The smallest and often the darkest, hottest, coldest and most disagreeable room in a traditional shikumen lane house is known as tingzijian, a famous feature that evokes life in old and not-so-old Shanghai, which suffered a housing crisis for years.
Tingzijian literally means kiosk or pavilion room, but it's really just a closet with some light, facing the inauspicious north or west, sandwiched between staircases and floors, often with the kitchen below. A typical shikumen contains one or two.
Covering less than 10 square meters, the rooms were occupied by men of letters, artists, intellectuals, activists, prostitutes, traders, travelers, and a range of ordinary people who couldn't afford anything else. In better times, families used them for storage or servants' beds.
The Chinese equivalent of the struggling garret writers in Balzac's world were the urban scribblers, the men of letters, who lived in these tiny rear rooms. They were known as tingzijian wenren or pavilion room men of letters in the early 20th century.
In the 1920s and 30s, writers such as Lu Xun, Ba Jin and Mao Dun all stayed in tingzijian. Famous novelist Eileen Chang set many tales in tingzijian. Communist Party founders also lived in shabby tingzijian when the Party had headquarters in Shanghai.
A play "Tingzijian Saosao" ("The Woman in Tingzijian") will be staged starting today about a prostitute in the 1920s.
It is the first in a series of Shanghai-style plays about life in the old days to be staged by Modern People Theatrical Company this year to mark the 170th anniversary of Shanghai's open-up to the West.
Tingzijian were a major feature of life, giving rise to tingzijian culture and tingzijian literature by progressive young writers living in cramped space.
No longer were writers elevated or detached, they were up-close observers of daily life and the common man.
It is also said that always having to compete for space and living in cramped spaces like tingzijian helped shape the "Shanghainese" personality, which is often described as shrewd, competitive, materialistic and very cautious about money.
Once the narrow, townhouse shikumen represented three-fourth's of the city's housing and the cheap tingzijian were fully occupied or rented out.
"Living in tingzijian is quite tough," says Wu Ziwei, a researcher at the Shanghai History Museum. "It's very hot in summer, cold in winter and there's no privacy."
He spent 30 years sharing a tingzijian with his mother since 1960. The main bedrooms were occupied by relatives, everyone squeezing in.
Before the 1920s, families with more money used the low-ceiling rooms for storage, servants or even a child's bed, but they were later commonly rented out to people who had to scrabble for a living.
The earliest shikumen houses with tingzijian were designed to make the best use of limited space and appeared in the late 19th century, when masses of people flocked into former foreign concessions, seeking refuge from uprisings.
The city's population soared and ordinary wooden houses couldn't accommodate the refugees.
"Shikumen with tingzijian were inspired by Western standing villas but localized to fit the traditional architectural style of Shanghai," says Zhang Lan, curator of the Shanghai History Museum. "It was characteristically Chinese architecture with a front dooryard, tingzijian and wing-room."
Before the 1920s tingzijian were mainly used by families and were cozy, if not too comfortable.
"At that time there was no so-called tingzijian culture," Zhang says.
The rooms demonstrated the Shanghainese astuteness in accomplishing complicated tasks under very limited conditions. They made full use of the space.
According to famous writer Cheng Naishan, commenting on her Sina Weibo blog, the earliest tingzijian were built in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Some were relatively large, bright and even had a fireplace and mantle piece. That's maybe why they were first called tingzijian or pavilion rooms. But the pavilions shrank.
From 1920s to 1940s, the city prospered and attracted people from around China who could only rent cheap tingzijian.
That's when tingzijian culture emerged, according to Zhang Yu, director of the Modern People Theatrical Company that is staging the new play "Tingzijian Saosao" in Chinese. Saosao is a flirtatious term for woman.
Life was tough, everyone used chamber pots and charcoal stoves.
But as more writers, artists and intellectual young people moved in and focused on social change in China, tingzijian culture flourished.
According to ChinaCulture.org, writers at the time viewed the world in a new and realistic way. Living in cramped quarters, they were up close to daily life, not living as detached intellectuals and scholars. They were progressive.
It describes two writers living in tingzijian that was "narrow like a pigeon house, less than five feet wide, with two beds and two desks in the room. Summer was a really tough time."
Famous writer Liang Shih-chiu (1903-1987) once wrote, "You can always hear chickens crowing, even if it's prepared in the kitchen below. You can smell cooking fish and see smoke rising through the floorboards from the kitchen."
Writers were undaunted.
Lu Xun wrote the collected "Qie Jie Ting Za Wen" (1934), or "Essays of Tingzijing in Concession Territory." Other tingzijing writers included Cai Yuanpei, Ding Ling and Feng Zikai. Writers organized salons in the packed chambers. Young film makers and actors lived there as well.
Some people say tingzijian culture of living in cramped quarters over time gave rise to a bourgeois culture in which people tend to haggle and vie for space.
"Shanghainese are driven by an urban culture in which they try their best to create their own colorful life, even if it's in a tiny chamber," says curator Zhang Lan. "On the other hand, narrow small space breeds conflicts among people, so Shanghainese are more cautious when doing business or getting along with people."
Play about old Shanghai
"Tingzijian Saosao," written by Xu Qiping, is adapted from a famous serialized 1940s novel of the same name by Zhou Tianlai (1909-1983).
It's set in the 1920s and the main character is a prostitute living in tianzijian in the old red light district near Fuzhou and Yunnan roads. The play is performed in Mandarin.