My name is Cody Ellingham, I am a photographer and nightcrawler from New Zeland. The aging and ornately beautiful ‘Shikumen’ lane houses are being torn down across Shanghai, and I set out on a mission to capture the historic streets before it’s too late.
I have embarked on a project to explore the disappearing communal Shikumen lane houses unique to Shanghai’s oldest districts, as part of his Shanghai Streets series.
The structures, partly inspired by the Chinese ‘Hutong’ style housing of the capital and heavily influenced by French and British colonial and art deco styles, were built in their thousands between the end of the 19th century and World War Two.
In the old days, the city was split into three areas: the French Concession, the International Settlement, and the Laoximen Chinese district. Much of the former French Concession retains a European vibe – the terrace houses and tree-lined avenues could be Barcelona or Paris, but they are not. This is China, with its noisy meat markets, modified electric motorbikes, bundles of live wires dangling from rooftops, humming neon lights and a dense smog reflecting the changing city below. Card games and shops sprawling out onto the street give it a community atmosphere. Nowhere is this more clear than in the lane houses of Shanghai, the oldest type of which are called Shikumen.
The name Shikumen comes from the brick or stone gateway at the entrance to these communities. A sophisticated entrance meant a sophisticated family behind it, and it is these lane houses that make Shanghai. Almost all of the original nineteenth-century examples are lost, with the vast majority being post-World War One specimens. But even for these, time is running out.
There is a distinct vibe walking through the lane house areas that are still inhabited. You hear the Shanghainese dialect pouring out of windows and many of the older people do not even leave the lane houses, everything they need is in the community. And for anything else, there are men who stand near the notice board who they can pay to go out to run errands. There is a sense of a time slip, which makes the scene of demolition more powerful. Some areas have become gentrified, cleaned-up, and made into boutiques, all of which lose the essence of what these places really are.