Fast-paced and cosmopolitan, Shanghai is lauded as one of the preeminent cities of the modern world since it was singled out as the financial hub of China. However, remnants of an older and more traditional way of life linger in between the glitz and pizzazz. Any major road in Shanghai, even main commercial thoroughfares like Huaihai Lu, will contain a gate to an unexpected, traditional neighborhood within its walls.
Called longtang(弄堂,), or alleyways, these neighborhoods of lanes are the Shanghai version of the Beijing hutong. A longtang specific to Shanghai is the shikumen (石库门) style. Meaning stone frame gate, the shikumen longtang style is characterized by a stone arch at the entrance, and two or three story houses with brick walls. The shikumen style was the most prominent form of housing from 1842 with the commencement of the first Opium Wars until about 1949 to coincide with the rise of the Mao Era. During that period, it is thought that about 70% of Shanghainese lived in a shikumen longtang.
As the skyline transitions from longtangs to high-rises, Shanghai changes with it. The remaining longtangs in the city offer visitors a glimpse into the journey that Shanghai has taken. To get a taste of longtang culture, consider a visit to these sites.
Jing’An Villa (静安别墅)
Jing’An Villa is an up-and-coming shikumen complex with a convenient central location that still maintains a laid-back and relaxed atmosphere. At the moment, it is still a predominantly residential area, but you can also find a few mom-and-pop stores, and an invading bohemian, artsy crowd has also set up shop. Additionally, Jing’An Villas has attracted a number of cafes, restaurants and crafts stores in what may already be the next worst kept secret in Shanghai.
Dining options in the Villas range from Vietnamese noodle soup to Greek salad and Italian paninis. After your meal, pull up a chair at one of the comfy coffee shops in the area or peruse the international memorabilia on the walls of a bookstore. Consider also checking out the crafts stores that take up residence within the villa. These stores offer Chinese folk toys, “old-style living goods” as well as a DIY Workshop.
Address: Jing’An Villas, 1025 Nanjing Xi Lu, near Maoming Lu (静安别墅, 南京西路1025弄, 近茂名路). Subway: Metro Line 2 to Nanjing Road West (南京西路)
Xintiandi is a rebuilt version of the traditional shikumen longtang. It now serves as an upscale spot to shop, dine and drink. Xintiandi’s architecture preserves the basics of the shikumen longtang, but to give it more flair, the architects decided to leave the brick walls bare, giving the complex an almost European appeal.
As the “modern longtang”, Xintiandi caters to a more affluent populace and tourists. You can find high-end, brand name stores, as well as western businesses (Starbucks, anyone?). Despite its overabundance of lounge bars and cafes, Xintiandi isn’t wholly commercialized. The Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party (open 9am to 5pm daily) is a small museum commemorating the creation of the Communist party (propaganda anyone?). In addition, the Shikumen Open House Museum (open 11am to 10pm daily) is also nearby. For an entrance fee of 20 RMB, visitors can see how people lived in a traditional Xintiandi shikumen house.
Subway: Line 10 to Xintiandi (新天地)or Line 1 to Huangpi Nan Lu (黄陂南路)
The Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party. No. 374 Huangpi Nan Lu (黄陂南路374号). Phone: 5383 2171
Shikumen Open Museum. Lane 181, Taicang Lu, near Madang Lu (太仓路181弄，近马当路). Phone: 3307 0337
Of course, no list of longtangs would be complete without mention of Tianzifang, an artistic enclave located in the French Concession. The creative sister to Xintiandi, Tianzifang is made up of art galleries, cafes, new “it” restaurants and other quirky stores. Its label as a hidden treasure is quickly wearing away and starry-eyed tourists have already blown the trumpet.
Unlike Xintiandi, Tianzifang exemplifies a purer shikumen style. It still displays narrow lanes, a stone arch entrance, and the original buildings and local residents, making Tianzifang a rare happy compromise (for most).
Address: Lane 210, Taikang Road, Luwan District (卢湾区太康路210弄)
Subway: Metro Line 9 to Dapuqiao (打浦桥)
Located along Huaihai Zhong Lu, a street cluttered with western name brand shops, Yuyangli stands out for its quiet residential environment. Built sometime between 1912 and 1936, it is the former site of the Central Committee of Socialist Youth League of China. As a national historical site under protection of the state, Yuyangli is safe from the demolition that other longtang neighborhoods are vulnerable to.
Unlike Xintiandi, Tianzifang and Jing’An Villa, there are no commercial stores here. Yuyangli remains one of the authentic shikumen style longtangs in town with its distinctive stone arch. For other all-residential longtangs like Yuyangli, visit Cité Bourgogne, at Lane 287 Shaanxi Nan Lu, Luwan District (卢湾区陕西南路287弄)。
Address: No. 1-6 Lane 567, Huaihai Middle Road, Luwan District (卢湾区淮海中路567弄1－6号).Subway: Metro Line 1 to South Huangpi Road (黄陂南路)
Shanghai Shikumen Museum
To get the whole lowdown on shikumen style housing, take a visit to the Shanghai Shikumen Museum located on Yongkang Lu. The whole museum is a house that belongs to Mr Da, whose family has owned the property for the past four generations. The house itself is from the 1920s and contains a number of antiques and curios that the family has collected through the years.
The Da family is a clan of intellectuals, and their paintings and calligraphy can be found in different rooms all throughout the tour. The design of the museum will take you through the personal artifacts of the family, including family portraits, wedding gifts, and other keepsakes that bring the old shikumen style back to life. Mr Da himself is a knowledgeable and personable guide and offers an intimate look at this integral part of Shanghai’s history.
The English or Chinese tour is free, but requires a reservation. Contact the affable Mr Da directly at email@example.com to make an appointment.
Address: No. 35, Lane 38, Yongkang Lu, near Jiashan Lu, Xuhui district (黄浦区永康路38弄35号, 近襄阳南路). Phone: 6281-6408. Subway: Metro Line 10 to South Shaanxi Road (陕西南路)