Built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shikumen houses are barely holding on in the modern megacity.
As Shanghai’s booming population moves into new apartment towers, the city’s historic shikumen courtyard houses are struggling to survive.
New Zealand photographer Cody Ellingham’s “Shanghai Streets” series explores the colonial-era lanehouses, now being torn down for new housing developments.
Built between the end of the 19th century and World War II, these buildings take influence from traditional Chinese hutongs and colonial French and British Art Deco architecture. The homes typically have ornate stone gates and large courtyards wrapped by rooms on three sides. Characterized by narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets, neighborhoods of shikumen comprised an estimated 60 percent of the city’s housing stock at their peak.
As the city grew in the 20th century, shikumen were adapted with smaller courtyards and rooms, and eventually retrofitted to fit multiple families into one building. Some were repurposed to host scribes, traders, and even schools, and now many boutique shops and businesses occupy them. The layout of these neighborhoods blended public and private spaces, building strong community bonds.
But in the 1990s, Shanghai started to favor tall apartment buildings to better accommodate the city’s fast-growing population. When he was photographing the houses, “I really felt as if they were waiting in the shadow of the encroaching skyscrapers,” Ellingham said.
Shikumen are barely holding on in Laoximen; in areas like Tianzifang and Xintiandi, redevelopment projects have tried to rebrand the historic buildings as tourist attractions. Despite some preservation efforts, many residences have been erased already. The authorities often start by buying out buildings and blocking off entrances, and decay starts to set in even before demolition. Some walls and windows have holes punched into them to deter squatters. Piles of forgotten furniture and trash from unknown decades sit abandoned in and around the shikumen.
“At one location near Laoximen, a boarded-up entrance was left open, so I popped my head in and a local was smoking a cigarette amongst the ruins inside and talking into his phone,” Ellingham said. “I walked in and nodded to him. How many places like this had I seen?”
Demolitions aren’t systematic—families continue to live in neighborhoods pockmarked with empty buildings or rubble. “The only clue to [their presence] may be a light on at night time, or the sounds of cooking or a television, while the rest of the area is bathed in silent darkness,” Ellingham said.
The photos’ cool blue and purple tones are meant to highlight the contrast between old and new, and reflect how the city feels at night—lurking in the shadows of the new Shanghai.
“Like [in] all cities, the change does not seem apparent until it is too late,” said Ellingham.