Chapter 2: The urban development of Shanghai and the generation of Lilong housing

2.1 Urban development of Shanghai


Before 1845 (Open trade), the town of Shanghai was concentrated on a 2.04 km2 piece of land, surrounded by cultivated fields, marshy soil, and Huangpu River at the east. The town center, a typical traditional Chinese town, was enclosed by fortified walls with a perimeter of 4.5 km, and accessed by seven guarded gates at the perimeter. The internal streets, basically running from south to north and from east to west, was a common pattern in most traditional Chinese cities, such as Beijing. But this town was in much smaller scale compared to the city of Beijing due to political and economical negligence by the central government. The streets were narrow, not wide enough for vehicles or carriages. Residents were only Chinese, engaged in fishing, local salt and textile trade. However, it was this small town, that had caught the imagination of foreign capitalists and been forced to open to international trades. Since then, Shanghai was on the way to head for a fast-growing modern city.

Between 1845 - 1849, when the English capitalists first came to demarcate the site for their concessions, they chose a land north to the old Chinese town and west to Huangpu River. They placed their first office and Embassy in a neglected fortress where only old ship manufactures, carpentry shops and cotton fields can be found in vicinity. All the roads around were muddy and earthy, even not in hard-surface. However, this site was of great importance due to its strategic convenience in sea and river transportation. Once an international port was established, it could operate a number of trade routes from here that were all about 10,000 miles in distance from some of major ports in the world, such as London and New York. This site was also close to the old Chinese town, having convenience in communicating with the existing system and structure. The bond along the Huangpu River could be used as a natural defense line when there arose a coastal emergency, or to facilitate expansion of the foreign concessions westward into a much larger fields of inner mainland. For all these reasons, the English chose this site and developed it as the original concession - the English Concession. Soon after, the French chose a site to the south of the English Concession, which was called the French Concession, and the Americans developed a land to the west of English Concession (Fig. 1.2b). Later, the Americans and the English joined their lands and named it the International Settlement.

Ten years after establishment of the International Settlement and the French Concession, the countryside scenery around the bund was replaced by the scene of a booming city. Hard-surfaced roads 8 m in width were constructed and continuously expanded westward. The port was built along the Huangpu River within the English Concession, and had grown to be one of the biggest port in the nation. Clusters of foreign concrete-slab buildings in a variety of European styles were erected along the Bund.

Till 1914, the foreign concessions had obtained an area of 32.32 km2, sixteen times of the old Chinese town. Within this area, the International Concession was 22.6 km2, and the French Concession was 10.22 km2 (Fig. 2.1a). Its advantageous geographic condition and rapid development imposed Shanghai an ever-increasing position. It soon replaced Guangzhou, an open port city in the southern coast, to be the new national center for trade, commercial, transportation and light industries, etc. Shanghai was also listed among the top ten international trade ports, and had established trade relationships with over one hundred countries all over the world. The original concession had turned out to be the commercial and financial headquarters of Shanghai. The Bond, with its grand foreign-styled architecture, became a symbol or landmark of the city.

Fig. 2.1a Distribution of Foreign Concessions and Road  Construction in Shanghai from 1846 ~ 1914. Top of page

2.2 Urban characteristics of Shanghai


Review the development of modern cities all over the world, one can find out that they fall into the following two categories. The first category is the progressively formed cities, of which the internal social and economic transformation reshape the civic structure and gradually leads to the functional change of the city. The second category is the explosive (eruptive) cities, of which the external forces drive the cities' function to change in a short period. Shanghai is one of the second category of cities. It did not naturally and progressively grow from a traditional Chinese city, but was built on foreign concessions and geared by foreign forces. Within one century, from a small fishing town it came up to be the biggest modern city in China (Fig. 2.2a).

The Evolution of Shanghai during the Last One Century.


Shanghai's commercial prosperity brought about further expansion of foreign concessions. Unlike other Chinese port cities such as Guangzhou and Tianjing, where the foreign concessions only occupied a small portion in the old city and located far from downtown, the concessions in Shanghai were overwhelming in size and formed the core urban area in the city. Also differed significantly from other port cities, Shanghai's concessions enjoyed complete administrative-autonomy. Chinese government can hardly interrupt any of their internal affairs. Therefore, foreign system, from political policies to economic measures, from urban planning strategies to construction technology, were given a free and full play here.

Streets were 6.6 m to 8 m wide, at 35 m to 45 m intervals. Chinese traditional pattern of street network, in which roads strictly complied with the four orientations - the south, north, east and west- and intersected perpendicularly, was somehow respected but not exactly followed. Though most of the streets were basically directed from south to north or from the east to west, there was no single major road that was perfectly straight and thus the street pattern derived was somehow crooked and spontaneous. The outcome was random but organic. This was in reference to the existing numerous free-running water-ways of the delta which were taken into consideration when new roads were to be formed (Fig. 2.2b).

Urban Frame and the Shanghai Inner City.

Shanghai's street network was also lack of a well-formed grid system. The pattern of two series of parallel streets crossing at right angles to form a pattern of equally-sized square blocks dominating urban fabric of the Old City of Beijing, is not found here. The organic street pattern and the inconsistent grid system resulted in urban blocks varying in sizes and shapes.

However, there were still some urban characteristics which can be identified. 1). The street pattern of Shanghai is a variation or twisted one of traditional checker-board pattern (Fig. 2.2b). The urban grid system is a mixed patch of several of different types. The street pattern in the original concessions was comparatively regular and standardized, with a recognizable pattern of gridiron system. The street pattern in later developed areas seemed more random and casual, each area may be associated with a different grid system. 2). All streets and roads seemed to start off from the place of the earlier concessions- the area around the Bund, and radiate to the west, north and the south. The city grid in earlier concessions is much denser, and gradually decreased its density in the outer districts. This character once again demonstrated the decisive position of the earlier concessions in the process of urban development. It is predictable that the earlier concessions have become today's Central Business District of Shanghai, because most of the financial and commercial institutions were built around these areas. 3). Finally, the overall organic pattern of street network associated with its mixed patch of city grid system, is unique to the city of Shanghai, differing from other traditional cities.

Two factors had an impact in shaping this street pattern and grid system. One is that the natural geographic conditions of this densely-navigated water-town was such that it was hard to bring up a clear-cut traditional checker-board pattern of street network. The other one is the subdivision of foreign concessions and assignment of their development to different private owners and developers is hard to come up with a standardized or uniformed pattern of city grid. These foreign developers came to Shanghai to exploit a quick and short fortune, bearing no long-term prospect or plan in management and civic plan. The foreign governments had done little to coordinate and bring up all the parts.

To further explain, Shanghai was divided into three different zones politically at that time - the International Settlement (owned by the English and the Americans), the French Concession, and the Chinese Old Town. Each of them had its own government, maintaining an independent administration, and applying separate strategies in city planning. As Brian G. Martin wrote about: "Modern Shanghai was not a single city, but three different cities." The existence of the three, and their individual administrative-autonomy, caused out-of-balance and non-integrity in the whole city's development. In the city's planning, though there were orders in small patches, but the ensemble lacked a carefully designed master-plan. This situation was a particular product of that semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. However, it was this densely-intersected and crookedly-composed pattern of street-network, combining with the water-ways, that formed a dynamic circulation system conveying the commercial and trade activities of this city.


Accompanying the rapid development and commercial prosperity of the city, population grew. Shanghai had attracted millions of migrants, most of whom were manufacture workers, and some were petty bourgeoisie, high-rank clerks, educated abroad and foreigners, etc. According to population census record, from 1885 to 1935 Shanghai's migrants represented 80% of the city' total population; and from 1910 to 1930 the whole population had tripled within twenty years, increased from the beginning one million to three million. Reviewing the whole length of open trade (1852 - 1949) period, the population increasing rate had reach 902%.

The whole city was geared to the open trade. Most of people engaged in commercial or business activities. The major roads like Nanjing Road, Sichuan Road and Jingling Road were mostly occupied by important foreign or national financial agencies, offices, large shops and restaurants. Entertainment such as theaters, clubs and parks were also mixed in. Other smaller roads were also abundant of small business which were essentially home-based. Shanghai's prosperity was best expressed by its vast array of assorted shops and wide variety of recreation, no matter large or small or owned by Chinese or foreigners. The city was renowned for its "ten miles of commercial streets". It got a nick named as "Paris of the East".

Shanghai's rapid development and its highly valued downtown land resulted in every street facade reserved for commercial activities. This can be expressed by an old Shanghainese saying: "An inch of space in the street frontage designates a life-time of fortune". However, the prosperous commercial space was challenged by great influx of migrants as to where to allocate the huge population without interrupting the spatial continuity of commerce along the main street-facade? how to maintain Shanghai's first appeal as "ten miles of commercial streets"? and how to find out an indigenous settlement pattern that could create a nice living environment within the constraints of technology but without sacrificing the high real-estate value? These were serious tasks for architects and planners to solve.

Hence, the first prototype of lilong housing, in the form of temporary wooden shacks, were generated exclusive to Shanghai. Later, after many years of experimenting, lilong housing were built in brick or brick-concrete mixed structures, and gradually became a mature pattern of housing prototypes that were widely constructed in Shanghai. Lilongs, in a pattern of placing commercial space along all street frontages of urban blocks, and residential space inside, not only met planning code and real-estate expectation, but also were highly appreciated by local residents. It was the only collective housing prototype ever applied in Shanghai before the Liberation. The urban design principles and planning concepts of this indigenous settlement pattern of Shanghai had left many thoughtful ideas for posterity professionals.

Lilong housing had been integrated into urban street blocks in which shops occupied the street frontage, and the housing took the enclosed hollow space. Lilongs can be accessed from one to several of openings in the street facade, usually in the form of archways. Sometimes several of lilongs shared one hollow space and each of them had separate entrance from the street facade.

From urban design point of view, two types of urban spaces were thus formed. One was the outer belt-shaped space, composed of commercial streets and the shops along them. This space hold the busy commercial activities and traffic circulation, giving the city its outwards appearance. It was open, dynamic, and connected to every corner of the city's street network. The other one was the inner block-type space, which consisted of rows of low-rise housing. This space, separated from the first, was enclosed, quiet, and safe. Accessible from the urban streets, the entrances can be controlled. It was these two spaces that confined two differed daily activities. The outer one was used for commercial activities and urban traffic, the inner one was used for residential activities. Though there were several inner lanes in the residential area allowing vehicles, most of them were kept as residents' exclusive and intimate domain for neighborly gathering. The street shops defined the two different spaces, linked the two together, and most importantly, protected the inner residential space from the noise of the city.

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2.3 The general pattern of Lilong housing

"Li" means communities, "Long" means lanes. Simply put, lilong housing, is a type of lane-and-community based urban dwelling form.

The site of a lilong generally has one or two sides bordered by urban commercial streets, and the rest of shores given to other developments but enclosed by walls. Every lilong consists of housing and commercial units. The housing units, tightly attached in rows, except the later variation of Garden or Apartment lilong house models, are evenly aligned and distributed inside of the site in a Western row-housing pattern. Commercial units, in a similar layouts as housing's, occupy all street-front lots. The housing units are accessible from internal circulation lanes, and the commercial units are accessible from external commercial streets (Fig. 2.3a).

Site Plans of a Few Lilong Settlements Showing Circulation Framework and  Land-use.

The internal circulation structure comprises of a couple of main lanes and a series of side lanes. The main lanes are directly connected with an entry gate-way, accessible from external urban streets. Located in the central positions of the site, they form the public circulation space of the community, and are often used as gathering place for socializing. The side-lanes, normally connecting to the main lanes perpendicularly but paralleling to each other, lead to housing units. Mostly dead-ended, they are used as extensions of homes since the high safety is assured within this space. The framework of main lanes and side-lanes, apart from its circulation function, is a part of residential living space.

The entrance, aligned among the busy commercial street facades, is recognizable with its unique arch-way form that bridges the main lane. It is constantly under the control of a social organization of the residents' committee, housed near the arch-way.

In Chinese, five families means a neighborhood, five neighborhoods a "Li", the number of housing units aligned in one row will be at least five. Each housing unit, occupying a narrow-front lot, gives access to one secondary lane at the front and another at the back. It usually retains south-north orientation - a design feature considered important in Chinese traditional philosophy.

Commercial and social type of small scale services - groceries, barber shops, newspaper and cigarettes stands - are integrated into the site, taking the space adjacent to main lanes or entrance area. Not only do they provide for the daily needs of the residents but also enrich the community' life. Garage space is a design consideration in the New-type, Garden and Apartment lilongs. They were sometimes accommodated in the housing units, or placed in awkward-shaped or left-over space in the site, considered unsuitable for housing.

As one spatial and social entity in its urban setting, a lilong settlement may vary in size from 0.35 to 5.0 hectares.

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2.4 The development of Lilong housing


The fast development of the city's economy stimulated the growth of its industry. There were increasing number of Chinese coming to the foreign concessions. Thousands of able-bodied villagers were attracted to Shanghai by the promise of job opportunities, and some others came to seek protection from political disturbances in neighboring provinces. Land price increased sharply, there was a desperate need for large amount of collective housing to shelter the influx of population. The English subjects quickly recognized the profits in developing large-scale housing, and thus a hastily built great quantities of high-density wooden-shacks to sell or lease to Chinese. Till 1876, there were 105 collective housing named by "Li" in foreign concessions (Wang, 1989, p75).


Francoise Ged has described the earliest situation of housing development in Shanghai:

"The boggy ground on the outskirts of the Chinese city, which had been allocated to the British and French consuls and which their nationals had begun to occupy, was transformed into a potential 'gold mine'. Land and real-estate speculation took hold; very quickly, all the parcels were occupied. The Western landowners in the concessions divided their land into lots and hastily built wood housing to be rented to refugees. According to official agreements, it was forbidden for Chinese to live in the concessions; given the profit for some and the interest of others, this directive was circumvented, and neither consuls nor the Chinese authorities did anything to respect their original commitments." (p.173)

This type of housing, built in a similar pattern as the by-law housing that had once prevailed in London after the Industrial Revolution, was the predecessor of lilong housings. However, being in poor condition, they were more like temporary shelters for the rapid growth of population.


From 1869, onwards to improve housing conditions and for the sake of fire safety, the wooden-structure were abandoned. Brick-structures with a part wooden-structure were adopted to develop formal type of housing for traditional extended rich families who mostly came from neighboring provinces. This could be considered as the real beginning of lilong housing's development in foreign concessions. Known as Old Shi-ku-mens, lilong housing opened the first page of its development.


With further development of local industry and establishment of national manufactures, thousands of poor villages were attracted to Shanghai. By the start of the First World War, the population of Shanghai had reached 2,000,000, comprising manufacture-workers.

Most manufacturers were built around the concessions. The owner of the plant would also develop a parcel of land in concessions and built houses to rent at cheap price to his workers. The increasing population in the foreign concessions as well as the demand for housing promoted the commercialization of lilong development. A number of foreigners quickly recognized the profits and established real-estate companies. Later this adventure was joined by national real-estate companies. With the continuous expansion of foreign concessions in the late nineteenth century, lilong housing became a prevalent prototype for mass construction known as New Shi-ku-men lilongs.

At this stage, lilongs were modified to adapt to more compact urban lots and less demand for space. Besides manufacture workers, New Shi-ku-men lilongs were also made to shelter small-sized, non-traditional families which emerged after the disintegration of traditional extended families with the dismantling of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Hence, as a result of social transformation, small-sized, low-income families made up the population of New Shi-ku-men lilongs.


The prosperity and glory of Shanghai introduced a new social class. They included entrepreneurs of large- or small-scale manufacturing who were attracted to the city by its growing economy; the elite of Shanghainese society, educated abroad - in Europe, the United Sates, Japan - were all coming back after the fall of Chinese Emperor, to engage in the development of a new nation; and a large numbers of Chinese clerks working in the foreign companies, intermediated between Western and Chinese societies. These groups of people sought a daily framework in the concessions that reflected their new social status ways of life.

At the same time of the development of concessions, public amenities were improved. The earliest gas, electricity and running-water facilities which were not possibly supplied in the areas under Chinese administration, had become a common welfare and were made in use in residential areas of concessions. Public roads and sewerage system were improved. Parks, race-course for horses and other amusement amenities were developed, adding delight to modern life-styles that were yearned for by the upper standard society.

The new social class accepted Western ways of life very quickly. Features like toilets, fireplaces, telephones and garages were required in dwellings. Complexity of rooms, magnificence of interiors, and standard of facilities represented the class and level of a family and hence were strongly admired. Under this circumstances, the New-type Lilongs were generated to provide a compact but upper standard living for a wide range of middle-class families, while the Garden Lilongs, as a luxurious type of living to cater for a few extremely rich, came into its prime.


The continuing increase of economy and booming construction of commercial building in Shanghai accelerated the real-estate value. Another type of lilong - the Apartment Lilong came into being. Built out of concrete-frame structure, they adopted contemporary building technologies. As a type of medium-rise pattern of lilongs, they offered off-the-ground living in a recognizable western way, and were advantageous in its efficient construction methods.

A land-use distribution map made in 1936 showed that the most parts of housing were developed in areas between the International Settlement and the French Concession, in another word, in today's city center, and some were developed in the northern part of the International Concession, close to today's West Train Station. The industry and the retail use were mainly distributed along the Huangpu River or on the eastern shore of it (Fig. 2.4a).

Land Use in Shanghai  Urban Area in 1936.


At the end of 1941 the construction of lilong come to a halt since Shanghai fell under the control of Japanese conquerors. After the Sino-Japan War, Shanghai's economy fell into depression. The real-estate development also stagnated. There were very few lilong housing constructed during this period. After the national liberation in 1949, lilong housing, though as a vernacular settlement form exclusive to Shanghai and that afforded traditional and socially cohesive pattern of living, was considered somehow non-competitive or inefficient in its construction technologies and delivery methods compared to that of modern apartment buildings. The city was stormed by a prefabricated mass housing construction in its outskirts to shelter a new working-class society. Lilongs have never been built since then.


The development of lilong housing lasted for about one century (from 1842 to 1949), coinciding with the Western presence in this port city. Though it was not specifically a product of Western culture, and Westerners rarely lived in it, a great part of its housing models and their evolution was influenced by the western thinking. Today lilong has become an traditional housing emblem of Shanghai.

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2.5 Classification of Lilong housing

According to the condition under which they were conceived and developed, or the type of residents they served, but the most importantly, the layouts of the settlement' basic unit - the houses, lilongs can be basically classified into five categories.

1). The Old Shi-ku-men Lilongs:

The development of the Old Shi-ku-men Lilong started from 1880. Its production ended approximately around 1915. They inherited most characteristics of the courtyard house models prevailing in the Jiangnan region. Intended for traditional extended families, there were few modification made to this rural form, when applied in an urban context. These lilongs essentially comprised attached courtyard houses, were two-stories high, and were built with brick or brick-and-wood mixed. Because of their structures, it is hard for them to survive to today.

2). The New Shi-ku-men Lilongs:

Similar in pattern to the Old Shi-ku-men, the New Shi-ku-men Lilongs were rows of attached courtyard houses, however the layouts of houses were modified to adapt to the needs of small-sized, low-income families. Being very dense and harshly built, the function of houses were not well considered, and their interior standard was restricted by the current technology. Developed in large quantities for manufacturing workers who made up the majority city population, the New Shi-ku-mens accounted for almost 50% of the total built areas of lilongs in 1949. Due to their crowded and poor conditions, most of them are already demolished and the rest are slated for renovation.

3). The New-type Lilongs:

The construction of the New-type Lilongs started in 1915. With development of building technologies, new models with considerable improvement in function and interior facilities were generated to satisfy a wide range of emerging middle class. Variations on unit-layouts enriched housing prototypes and provided a wide range of housing selection. Though houses were still attached to each other, courtyards and other traditional elements diminished, while open characters grew. Hence the New-type Lilongs gradually attained the similar characters as Western town houses.

Prevalently renowned for their favorable functions, the New-type Lilongs were built in tremendous quantities in the center city from 20s to 40s. Being in good structural conditions, most of them have survived until present and will be kept in use for the next several decades. Lilong housing found in the city today comprise mainly of this type.

4). The Garden Lilongs:

The Garden Lilong were detached or semi-detached luxurious houses in a lilong pattern. Having spacious gardens in the front or at the back, the houses often occupied large-sized lots in prestigious locations. Constructed in brick-, or brick-and-concrete mixed, they maintained sound shape and many still keep good exterior look. Attained a vivid international styles and exquisite structural decoration, the Garden Lilongs enriched architectural forms of the city. They catered to extremely high-income families, and were developed in small scales from the 20s to the 40s.

5). The Apartment Lilongs:

The Apartment Lilongs generally consisted of five- to seven-storied, concrete-framed structures. Similar to contemporary apartment buildings, each structure had common lobbies, staircases and elevators shared by families using the same entrance. Each unit, accessible from a common corridor, displayed the whole suite - a living-room, a couple of bedrooms, a kitchen and bathrooms - on the same floor, unlike units in other types of lilongs in which every house had rooms spread on different floors. Intended for middle income, small-sized families, the Apartment Lilong were developed from the 20s to the 40s in small scale.


There were other garden houses and apartment buildings in Shanghai during this time, however, if they were developed individually and didn't embrace a group pattern featured in lilongs, will not be considered as lilong housing.

A land-use distribution map made in 1936 showed that the most parts of housing were developed in areas between the International Settlement and the French Concession, in another word, in today's city center, and some were developed in the northern part of the Common Concession. The industry and the retail use were mainly distributed along the Huangpu River or on the eastern shore of Huangpu River (see Figure 2.4a).

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