The Shanghai Lilong in the 21st Century: Can Informal Commercial Activity Save this Threatened Urban Space?

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Lilong were gated, hierarchically organized residential compounds built in Shanghai during the colonial era. Stylistically influenced by the West, they also saw China’s concept of the home (jia) change into something more modern (and Western): the family home, while still a home, could also be seen as a commodity. Once covering 80% of the city, lilong are being replaced by denser urban development. This is bad for the preservation of Shanghai’s unique vernacular architectural heritage, but we may also be losing potentially useful lessons from the past on ways of generating vibrant community life. This paper will examine four recent redevelopments to look at the role of different entrepreneurs, from large, top-down private developers to small, bottom-up individual owners, to determine which, if any, comes closest to best preserving
the spirit of the lilong. Jianyeli is a residential gentrification which not only subverts the typology (by being for the rich) but has killed off any street life; Xintiandi is a hugely successful commercial development, but one in which there
is no provision for residents; Tianzifang is a more bottom-up commercial redevelopment but is too touristic (it does, however, preserve a lively mix of commercial and residential life); finally, there is Jing’an Villa, where earlier this decade there was a temporary but fascinating efflorescence of bottom-up informal commercial activity instigated by the returning descendant of emigrants in one of the best preserved residential lilong in the city. No one redevelopment will point the way to a vibrant future for this threatened typology, but bottom-up informal commercial activity certainly seems a promising way of attempting to preserve it. Combined with lessons from the other redevelopments, we may be able to suggest a better balanced approach to preserving this fascinating and unique urban space for the future.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Entrepreneurial City
Subtitle of host publication10th conference of the International Forum on Urbanism (IFoU)
EditorsHendrik Tieben, Yan Geng, Francesco Rossini
Place of PublicationHong Kong
PublisherInternational Forum on Urbanism (IFoU)
ISBN (Print)978-962-8272-33-4
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventThe Entrepreneurial City: 10th conference of the International Forum on Urbanism (IFoU) - The School of Architecture, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China
Duration: 14 Dec 201716 Dec 2017


ConferenceThe Entrepreneurial City
CityHong Kong
Internet address


  • Llilong
  • Gentrification
  • Informal Commercial Activity

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