Sunday, October 22, 2006

Shanghai Longtang

While Shanghai seems to be filled with buildings coming down and high-rises going up, there remain pockets of the traditional Shanghainese housing. Recall that while China is filled with ancient history, Shanghai is a relatively recent city; mainly grown around the trading empires of the British, French, etc starting in the mid-1800’s. Traditional housing here is not really all that old – much of it dating from the early 1900’s.

The “longtangs” are built in a western fashion around a Chinese courtyard. Originally built as single-family dwellings (generally in a townhouse structure), during the Cultural Revolution, the spaces were cut up and each family got a room with common spaces for kitchens and baths. Some families were able to recover their homes after the revolution, but most continue to be occupied by 8 to 20 families (frequently just the older people now).

We went into one magnificent villa (formerly owned by a comrade of Chiang Kai-Shek) where the rooms went to judges. The home of a widow of one of the judges was a third of the original ballroom space. Outside on the landing, there was oil cook stove after oil cook stove lined up,
each in its space for each of the TEN families on the 2nd floor of this house. Attached is a picture of one corner of the landing. Note that all of the utensils are piled up as there is no where else to put them (remember that everyone lives in just one room per family), With Shanghai cooking is high in oil content, the walls, ceiling, and individual gas meters are coated in oil.

While the space is held in common, utilities are precious. Not only does each family have gas meter, each has their own electrical panel – enough to send chills up the spine of a safety specialist. You can see that everyone needs to light their own way and life becomes complex.

Some of these neighborhoods are experiencing renovations – new kitchens, baths, electrical supplies. Some of being “gentrified”. Most are in the waiting pattern for negotiations over the land and resettlement of the remaining occupants to outlying communities. In the meantime at a rent of 50 RMB/month (less than $7) for a mid-town home, no one is relinquishing their residency rights.

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