Lucy Young flicks through an album of photographs taken from before she bought and renovated her Shanghai terraced lane house. There was a concrete slab floor and a grimy kitchen shared by three Chinese families who spent their days crowding into a series of dark rooms. When they bought the house, Young says, cats lived in the closet.
“Friends said: ‘This is going to be a money pit, you are crazy!’” says the Chinese-American designer, speaking from the home, which she now shares with her husband and two children. Tucked away down a residential enclave, the two-storey house was built in 1930 on a street originally named Rue Ratard in the former French Concession, located in downtown Shanghai.
Shanghai’s terraced lane houses, some in Shikumen style, are an unusual fusion of east and west architecture, and a legacy of the British, who had established a settlement in the port city in the 1840s following the First Opium War. Located down old longtang (lanes), the houses were built to cater for a boom in middle-class expansion. Shikumen are so called for their elaborately carved “stone gate” entrance ways, which lead to an interior courtyard.
Young started renovations on her house in 2006, and it retains some of the ramshackle charm of its neighbours. But step in through the French doors and the home gives way to sleek modern touches: wooden floorboards – reclaimed from other lane houses – line the living room. Upstairs, a glass staircase leads to the television room, once the house’s terrace. A transparent bathtub is built into the bathroom floor. And when Young washes dishes in the open-plan kitchen she looks out on to a light well (a vertical shaft with a glass roof) filled with bamboo.
“To us, it’s so precious,” says Young, referring to her home’s rich history. The family is just one of a number of expats who have rejected modern apartments and compound villas for the more challenging charms of living in an old house in the French Concession. Young’s furniture pays homage to its past: an antique mah-jong table and dark polished wooden bar – treasures left with the house – now sit in the parlour room.
“Tenants pay extraordinary rents for these places and they want to feel that they’ve had the experience of ‘old Shanghai’,” says Hong Kong-based architect James Saywell, who has renovated six high-end French Concession properties. “But they want to be cool [in summer], have hot water and park their Mercedes in the garage. They don’t want to have the Shanghai experience like it was in 1952.”
For locals, says Saywell, these historical houses might hold a different association, as a result of the late 19th-century opium wars, when Britain forced China to open up to international trade. “For visitors to Shanghai, the former French Concession is charming because it represents this nostalgic, grand era like in the films … But that neighbourhood represents a time that not every Chinese would like to go back to. They were second-class citizens.”
After the 1949 Communist takeover, the majority of lane houses were divided up, with as many as 10 families squeezing under one roof. Today, the French Concession is still home to a significant number of the city’s poor, who suffer the wet Shanghai winters with scant heating and sometimes use chamber pots in the absence of plumbing.
“[Some] locals ask why would you buy an old house that was falling apart?” says Sacha Silver, co-founder of Shanghai-based A00 Architecture, who designed Young’s house. Yet the area is gentrifying fast. Avenues lined with plane trees are becoming populated by cafés and boutiques. For foreigners, the French Concession’s winding streets are a reminder of home. “Historically, the area is very popular,” says Peter Hibbard, former president of the Royal Asiatic Society China. “Today, when you walk where all the restaurants and bars are located, it’s largely expats.”
Younger expats with lower budgets can also find semi-renovated flats in the area to rent for reasonable prices. But fully renovated houses with amenities such as underfloor heating and fireplaces can have waiting lists. Renovation costs have doubled in the past eight years and prices for the houses have also soared. A garden villa that cost Rmb10m to Rmb12m (£1m-£1.2m) in 2005, might go for more than Rmb30m today.
James Ashton founded JB Style in 2004 to renovate and manage French Concession houses. He says prices range from £6,000 (unrenovated) to £9,500 (renovated) per square metre for a lane house, with the most sought-after locations and properties exceeding £12,000 per sq metre.
Located minutes away from one of Shanghai’s most fashionable French Concession streets is a vast 450 sq metre standalone garden villa dating from 1940. Renovations on the property started in 2008 and took three years. Now the villa is rented to a senior-level expat working in a multinational company.
The landscaped private garden at a villa in the French Concession district
Nods towards Asian tradition – a weighty wooden red front door and white carved wood lattice panels – are mixed with glitzy detail. In the open-plan kitchen and dining area a 3.6 metre-high smoked-glass ceiling is trimmed with mother-of-pearl. The living room features a 120in high-definition digital projector with six surround-sound speakers. And both rooms look out to the villa’s main appeal: a landscaped private garden with high walls, a cascading water feature and mounted lights. Seamless comfort justifies the high rents. The master bedroom has a large walk-in wardrobe and en suite bathroom with a mother-of-pearl mosaic bath, shower, and double sink. A second bathroom has a brush steel gold tiled floor.
Ashton takes what he calls a “Japanese” attitude to design with no detail overlooked. Mother-of-pearl, for example, even lines the utility room’s inner cupboard walls.
Saywell says: “These houses are all very handcrafted. That was how they were designed, how they were made. It is the only way you could have done them, because at every corner you turn there is a quirky little problem you need to solve.”