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May 24, 2011

CHINA: Family home turns into museum on traditional Shanghai life

SHANGHAI, China / The Shanghai Daily / Features / May 24, 2011
Da Shiping sits in a dining room of his former home in a
shikumen building which he has turned into a private museum
about traditional Shanghai life. Photo by Wang Rongjiang

A long time ago in a lane not so far away

By Hu Min

A man has turned his family's shikumen home, where they lived for decades, into a museum about traditional Shanghai life. The museum is filled with items sure to bring back memories, writes Hu Min.

Walking along a narrow lane and passing blocks of old buildings, Li Yisheng finally reached his destination - a three-story shikumen (stone-gate) house hidden away in an inconspicuous block on Yongkang Road in Shanghai's Luwan District.

"I know the shikumen style well as I once lived at a shikumen lane house in Caojiadu area for many years until it was torn down for urban redevelopment," says the 62-year-old.

The house in downtown area has been owned by the family of 58-year-old Da Shiping since 1942. Now Da has turned his former home into a private museum about traditional Shanghai life.

The museum is free, but reservations are required, says Da, who is dedicated to research into Chinese culture and also teaches Chinese to foreigners at Shanghai Normal University.

"Shikumen is a symbolic style of housing in Shanghai that integrates features of traditional residences in Jiangnan (regions south of the Yangtze River) with Western-style townhouses," Da says.

"Just like most residences in the region and siheyuan, a historical type of courtyard home in Beijing, shikumen buildings also had a front courtyard, but the distinction lies in that a shikumen house usually has two or three floors in order to make good use of space as land is expensive in Shanghai," Da says.

Shikumen houses are brick-and-wood townhouses, side-by-side, each with a small front courtyard enclosed by a high brick wall.

Each residence is connected and arranged in alleys, known as longtang (alleyway) in Shanghainese, and the entrance to each lane is usually marked by a stylistic stone arch.

Many shikumen houses feature gates at either end.

The courtyard allows sunlight and adequate ventilation into the rooms.

"Western elements have been adopted, like the stone, wood or brick engraving decorations on the walls or pediments above gates, which is also a shikumen feature," Da says.

This private-home-turned-Shikumen Museum, built in 1925, is a veritable treasure trove. It bears silent witness to history.

"The building embodies the memories of four generations of my family and epitomizes the paths we have chosen in life," owner Da says.

At one time, his grandmother, parents, uncle, aunt and himself all lived there.

The second and third floors of a shikumen were often erected later to make better use of space in the face of dense urban living.

"Shikumen houses were heavily subdivided and can be shared by as many as seven families with four or five people living in a 10-square-meter room," Da says.

Exploring different rooms inside the museum is fun given Da's rich collection of everyday items of a bygone era. It's just like walking into somebody's home.

Unlike Wulixiang, or Shikumen Open House, in Xintiandi which presents a replica of a shikumen house, everything at Da's museum is authentic, from the building itself to daily objects.

"Shikumen Open House collected items from antique stores, but my exhibits were passed from generation to generation," he says.

The traditional Chinese red-wood furniture brings one back to a different era. Honor certificates, graduation certificates and paintings of Da's family hang on the walls.

In the bedroom on the second floor, Da opened the door of a wardrobe, where his aunt's 80-year-old qipao is placed in immaculate order.

"Wearing a qipao was a fashion craze at that time," Da says.

An old-fashioned copper hot water bottle used by Da's parents is on the bed.

Da's parents wrote and drew a picture book to celebrate China's first Marriage Law going into effect in 1950 and it is considered the most precious exhibit in the museum.

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