Christina Su

Privacy and publicity in lilong living:

Shanghai’s blurred boundary between private and shared spaces

Fig 1. Photography of the LaoXiMen lilong lane

Shanghai's lilong neighborhoods, an iconic and unique form of housing, have been a defining feature of the city's urban landscape for over a century. Developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lilong housing incorporates elements of both traditional Chinese courtyard homes and Western row houses. With narrow lane-houses and shared courtyards, these neighborhoods offer a distinct living experience that differs considerably from modern apartment buildings. The term "lilong" is derived from two Chinese words: "li," meaning "neighborhood," and "long," meaning "lane."

This dissertation aims to explore the complex relationship between private and public realms in lilong neighborhoods by examining the delicate balance between individual privacy and community interaction. Utilizing a mixed-methods research approach, the study combines qualitative and quantitative methods to comprehensively understand the social dynamics, cultural practices, and architectural features of lilong communities in Shanghai.

The research begins with archival research, examining historical photographs and documents to establish a general understanding of lilong communities in Shanghai. This is followed by a survey of 30 residents from a selected lilong community to gather quantitative data on their social, economic, and cultural characteristics, as well as their attitudes and perceptions regarding living in a lilong community. This data is then analyzed to identify patterns and trends among lilong residents.

Furthermore, six in-depth interviews are conducted to collect qualitative data on the lived experiences of individuals residing in Lilongs. These interviews explore how residents navigate the blurred boundary between private and shared spaces, the cultural values and norms shaping their privacy and publicity, and the implications of lilong living on individual privacy and social cohesion.

The theoretical framework for this research is informed by Jan Gehl's methodology, "Life Between Buildings," which emphasizes the observation of how people use public spaces through mapping, photographs, and interviews. By employing mapping and photographs, this research documents how residents use and occupy public spaces and navigate the boundary between private and public domains. The data collected through interviews and mapping deepens our understanding of how residents experience and interact with lilong housing, which, in turn, informs the design and planning of the built environment.

Through the analysis of qualitative and quantitative data, this dissertation seeks to answer the following research questions: What are the cultural values and norms that shape privacy and publicity in lilongs? How do lilong residents navigate the blurred boundary between private and shared spaces in their daily lives? What are the implications of living in a lilong for individual privacy and social cohesion? This thesis focuses on Lao Xi Men lilong as the site for the collection of interview stories to take place. This location has personal significance as it was the home of my father, known for its traditional Shikumen architecture.

The chapters of this dissertation will begin with a brief introduction to the design and historical context of lilongs in Shanghai. Subsequent chapters will delve into an in-depth analysis of the various boundaries that exist within lilong communities, including designed spaces, circulations, and possessions. By examining these aspects, this dissertation aims to unveil the delicate balance that enables both privacy and publicity in these dense urban environments.