Old House

family ghost
Grandaunt Ta-An and me in the Old House

My father called it the Old House. Every week he would go there to visit his grandparents. My father described the Old House as a mixed-up design. It had a courtyard and a main hall like a proper Chinese house, but also two stories.

The first time I visited Shanghai in 1984, Grandaunt Ta-An was still living in the Old House. She was the youngest of her generation, who never married. She survived war and revolution in her father’s home. My Uncle Robert said she lived in the servant’s quarters when our family was labelled as capitalists.

stone-wrapped gates

Restored shikumen gate. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I can’t remember much of the Old House exterior. Inside, there were a lot of stairs. The landings did double duty as the common kitchen and bathroom for each floor. The family lived in what was once a bedroom suite, all 8 of them.

That afternoon, Grandaunt Ta-An plucked the duck on the same table we used for dinner. The chairs did not come down from their wall pegs until everyone was ready to be seated.

If the Old House was mixed-up in the architectural sense, I didn’t notice at the time. Later, it struck me that mixed-up could describe most buildings in Shanghai. For example, the shikumen as Lynn Pan described them:

From the lane outside, a simple gate opens to a shallow courtyard or airwell designed to admit light and air, and from this the main front room is entered. The surrounds of the gateway may or may not have inspired the Chinese name for the style of lane-housing known as shikumen, or ‘stone-wrapped gates.’

Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars, p. 216

Maybe the Old House looked like that from the outside. Here’s Uncle Robert’s picture of the Old House as he saw it as a child:

In the middle of the central living room upstairs was an ancestor’s niche sitting on a long high table against the wall. In the niche were 4 or 6 vertical wooden plaques about 10 inches high, shaped like tombstones with each pair of ancestor’s name on them. The plaques of female ancestors show only the maiden name but not the given name which was the custom.

On festive days, the family gathered to kowtow to the ancestors, light candles and burn paper boats. My grandfather, however, refused to take part. He was a Christian.

lane houses

As early as the 1870’s, Western developers commissioned the construction of shikumen. Local contractors used Chinese floor plans and decorative motifs. Soon, these shikumen expanded into lanes and branches to house the waves of migrants coming to Shanghai.

These lane houses were a hybrid, Chinese in that their layout was adapted from the classical courtyard house; and Western in the pilasters or reliefs decorating their entrances.

Pan, p. 215
longtang house
Entrance to new-style lilong on Lintong Road. Photo credit: Karen Kao

There are five types of lane houses or longtang native to Shanghai:

  • Old-style shikumen (1870-1910)
  • Late-style shikumen (1910-1920)
  • New-style lilong (1910-1940)
  • Garden lilong (1920-1940)
  • Apartment lilong (1930-1940).

According to the New York Times, longtang housed up to 80% of Shanghai up to the 1990’s.

They were basically city blocks that functioned as gated communities, with guards manning the front entrance. The whole essence of old Shanghai was that life was lived horizontally – all the activity happened at the street level.


That activity was diverse, clamorous, malodorous. Who wouldn’t want to move out of such an overcrowded place into the splendor of a high-rise building? Yet at least one Shanghainese offers this elegiac reminiscence of his longtang childhood.

The day typically began with the ‘Cantata of the Alley,’ the sound of night stools (bucket-shaped latrines) as they were cleaned with bamboo sticks after being emptied by the night soil men. Then the first vendors would arrive, selling hand-wrapped won tons, fried bean curd and fresh green olives, often delivered in baskets lowered from upper-floor windows.

longtang houses
Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi. Image source: Wikipedia

Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi is a novel full of longing. Wang Qiyao is a pretty girl who wins 3rd place in the Miss Shanghai contest in 1946. Now living in a new-style lilong, she longs for the longtang of her youth (p. 63).

Sometimes she thought to herself, even the moon here is different. The moon back home was a small courtyard moon, stained by the smell of kitchen smoke and lampblack; the moon here came from a scene in a novel, its light shining on flowers and rambling plants. … She listened to the nameless sounds of the still night, so unlike the night sounds back home, which all had a name.


These days, the Shanghai government has begun to preserve the longtang. But the lifestyle of the longtang can no longer be revived. It is now the province of literature and cinema. As Lena Scheen noted her discussion of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow:

The longtang are presented as an enclosed space where an ‘authentic’ Shanghai lifestyle of the common people has survived despite political turmoil and capitalist globalization … [A] longtang neighborhood [is] a unique housing typology, the experience of its residents, and Shanghai history, all made one through the literary imagination.

Lena Scheen, in Aspects of Urbanization in China: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou: "Sensual, but No Clue of Politics: Shanghai's Longtang Houses," p. 120

going home

In my novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I too use Shanghai housing to paint my characters.

Song Anyi is a woman fiercely in search of independence. So she chooses to live in an apartment lilong. It’s a place of privacy, even anonymity, where she can live isolated from the rest of her family. An apartment to Anyi is freedom:

Anyi was like a child in those days. Everything was new: the apartment Cho found for her, the freedom of waking when she liked, the novelty of a servant answerable only to her, for Nian had come along with the hat boxes and the new dresses and some old furniture Auntie Song had bequeathed to Anyi in a fit of generosity.

Her brother Song Kang lives with his American friend Max Lazerich. Max has done well for himself. He lives in a garden lilong, the kind of housing only the upper class could afford. Kang is lucky to have found such a friend.

The Song siblings live only blocks apart. They see each other weekly if not daily. And yet, there is an immense rift between them. A silence so large and weighty, it could have been an ocean.

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