My favourite sponge-cake neighbourhood

In keeping with my previous post (in content, as well as naming convention), I popped next door to document another typical Shanghainese housing complex.  This one is particularly important to me, as it provides a link between our street and a mid-block section of Anfu Road, which lies directly north and has a number of good cafes and grocers.  It took a few weeks for someone to tell me about this short-cut, which saves us from walking around the whole block, and thus takes several minutes away from my morning dash for coffee.  That discovery was probably one of my happiest moments in my time here, often reflected upon during the icy depths of winter days (like this morning’s very rude 2 degrees).

Like most housing complexes, this one is arranged around a driveway that runs into the site.  From our street, you’d never know it leads anywhere (apart from into the site itself).  And, given that there are dozens of such gateways long every street, you would spend a long time finding out which ones actually go anywhere.

This one just seems to end on a little house.

Besides, each complex has a gatehouse and guard (or in the case of our complex, a family of three who live in the tiny gatehouse) who will cast a suspicious eye over anyone who enters.  And while we foreigners usually get away with anything, it’s not uncommon to be followed and/or asked to put away the camera.


Buildings are arranged around the main driveways and smaller perpendicular lanes.


As apartments are often small and overcrowded (particularly those inhabited by locals), these spaces are used for lots of everyday activities, including the storage of stuff.


Deeper into the complex, these usually become smaller in scale, more randomly arranged and subject to more everyday usage.  These serve as accessway and meeting place and laundry and rubbish sorting zone and vegetable washing station.

And, within this particular complex, they eventually yield an example of the traditional Shanghainese resdiential style, the Shíkùmén.

Shíkùmén literally means “stone gate” and, as with much of Shanghai, combines elements of traditional Chinese and contemporary Western architectural styles.  In the past, up to 60% of Shanghai’s housing was built around this model, but now most people live in the apartment compounds that cover the city (and literally, the sites of countless shikumen, demolished to make way for this much-less-Chinese but much-more-profitable housing type  Shikumen are typically two-to-three terrace houses, arranged in straight rows, with a small walled courtyard.  The “stone gate” is the entry into the courtyard, and thus the house – the gateway between private and public spaces.  While traditional Chinese housing usually incorporates a courtyard, the shikumen protects this space behind a particularly high and solid wall – a necessity in a big city like Shanghai, where crime and chaos are the natural outcomes of social inequality and historic uprisings.


Deeper still, the central accessway narrows to met a turnstile, through which only pedestrians and up-ended bicycles can pass. At some point of the evening (possibly midnight, or whenever the guard does his final walk-around), the turnstile is locked shut, denying access to the short-cutters as well.


From here, you can get quite close the everyday lives of the people who live here – in what appear to be the most tiny living quarters, a single room possibly 2 by 2 metres, with outdoor sinks and shared bathrooms.


Said bathroom is shown on the right, just beside the central recycling area, the rubbish pile of the adjacent restaurant and a patch of concrete where someone is usually selling fresh veggies laid out on a tarpaulin.  Perhaps I am being sensitive, but I feel that one of those four activities just doesn’t belong with the others.

The end, at a gateway not too dissimilar to that I entered through. But, at this end, in a few minutes time, I have coffee.



One Response to My favourite sponge-cake neighbourhood

  1. Pingback: There Goes the Neighbourhood! (part 2) « That Look Crayzy!

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