With each year that goes by, more and more of Shanghai’s historic Shikumen houses are being torn down. Pivotal to the city in the 20th century, but with the dawn of the megacity, the houses have been reduced to the shadows. Keen to keep the legacy of the Shikumen houses alive, Cody Ellingham went to the city’s oldest districts and captured them in a raw but beautiful project.
Shanghai is one of the biggest cities in the world, and a huge driver of change within the country. But underneath all the glamour lies the sad reality of a lost history.
The beautiful Shikumen houses of the city’s Laoximen, Tianzifang and Xintiandi areas are being phased out, as the rising population turns instead to high rises.
Many neglected or turned into tourist attractions, the once thriving hub of the city has gone eerily quiet, demonstrated within each eye-catching shot by Ellingham.
The historic houses are a blend of traditional Chinese hutongs and colonial French and British Art Deco architecture. Built between the end of the 19th century and the Second World War, they became synonymous with the city.
The beating heart of Shanghai.
Photographer Cody Ellingham explains, “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.”
A real sense of abandonment is evoked within the pictures; a combination of the narrow streets but the lack of people and the bright, neon lights but with no buzz about the place. All working to enhance that feeling of slight estrangement from the society building behind.
“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.”
Perhaps what evokes the sadness in these pictures even more is the way they are half visible through the darkness of the night.
You can make out their shape and structure, but the intricate details of the buildings have almost been glazed over by the effects of the neon lights and the dark.
The big buildings behind serve as a constant reminder of the way the city is changing, and the contrast of the blue to the red of the Shikumen districts is a clever way to enhance this.
What HEKKTA feels is so impressive and admirable about this project by Cody Ellingham is that it is not just an excellent photography project, that’s truly exciting on the eye.
It is also a project that has a broader purpose.
Beautiful architecture and important histories are so easily phased out as the modern world outgrows existing infrastructure.
But preservation and protection is essential to retain the beauties of the past, in order to fully appreciate the histories in each place.
We hope that the Shikumen houses remain a part of Shanghai’s identity, and with more projects such as these, it’s ever more likely.