Narrow streets of Shanghai
Like in Beijing, Shanghai also has a tightly packed alleyways structure called longtangs (弄堂, lòngtáng). In Beijing, these areas are called hutongs. The main differences between the two are strikingly visible. Hutongs are short, while longtangs are taller, with two or three stories, towering above the mazes within. Here we often talk about The Narrow Streets of Shanghai.
The real-life of Shanghai is in these longtangs. They are like the capillary vessels of the city. Life pulses through these narrow streets, there is a rhythm here. If you want to understand Shanghai, you first must understand the longtangs, they are an integral part of the cities history. They are a representation of the real Shanghai. Each resident of Shanghai has its own story to tell.
Shanghai has long been a city of immigrants. The first explosion came in the 1840s when the Qing Dynasty was forced to sign Britain’s “Treaty of Nanking.” Under this agreement, China opened five ports for foreign trade with low tariffs. Shanghai was one of these five cities. The result was that Westerner people flooded the city and started to build their own neighbourhoods. And also a lot of Chinese also moved to Shanghai, taking advantage of the new work opportunities. The sudden influx of Westerners and rural Chinese, and their cultural mixing, was the starting point of the unique architecture of the longtangs.
The original longtangs were miniature, compact neighbourhoods, made up of small wood buildings. Inside one longtang, there were many alleyways, labyrinth-like, but only one exit: a single metal gate, which led to the main street.
By 1863, there were almost 9,000 such communities in Shanghai. But because they were all made of wood, and so tightly packed, they were also highly flammable. Ten years later, most of the neighbourhoods had burned down and been replaced by a newer style of longtangs called shikumen (石库门, shíkùmén), built using a mixture of Western and southern Chinese styles.
You can recognize the shikumen style by the stone doorframe (shikumen literally means “stone gate”), a black door and a wooden window. Inside, there are usually front and back courtyards, plus several living rooms and a kitchen. Stairs to the second story, from the back yard, leading up to bedrooms. Because of the little light that reaches the sides of the longtang, most have skylights, called 老虎窗 (lǎohǔ chuāng)—because the English word “roof” sounds like “老虎” (lǎohǔ, tiger) in Shanghai dialect.
You’ll often see longtang houses missing their ground floors. They will be wedged between two streets, connecting two rows of houses; this type of house is called a 过街楼 (guòjiēlóu? literally “cross street house”). Another way that more people were crammed into the neighbourhood was by renting out a shabby room between the kitchen and flat roof called 亭子间 (tíngzijiān). As a lot of famous writers start their career as a writer, this is also the name of an important literary style known as “Tingzijian Literature.”
Shanghai always have been very crowded. Years ago, you’d be lucky to share a house with others. A family would all live in the same room together. Four could live in a room with less than 10 square meters of space. This was normal.”
There was no privacy in the longtangs. Neighbours cooked together, and usually ate dinner outside, where they could see what other families were eating. Toilets were shared. If there were quarrels between families, everyone in the neighbourhood got involved. No privacy at all, but everyone looked out for one another. When it rained, your neighbours helped you bring your clothes inside from the clothesline. Now more and more young people move away to the outside of Shanghai to live in a separate apartment.
Especially a lot of the older stay to live in the longtangs. They like this lifestyle, to live with their friends. They feel at home—the whole longtang is one big family.
II also lived with my mum in a longtang. It was a nice time but also had a lot of inconveniences. We were lucky that out longtang was demolished and the government gave us a nice apartment elsewhere in Shanghai as compensation.
In area’s like Xintiandi and Tianzifang, they have restored a lot of the original houses. But this is commercial replicas housing glitzy entertainment, high-end boutiques, and classy art centres. These are fun to visit, but it is more a touristic version. To see the real longtangs, the real Shanghai life, you need to dig deeper into Shanghai—places like Fuxing West Road and Xinzha Road. I can also recommend you to visit any of the following streets: Jianguo West Road, Fuxing West Road, Hefei Road, Dongtai Road, Huaihai Zhong Road, Huashan Road, Shaanxi South Road, Yan’an Zhong Road, Yuyuan Road, Xinzha Road, Changsha Road, Xinchang Road, Guling Road, Xiamen Road and Yunnan Zhong Road.
You can go by yourself and get lost in these alleyways and learn more about Shanghai lifestyle. Or you ask me to be your guide. I can show you the really interesting places and help you to communicate with the local people. In the Narrow Street of Shanghai, you will not find many people who can speak English with you.