Cité Bourgogne

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I wasn’t entirely sure where I was. I had just left the rambling lanes of the Taikang Road arts district and was wandering aimlessly through the streets of Shanghai’s former French Concession, each one buzzing with scooters, each lined by perfectly gnarled plane trees and odd, eclectic buildings. The blocks were long but broken by lanes, most of them crowded with hanging laundry, parked bicycles and potted plants. Security guards marked the entrance to each lane, but they seemed nonetheless open to the public, and passersby ambled past me and into the lanes without so much as a glance from the guard.

That’s when I came across a lane marked by an arch with a surprising inscription: “Cité Bourgogne, 1930.” (It really shouldn’t have surprised me, given the colonial history of the surrounding area, but it did.) Two young women stood at the entrance, chatting amiably. I decided that this Burgundian enclave was worth exploring, so I passed through the arch and down a narrow alley. I found myself in a compound of sorts, a small grid of laneways lined by tidy brick rowhouses. At the centre of it was a small square, ringed by houses filled with laundry lines, mostly empty except for a few wet shirts and a worn-looking Winnie the Pooh. Two middle-aged men sat at a table near the edge of the square, eyeing me with benign curiosity.

The Cité Bourgogne, it turns out, is an example of a distinctly Shanghainese form of housing, the shikumen, which takes its name (“stone gate”) from the archways that mark the entrance to each house and laneway. (Shikumen are also known as lilong, which literally means “laneway neighbourhood.”) Shikumen first arose in the nineteenth century when, fleeing the poverty and instability wrought by the Taiping Rebellion, thousands of country-dwellers flooded colonial Shanghai. Property developers scrambled to provide them with housing, and what was built resembled a cross between the traditional Chinese courtyard house and European rowhouses or mews houses.

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That, of course, is a hugely simplified account of the shikumen’s evolution. In his McGill University master’s thesis, architect Qian Guan identifies four stages of shikumen development, starting with the early brick-and-wood structures that replaced the shanties built for mid-nineteenth century migrants. These more closely resembled the traditional courtyard houses that sheltered large extended families, but, as family sizes decreased with industrialization, they were replaced by shikumen designed for more compact, working-class families, with smaller living areas. Rising wealth also meant that middle-class shikumen were being built, with luxuries previously foreign to most Chinese homes, including indoor toilets and kitchens, fireplaces and garages. In the 1920s and 30s, a small amount of apartment-style shikumen were developed, arranging Western-style mid-rise apartment buildings along a lilong-style cluster of laneways.

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What’s most interesting about shikumen is the way they combine private and public space: more than just the houses and apartments it contains, the entire complex become a home of sorts, and its lanes become living areas. This is especially true in the older shikumen that have outdoor kitchens and toilets; despite the inconvenience, it must foster a sense of community that simply could not be found in more conventional types of housing. The impact of the shikumen on Shanghai’s character must be fairly significant, too: like plexes in Montreal, they are ubiquitous.

Shikumen development came to an end when Shanghai was conquered by the Japanese in 1941. By the end of the decade, when Shanghai fell under Communist rule, shikumen were dismised as inefficient and old-fashioned, and prefabricated blocks of concrete housing were built on the city’s outskirts instead. Many shikumen houses were subdivided into tiny apartments; even today, most are still home to far more people than they were ever designed to accomodate. I couldn’t tell what the living conditions in the Cité Bourgogne were, but on the surface it was exceptionally tidy and well-kept, quiet even, at least on the slightly chilly grey day when I visited. The calmness of its laneways was a welcome contrast to the cacaphony of the traffic outside.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday April 19 2008at 01:04 pm , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Cité Bourgogne”

  • When I was in Shanghai three years ago I was told that until quite recently about 80 per cent of Shanghai residents lived in this kind of developoment (also called longtang from the word long, meaning alley or lane ) but that they were being raxed rapidlyl to make room for new high rise aparatments and green spaces. The idea was (and stil is, I gather) to make 35 per cent of the city green space.) You mention potted plants in the little courtyeards, and i also was struck by the small gardens with vines growing over doorways and tomatoe plants which would make gradenrs in Monreal’s Petite Italie proud.

    There is an imitation, Disney=fied version of these skikamen blocks called Xitiandi which appears to be purelly for tourists. It’s right next to the museum in the former girl’s school where the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China met in July 1921. Quite an irony, it seems to me.

    But the skikamen blocks that I wandered into were all nicely tended, and while people gave me the eye–what’s that older white woman doing here?–I got many smiles and no hassles, as I recount in Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places.

    I’d love to go back and see what has gone up in the spaces that were under construciton when I was there.

    Cheers

    Mary