IN the early 20th century, Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province was nicknamed “Chicago of the East” when Shanghai was known as “Paris of the East.”
Architectural scholar Liu Gang says the capital city of Hubei shares similarities with Shanghai including shikumen (stone-gated)-like residences and historical buildings with names familiar to those aware of the Bund’s history.
Wuhan’s central waterfront promenade features buildings with names such as Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation or Jardine Matheson & Co. These once powerful foreign “hongs” or banks had erected similar, albeit smaller edifices, in the port city along the Yangtze River.
Professor Liu says he is even more amazed to explore the shikumen-like residences. The layouts, construction and decor “constantly reminded me of Shanghai,” he says.
“Shikumen buildings were called lilong in Shanghai, lifen in Wuhan and liyuan in Qingdao. Though they have different names, they are basically the same type of buildings — constructed for all the people flooding into cities during the urbanization process,” says Liu, an associate professor at Tongji University and a former visiting scholar from University of Pennsylvania in the US.
According to Zheng Shiling’s book “The Evolution of Shanghai Architecture in Modern Times,” shikumen in Shanghai showed a unique East-meets-West architectural style. Zheng writes that traditional Chinese houses were arranged in a Western townhouse layout to save space, which suited land-use constraints in Shanghai.
The history of Wuhan and lifen mirrors that of Shanghai. Wuhan became a port city in 1861 following the Second Opium War, 18 years after Shanghai opened its port. The UK, Japan, Russia, Germany and France established settlements in central Wuhan’s Hankow one after another.
In the late 19th century, both Shanghai and Wuhan had rapidly growing populations, soaring land prices and a housing shortage.
According to Southeast University professor Li Baihao’s study, lifen residences budded after the city opened its port and were an imitation of Shanghai’s lilong (lane) residences. Mostly without a kitchen or a toilet, these shabby early lifen residences were built quickly because they were inexpensive.
They flourished from 1911 to 1938 when the quality of construction improved, including novel designs, flexible spaces, a variety of layouts and simple-cut but refined decorations. However, after the 1938 Japanese bombing, construction of lifen almost came to a halt.
While Liu says he was keen to get a look at the architecture, he also admits to being interested in neighborhood life in Wuhan’s lifen.
“It was shaped by urbanites, who had a different identity due to their professions and backgrounds when compared with Chinese villagers. Lifen residences are remnants of that precious history. For China, they meant a transition to a new life,” Liu says.
“Wuhan and Shanghai mirror each other. The two cities reflected China’s modernization. Perhaps that’s why when Wuhan’s lifen residents discovered I was traveling from Shanghai, they showed sincerity and familiarity instead of geological distance.”
A 1980s survey by Tsinghua University recorded more than 200 lanes in the city, most of which are in the former international settlements near the waterfront promenade.
“Perched in a more prestigious location than Shanghai, lifen residences in Wuhan have huge potential for renovation but are at risk of being demolished for future urban redevelopment projects,” says Liu, recalling encountering one family. The old woman and her daughter used nice green plants to beautify their lifen home, he says.
“When I was taking photos, they asked if there were any demolition plans for their home, indicating their uncertainty about the future,” says Liu. “Under the circumstances, it makes no sense to invest much to renovate their home but yet the plants show they have still made an effort to improve their home’s environment.
“To preserve, demolish or revive these surviving lane residences and how to acknowledge their value is a question for both Shanghai and Wuhan officials and urban planners,” he says.