Each residence is connected and arranged in straight alleys, with the entrance to each alley, the gate, wrapped by a stylistic stone arch. The Shikumen is a cultural blend of the elements found in Western architecture with traditional Lower Yangtze Chinese architecture and social behavior. All traditional Chinese dwellings had a courtyard, and the Shikumen was no exception. Yet, to compromise with its urban nature, it was much smaller and provided an "interior haven" to the commotions in the streets, allowing for raindrops to fall and vegetation to grow freely within a residence. The courtyard also allowed sunlight and adequate ventilation into the rooms.
This style of housing originally developed when local developers adapted terrace houses to Chinese conditions. The wall was added to protect against fighting and looting during the Taiping rebellion, and later burglars and vandals during the social upheavals of the early twentieth century. By World War II, more than 80% of the population in the city lived in these kinds of dwellings. Many of these were hastily built and were akin to slums, while others were of sturdier construction and featured all modern amenities such as the flush toilet.
During and after World War II, massive population increases in Shanghai led many shikumen houses to be heavily subdivided. For example, the spacious living room is often divided into three or four rooms, each lent out to a family. These cramped conditions continue to exist in many of the shikumen districts that have survived recent development.
The landlords who leased (subletted) the shikumen out to other families were called "èrfándong, or "second landlord" as many of them acquired the shikumen buildings from its original owner. These landlords families usually share the same shikumen building with the tenants.
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