The Pros and Cons of Living in a Lane House in Shanghai

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Monday, May 09, 2016 

under Culture by Claire Lily Squire

Living in a famous Shanghai or shíkùmén (石库门) lane house can be an amazing experience, but lanes houses themselves are full of potential issues. I've decided that it was something worth diving into, so I dove deep. I spoke with lane house inhabitants, I walked around in lane houses, I even spent some time in a lane house, to see what they're like, the good, the bad, and the Shanghainese.


Pro – Lane houses are awesome

A renovated lane house can be an amazing place to live, unique indoor spaces that are as far away from the identical apartment complexes as it is possible to be. There’s a bit of history in every winding staircase and wooden rafter beam, a touch of personality that’s sadly lacking in the sterile, mass-produced apartment blocks. Living in a lane house, you can enjoy a taste of what it was like to live in Shanghai in its hey-day, when jazz music filled the cabarets and you didn’t feel like an ant about to be stepped on by a 47-story concrete-and-steel office block.


Con – Lane houses are literally falling apart

GAHHH. Get out, get out now. Lane houses are really old. They were built in the early 20th century to meet a huge population boom and they were never designed to last more than a couple of decades. Many, if not most of them, have wooden foundations. Wood! Wood rots in humid conditions and the humidity in Shanghai is worse than in a Finnish sauna. Who thought this was a good idea? 


Well, like I said, they were never designed to last. From day one, they’ve always needed a lot of work to keep them looking good. So unless you live in a lane house that was recently renovated (for a small fortune, probably) prepare yourself for a lot leaks, drafts and cracks in the ceilings. 


Pro – You're less likely to face onto 6-lane traffic

You don’t understand how much of a benefit this is until you’ve lived directly across from one of the many 4 to 6-lane roads crisscrossing this city. Generally, lane houses are built in these narrow little alleyways, the lanes they take their name from. You’ve probably walked down them and commented on how cute they are. You’ll still be getting scooter traffic, the occasional car, a lot of old people, some very young people, and all kinds of other noises from the cute little lane outside your window, but at the very least, you’ll be spared the sound of honking and fùèrdài revving the engines of the Lamborghinis at a red light at 4 am.


Con - They're expensive as hell


There’s a reason the best lane houses are home to single executives on an awesome salary, and that is because they are freaking expensive. Not all, granted, you can get a 15 sqm room for about 2,000 RMB in Xúhuì or Jìng'ān, but expect it to be… well, a broom closet, honestly. A very cold, damp, broom closet. For the same price, you can get a room double the size in a shared flat. As you get up into the really liveable ones lane houses, the ones that have been recently renovated, you’re looking at nearly 10,000 RMB for maybe 50-60 sqm in the same areas. 


For the same price, you can get a spacious 80 sqm room with a view and a big living room! And as they become more and more gentrified, filled with foreigners or rich Shanghainese nostalgic for updated memories of their childhood, you can expect that price to rise as fast, if not faster, than the rest of the rent prices in Shanghai! So get them while they’re cheap…ish.


Pro - The sense of community


Lane houses are traditionally about two or three stories high and have one front door for three apartments. They’re built off narrow little lanes (that’s where there name comes from), and little vendors normally operate in these lanes selling vegetables and other wares. You’ll also probably have a neighbourhood āyí who keeps an eye on what’s going on. This means you see a lot of the same faces every day and you get to know them, even if your Chinese is terrible!


Plus, there’s added security. I was once letting myself into my friend’s lane house (with a key he lent me) to take his dog out for a walk and I was accosted by an old Chinese lady who thought I was robbing him. Believe me when I say you’ll never feel safer leaving your home knowing there’s an old Chinese lane house lady who has your back. She’s the hero we all deserve.


Con - Zero Privacy

Whilst the neighbourhood āyí is great at making sure your scooter isn’t nicked, you will also have zero privacy, you will be judged by all and sundry for staggering home at 2am with a hangover-in-the-making or carrying 8 bottles of wine up the steps at 11am. I can’t tell what’s worse, the angry look on old Chinese lady’s face, or the resigned disappointment.  On top of that, the walls are incredibly thin. They were supposed to only house one family at a time, and the parents had to know what time their son was getting home from the dancing halls!


Pro - There's nothing else quite like it


There is a lot to be said for living in a lane house, and over the process of writing this article I’ve been in several all in various states of renovation. I’ve got to say it, I think even the bad ones are pretty amazing. They are completely unique spaces and if you don’t mind spending a bit of money on them yourself, getting some cool furniture, getting the odd rug/picture you can place/hang strategically over the cracks, then you can really make them awesome. Get a good space heater and some thick curtains for the winter and you’ll be set.


Then you have to get over the fact that you can hear your neighbour fart and sneeze, learn to brazen-out the judging eyes of your neighbour as you clatter around pissed, and then, finally, Shanghai lane house living will be just the one for you!


Shameless plug; speaking of which, we have a few shíkùmén apartments available on our EnjoyShanghai property section!