As aging and ornately beautiful ‘Shikumen’ lane houses are torn down across Shanghai, a New Zealand photographer has set out on a mission to capture the historic streets before it’s too late.
Photographer Cody Ellingham (New Zealand) has embarked on a project to explore the intricate communal Shikumen lane houses unique to Shanghai’s oldest districts, as part of his Shanghai Streets series. The structures, part 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.
“The founding myth of Shanghai was that it was the brilliant new city pulled from swampland, the pearl of the orient, but it also was a bourgeois place of money and vice. 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 known as Lilong, 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. At one location near Laoximen, a boarded-up entrance was left open, so I popped my head in and a local was smoking a cigarette amongst the ruins inside and talking into his phone. I walked in and nodded to him. How many places like this had I seen? Outside entrances and windows filled in and hastily blocked off, they buy people out and punch holes in the walls to stop squatters.”
“The wrecking ball comes in and before long an apartment skyscrapers emerges before the dust has even settled. These buildings are not just old, they feel old. You may see a broken window or a collapsed wall and wonder whether it happened last year during a typhoon or in 1937. Furniture and trash from forgotten decades and centuries decorate the streets outside in a kind of mise en-scène. Phone numbers and Chinese words are scribbled on the wall: ‘clothing repair’, ‘electrician’, and ‘chicken’, apparently a codeword for prostitution. A hand written classified for a place for sale is asking for four million Yuan, something like a half-million U.S. dollars. They are rough, but that is the Shanghai style.
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. Later in the evening I met my friend and architect Silvio Azorin, who has been in China for 5 years, and who is also fascinated by the lane houses.
He has already seen much lost, “This is what I came here for,“ he says. 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.”
Cody Ellingham is a photographer and nightcrawler. His passion for exploration started in New Zealand where he grew up roaming the mountains and countryside of his hometown, but it was in the cyberpunk megacity of Tokyo where his art first found form.
Cody has worked as a commercial art director and photographer for a range of projects from Tokyo to Shanghai over the last four years.
In 2018 Cody collaborated with Ruben Fro and SJF to create FUTURE CITIES, an immersive interactive art experience that explores the world’s cities.
DERIVE is the name of the wandering discovery process that Cody uses to see the world. At the core of his work is a fascination with the architecture and story of places: past and present.
Cody has created a prolific body of work in his emerging career. His first photobook, DANCHI DREAMS, was successfully crowd-funded and published in 2018 to a global audience.
website: Shanghai Streets
Twitter: Cody Ellingham
copyright © Cody Ellingham, all rights reserved