It describes ordinary lanes thronged
together in a particularly Shanghainese way--crammed. Living in
them requires plenty of Shanghai ingenuity.
During the short period between the late 1800s to the 1930s, almost
23 million square meters of houses in nongtang covered most of Shanghai.
It was the time of Shanghai’s big growth spurt.
It was also when East was meeting West. Nongtangs reflect this mixing
with their Chinese structure and European joining, houses extending
one after the other in row after row. Like a chessboard, the Xiaoqu,
or residential quarters, laid the foundations of the whole city.
A typical nongtang starts from a shikumen, a black door framed with
stone. Inside is a small yard called tianjing, flanked by two wings.
Entering the reception area, you will see stairs leading to the
second floor and a garret facing north. Walking through to the backyard,
you will encounter the kitchen, storeroom, and other common use
New nongtangs are more Western, with cement walls, steel-framed
windows and toilets.
In the 1930s, sumptuous garden nongtangs, which contain rows of
western-style houses, emerged on Fuxing Road and Hengshan Road in
the French Concession; each house had three or four rooms and a
gorgeous garden in front. This kind of elegance and luxury, however,
deviated from the original spirit of nongtang, which were built
for the density of the masses.
Then, the continual Nongtang construction, which had lasted for
more than half a century, came to an end.
But not far in the recent past, nongtang was still the most important
living style. Shanghai’s longtime prosperity was the reason. Immigrants
seeking their fortune flowed in nonstop, causing rapid growth in
the population. With space at a minimum, the nongtangs were filled
to bursting. Every nongtang was like its own little world, a snail’s
shell into which the Shanghainese retreated after a day out in the
Then the new prosperous era came and pushed over old Shanghai.
Over the past ten years, nongtangs have been demolished at such
a rate that the concept of nongtang itself is also fading out. Now
the phrase has become a synonym for street. Its great beauty exists
only in memory. The sturdiness of the bricks, the lines of the windows,
the color of the wooden stairs…all the exquisite, beautiful details.
Nowadays, the nongtang idea is a slice of Shanghai’s past, a testament
to the great changes that are always happening in this city.