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Sun Feb 2nd, 2014

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06:54 pm - Shikumen houses
Didn't-quite-finish-it book of January was Qiu Xiaolong's When Red is Black, an Inspector Chen mystery set in Shanghai as all his books are, so far. Much is made of the local style of architecture, the shikumen house, which is essentially what we'd call a row house with a front wall and gate, and evidently a courtyard where we would have a front garden.

My frustration is that any photo I can find shows the exterior of the shikumen with no idea of what things look like once through that front gate. How big is the courtyard? How wide are the houses? (In the picture of demolished shikumen, they don't look much bigger than 12-14 feet, if that.) The Shikumen Open House Museum apparently has seven rooms somehow crammed into 367.2 square metres/ 1200 sq feet, but I can't get an idea of how they're arranged-- especially as there's no fig 1 or fig 2 that I can see on that webpage. Two floors of railway-type rooms, one opening out of another? Unlikely. A corridor somewhere? but where's the space for it? And essentially, how could rooms like this be partitioned up so that several families would live in what used to be the dining room? Floor plans is what I need, and can't find.

This blog at least shows you the rooms, which do look pretty small.

(6 comments | post comment)


[User Picture]
Date:February 3rd, 2014 01:20 am (UTC)
The rooms are small. Sq ft per person were small for all but the super rich. The shikumen in the old tourist part of Shanghai are maybe 3 meters across the front, so hall ways would be a terrible waste of space. You see hall-less houses in old Irish construction, too. Rooms are connected with doorways, not halls.

This might help you:
[User Picture]
Date:February 3rd, 2014 01:25 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 3rd, 2014 02:29 am (UTC)
That gives me some idea, yes. Thank you.

What I thought was a railroad house turns out to be a shotgun house: room opening into rooms with no corridor. But how are shikumen arranged so that you aren't tromping through Grandma's bedroom every time you go to your own room? or rather, Grandma isn't tromping through yours. Well, I suppose the Irish had the same problem.

It gets worse when you start subdividing the rooms for families to live in, because then you're going through several people's living areas to get in and out: unless part of the subdivision is the creation of some kind of corridor.
[User Picture]
Date:February 3rd, 2014 02:59 am (UTC)
When I read the description ... they sounded familiar to our shophouses of old.

Although as Raffles had a hand in it ... they were probably slightly bigger/smaller(?) than the ones in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Many opened up straight onto the streets of our Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street. They are generally long and narrow. The back would open out into narrow corridors of little alley ways. Where yet some more (small) businesses could be run. Mostly small carts peddling food, drinks and barber services. These would often be utilised by the local constabulary (mata-mata: A malay term similar in meaning to detectives, 刑事.-san as a spy network. Or the villains, depending on the highest paying I guess)

The more affluent ones would have a small front space (though I'm not sure if these would have been big enough to be called a front yard). The front yards weren't the important features really though ... if you were really well off, you'd use a lot of it up for the pre-requisite stone pillar with the pair of lions/dragons to 'watch' over the wealth and happiness of your property. I heard that typically that one lion should have their mouth open to catch happiness and wealth and the other should have the mouth closed to keep the happiness and wealth in. Of course all sorts of stories about the design/fengshui of where doors and windows would be placed.

Many of these housed coolies paying exorbitant amounts of rent from their already meagre wages to landlords who would keep them staying and paying for their opium habit. And believe you me, that these landlords would house as many as he could put bunk beds in with the merest thought towards such expenses as thin wooden planks for partitioning. ^_^ The greedy hounds. See the bit under 'chophouse'.

There were those that housed legitimate businesses and families. (Although back in the day an opium den was a legitimate business). Many function today as offices, budget hotels, eateries and cafes. Still they are big enough to house comfortably at least two families although three or four were not unheard of. The beds were small and short. Folk would sleep three to four to a bed. Coconut and bamboo rush mats would be rolled out to maximise sleeping areas which were easily stored away during the day. When everyone should be out working anyway so you didn't really need much living space.

So I've heard.

Sorry for the ramble. I love our shophouses, the history and the mysteries, the general goings on of life in an era gone by. Thankfully many have been kept and redeveloped. Unfortunately for us mere mortals, they are priced rather ridiculously.

Edited at 2014-02-03 02:59 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 3rd, 2014 03:08 am (UTC)
also this might help with visualising it more ...


there's a sort of map of the interior two thirds of the way down


Edited at 2014-02-03 03:09 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 3rd, 2014 03:20 pm (UTC)
This sounds very close to the Shanghai version. The back alleys are a feature of shikumen neighbourhoods too, with lots of criss-crossing alleys leading off main streets. Where, yes, people run their little businesses.

Not sure the Shanghai houses were as long as the LRD ones: the floor plans L links to up there seem to be ones built for upper-class families and then turned into flophouses post-Revolution. Long enough but not a bowling alley. The cramming of people into every available space sounds like the later Shanghai use.

The main feature of shikumen, as per the name, does seem to be the wall and gate that keeps your house separate from the street, while the Singapore one with the arcades definitely is less enclosed.

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