving Korean BBQ on taco tortillas, and Eddie Huang putting fried chicken in Chinese steamed buns. Just like Western developers used Chinese folk house layout as a vehicle to sell foreign designs to Chinese families. Roy used taco tortilla as a vehicle to introduce Korean BBQ to American palates.

Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order, has pointed out that “the unity of the non-West and the East-West dichotomy are myths created by the West.” Today, many Westerners continue to accept that myths subconsciously. Yet creation like shikumen showed a parallel universe outside of that dichotomy, so long as one is willing to step outside of the culture of his/her own, and experiment with unfamiliar ideas and collaborate with locals.

Qin Chen, New York City

I hope this article will spark a conversation about other examples of culture crossover. Let me know your thoughts :)

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