FIELD REPORT: Life in the Labyrinth

Skyline of Lujiazui viewed from across the Huangpu River on the Bund in Shanghai. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.

Shanghai was a vast, sprawling megalopolis on the banks of the Huangpu River, the “Paris of the East,” where hyperbole-defying skyscrapers vied for attention with stately early-twentieth-century European façades.

– Kevin Kwan, China Rich Girlfriend

In China Rich Girlfriend—the second volume in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy which has become a mainstream literary phenomenon—author Kevin Kwan draws on Shanghai as the stage for his storytelling voyeurism into a satirical world of classism, opulence, and high-brow culture. For Kwan and other contemporaries ranging from travel vloggers to digital nomads and start-up entrepreneurs, the spirit of Shanghai that features centrally in their creative pursuits is epitomized more often than not by a parallel universe; here, the historic Bund on the west bank of the Huangpu River faces its futuristic counterpart, the hyper-vertical Lujiazui, on the east bank of the same waterway.

Both precincts no doubt serve as a time-honored photo-op tradition for locals and visitors alike where, from the Huangpu River vantage point, one can feasibly capture Shanghai’s past and future in a single sweeping panoramic frame. This cheek-to-jowl juxtaposition of old/new, heritage/modernity, and imperialism/globalism calls to attention Shanghai’s transformative urban landscape and, simultaneously, its endurance as a city of paradox.

Tucked away from the pomp and circumstance of “worldly” Shanghai are intricate assemblages of residential alleys or ‘lilong’ neighbourhoods that march to a different tune. A lilong neighbourhood is a residential area enclosed in an urban block lined by shophouses at the periphery that not only face the public main street but also, and as a result, are often utilized for commercial and business purposes on the ground floor (Figure 1). Along the hustle and bustle of this continuous exterior frontage are occasional punctures that lead into the lilong neighbourhood by way of a gate. On a visit to Shanghai in March 2018, I decidedly detoured off one of the main streets (that is, Huanghe Road) near Xinzha Road Metro and dashed past a nondescript gate into a lilong neighbourhood (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Image from Zhao, 2004, p. 63.
Figure 2. A nondescript gate, sandwiched between two storefronts, serves as an access point off the main thoroughfare (Huanghe Road) for the lilong neighbourhood situated behind these street-facing shophouses. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.

Once inside the lilong neighbourhood, it was apparent by the tight-grained fabric and hushed soundscape of my immediate surrounds that I had entered a markedly different “world”—one that is atypical of glossy media images showcasing Shanghainese cosmopolitanism but, at the same time, typical of Shanghainese local urbanism. Lilong neighbourhoods in Shanghai represent a residential typology with historical roots dating to the mid-1800s and, more interestingly, they illuminate a way of community living that continues to survive in modern urban society (albeit at the threat of extensive demolition for large-scale urban redevelopment).

A lilong neighbourhood is premised on a hierarchical street network structured by the arrangement of ‘shikumen’-style dwelling forms. Such dwelling forms are, traditionally, narrow and linear 2- to 3-storey townhouses of brick construction with British and Chinese architectural influences. These townhouses are aligned in parallel formation with spacings that create row upon row of alleyways. Within this labyrinth, there are habitual as well regulatory practices contributing to the making of private/public realms that differentiate the narrower “back” alleys and the wider “front” alleys.

Along the back alleys, a sense of privacy dictates the use of these spaces such that: freshly-washed laundry is hung out to dry on bamboo poles that crisscross above the heads of passersby (Figure 3); greening of an otherwise grey hardscape is afforded by an assortment of container plants potted by the most enthusiastic of gardeners amongst neighbours (Figure 4); and the day’s lunch is cleaned, chopped, and consumed outside the dwelling unit on a muggy summer’s day (Figure 5). Here, mundane domestic activities are played out and within such close proximity that I can only but appreciate the civility (or, at the very least, high level of tolerance) that must exist for an intimate space of this nature to function as it does.

Figure 3. The back alley is commonly used as an area to hang and dry laundry. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Figure 4. Beautification and greening efforts to transform an otherwise grey hardscape by way of container gardens. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Figure 5. Cooking preparation in the back alley points to the “openness” of this space for the spillage of domestic activities. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.

In contrast, the wider front alleys present a sense of publicness for they provide direct pedestrian connections to gates that open out to the exterior streets beyond the lilong neighbourhood. Lines painted on the ground demarcate and segregate zones for pedestrian movement and motorcycle parking, creating a means of order and formality (Figure 6). Community development efforts are also outwardly pronounced in the front alleys with: wall murals illustrating play activities that hark back to a bygone era (Figure 7); common recreational corner equipped with exercise apparatus (Figure 8); and banners broadcasting environmental improvement efforts and efficacy (Figure 9).

Figure 6. Lines painted on the ground demarcate separate zones for pedestrians and motorcycles. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Figure 7. Wall murals depicting play activities once popular in the past. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Figure 8. An exercise corner positioned across from a community board displaying information promoting sociocultural constitutions of civic responsibility and behaviour. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Figure 9. The banner translates roughly to: “Efforts are made to promote comprehensive environmental improvement and overall comprehensive reform.” Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.

Further along the front alley I stumbled on an eye-catching aesthetic treatment to the façade of one particular unit. Perhaps of greater significance worth noting is the transformation of that unit for a laundromat business (Figure 10). While I passed on the opportunity to walk in the laundromat and seek answers to my curiosities about its establishment, it would serve as an interesting exploration to unpack the contemporary economic forces and social re-stratification processes enabling what some observers might label as commercial “gentrification” of the lilongs (as in the case of Tianzifang (Figures 11 to 13)—see also Yu et al (2016)).

Figure 10. A relatively upscale-looking laundromat business, perhaps reliant on additional clientele from outside this particular lilong neighbourhood. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Figure 11. A sketched map of the Tianzifang district, mounted near the main (tourist) entrance off Taikang Road. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Figure 12. Lilong townhouses converted into commercial businesses catering to a predominantly young and upper-middle class crowd. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Figure 13. In place of hanging laundry above a lilong alleyway is, instead, a cacophony of retail paraphernalia ranging from F&B menus to neon signboards and merchandise displays. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.

Indeed, Shanghai is at once grit and glamour. And then, again, perhaps it is this very essence of being that enables Shanghai to continually attract globetrotting creatives from elsewhere coupled with domestic migrants from China’s hinterlands—both groups similarly searching for their version of urban liveability in a city of paradox.


Zhao C (2004) From shikumen to new-style: A rereading of lilong housing in modern Shanghai. The Journal of Architecture, 9(1): 49-76.

Yu H, Chen X and Zhong X (2016) Commercial development from below: The resilience of local shops in Shanghai. In: S Zukin, P Kasinitz and X Chen (Eds) Global Cities, Local Streets: Everyday Diversity from New York to Shanghai. New York; London: Routledge, pp. 59-89.