Photographing Old Shanghai

A trip to the shikumen houses of Shanghai’s British Concession with local photographer Gang Feng Wang reveals relics of the city’s past—and why every traveller should visit.

There’s a plot of land just down the street from Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai that has been unoccupied for years; it’s nothing more than a patch of scrub waiting for someone to decide what to do with it. But amid the gravel and the overgrowth are grey and white English-made tiles, faded remains of what was once someone’s living room. We’re standing on the edge of Shanghai’s British Concession (also known as Shanghai International Settlement), an area of residences built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as homes for British families trading in the city.

Rooftops of shikumen houses in Shanghai

Shikumen, meaning “stone gate houses,” occupy the area in Shanghai known as the British Concession.

The concessions were mostly made up of shikumen, meaning “stone gate houses,” created through a combination of Western and Chinese design and engineering. The architectural style is recognizable, with narrow two- and three-storey homes arranged along alleys entered through ornate stone archways. Although many of the grander houses were built as lodgings for wealthy British families, these homes also accommodated Chinese entrepreneurs and officials fleeing the Taiping Rebellion, the civil war that ravaged southern China from 1850 to 1864.

Today, in spite of aggressive redevelopment, a small proportion of the original shikumen still exist in the shadows of the city’s glass and steel towers.

Portrait of photographer Gang Feng Wang

Shanghainese photographer Gang Feng Wang leads a tour of the shikumen houses, available exclusively through Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai.

Gang Feng Wang, a Shanghainese photographer born and raised in this area, leads the shikumen tour, an Extraordinary Experience available exclusively through Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai. One of the first freelance photographers in China, Gang began practising his craft on a borrowed camera, shooting expired film, until his sister used her savings to buy him his own. “There’s a saying in China,” Gang says: “Beauty is everywhere; you just need to learn how to find it.” His tour is designed to show you where to look.

There’s a saying in China: Beauty is everywhere; you just need to learn how to find it. – Gang Feng Wang

Gang’s studio is in the heart of a shikumen, located in a high-ceilinged space that was the drawing room of a Shell Petroleum executive. The once grand mansion is now home to more than 40 families, all of whom share the hallways for cooking. The courtyard is a tangle of washing lines, the porch is home to songbirds in bamboo cages, and a stooped man in house slippers has set up a chair at the entryway to watch the to-ings and fro-ings of his neighbours.

Today most of these former British residences have become homes to multiple Chinese families, their grand hallways filled with bicycles and brightly coloured mops, walls sticky with cooking grease and decades’ worth of dust. It’s easy to tell how many families now live in each home, says Gang—all you need to do is count the number of electricity meters clustered together on the wall. In the case of the building housing Gang’s studio, that’s 45.

Shikumen alleyway in Shanghai

The narrow alleyways between the grey and orange brick houses are a photographer’s dream.

The shikumen are an Instagrammer’s dream, and the narrow alleyways between the grey and orange brick houses are full of life. A cat avoids the slip and slop of a mop by hiding under a tricycle. A Pekingese sniffs its way from doorstep to doorstep. A woman chops leeks and washes tomatoes for lunch at a communal stone sink. Touring this shikumen with Gang feels intimate—it’s almost as if we’re prying into private lives—but these are shared areas, the result of communal living, and a shy “ni hao” always elicits a smile and, more often than not, an invitation to look inside.

We’re invited to observe an elderly neighbour deftly preparing noodles, a shy little girl peeking around a doorframe, and a floor covered in beautiful tiles imported from England. A familiar figure in these parts, Gang has no trouble walking straight into a building and guiding us up creaky wooden stairs to the top floor, revealing a bird’s-eye view of the terracotta-tiled roofs below and gleaming skyscrapers beyond.

Gang leads us to the edge of a construction site, soon to become a new office tower, hotel and several restaurants. It’s a Hong Kong property developer’s latest project. “All of this used to be old shikumen houses,” says Gang, “but they’ve been demolished now.” The residents were given large grants to move to comfortable new apartments in different parts of the city. “Speaking from experience, the only people who are sad about this are the tourists,” says Gang with a wry smile. “But don’t worry, we’ll build you lots of nice museums so you can see how it used to be.”

Famlies doing laundry in the alleyway of a shikumen residence in Shanghai

“There’s a saying in China,” says Gang: “Beauty is everywhere; you just need to learn how to find it.”

Gang’s comments may be made with tongue firmly in cheek, but there is truth to his words. Some of the oldest shikumen houses are protected by the government, but these preserved homes are not necessarily the most comfortable. “The protected houses have no bathrooms, no toilets,” says Gang.  With their 19th-century plumbing and wiring and lack of sanitation, it’s easy to see why many residents would be happy to trade these homes for newer apartments.

What does the future hold for the remaining shikumen? Some have already been converted into shops and restaurants—a stylized, sterilized version of what they once were. But one thing’s certain: They won’t be here forever. We may have only a few more years to catch a glimpse of this unique Shanghainese way of life. Go now, and explore these streets while you still can.

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Shikumen Residence, Shanghai

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