The lilong (里弄) is a form of urban row housing that first appeared in Shanghai in the 1840's and continued to develop according to the shifting demands of city residents until the early 1950's. It was one of the first forms of mass commodity housing to develop in China. In Chinese, "li" means neighborhood and "long" means lanes. As such, the units were organized to feed into side lanes that fed into main lanes, which served not only as circulation but also as the social and economical hubs of the neighborhoods. Housing units along the perimeter and some within the interior of a lilong neighborhood served as shops and home businesses that provided various goods and services to the residents. The proximity to an active street life and amenities enriched the close knit social fabric of the settlement.

The lilong underwent various changes of width, height, and interior configurations in response to changing economic conditions and demographics in Shanghai. The type drawn above, known as the new shi-ku-men lilong, was built in large quantities in the 1940's to accommodate the astronomical growth in numbers of manufacturing workers in the city. This particular type of lilong valued above all spatial economy - restricting the footprint to the width of one room, but still preserving the characteristic courtyard in the front that fed into the public lane. In later and even harsher economic periods of the 60's and 70's, several families would share the use of one lilong.

An ariel view of a lilong settlement, with shops on the perimeter. Modern Urban Housing in China, L. Junhua.


Views from within and outside of new-style shikumen lilong housing. Modern Urban Housing in China, L. Junhua.


Today, lilongs are fast becoming left behind in history in the wake of Shanghai's rapid rise in property values. They are either being demolished to make way for new developments or repurposed as historical relics ironically serving the very source of their destruction in commercial developments such as Xintiandi.