Shikioriori (詩季織々)—Flavors of Youth in English-speaking markets and Si shi qing chun (肆式青春) in Chinese—is an anthology of three short films co-produced by CoMix Wave Films (CWF) in Tokyo, Japan and Haoliners Animation League in Shanghai, China. Each short film has a different director and features a different location in China. Haoliners founder and CEO Li Haoling oversaw the entire production and directed the final part, Shanghai Koi (上海恋), which is the focus of this article.
With the involvement of CWF, it was somewhat a foregone conclusion that many would compare Shikioriori to Kimi no Na wa. and other Shinkai Makoto works. What big shoes to fill. Though I eagerly anticipated the CWF background art treatment of my own city, I tried to bear in mind that this was a groundbreaking experiment in cross-cultural communication and collaboration. Shikioriori brought together Japanese and Chinese directors and staff, with different communication and work styles, and attempted to to tell a story about non-Japanese places and culture with authenticity. From this perspective, I think it was a solid first effort.
The vast majority of anime with real location settings are based on places in Japan, so it’s rare that I have the chance to be the first explorer to investigate new works. When I get bogged down with daily routines, it is sometimes easy to forget there are many interesting places to explore right outside my door. Shikioriori was a great nudge to get out on my feet, and I’ve enjoyed sharing butaitanbou/seichijunrei subculture with the people I met on my investigations.
I visited the Shikioriori settings in Shanghai on 2018 July 23, August 9, 10, 14, 15, 30, November 24, and 2019 April 19.
Central to the story of Shanghai Koi are shikumen (石库门) architecture and history. Shikumen are Western terrace houses (also called townhouses or row houses) blended with traditional Chinese courtyard residence architectural features, and made compact to fit into urban environments. The name shikumen refers to the large stone gate in the outer wall of each home, which separates the front courtyard from the public lane. Shikumen are lined up in rows, called lilong (里弄), though in Shanghai we use the colloquial term longtang (弄堂). Longtang can be formed with other housing types, but all of the old neighborhood lanes that appear in Shanghai Koi are shikumen. Shikumen longtang neighborhoods are given names that usually end with the suffix li (里 neighborhood), fang (坊 ward), long (弄 lane) or cun (邨 village).
Shikumen construction first appeared in the 1860s, began to wind down in favor of other housing styles in the 1930s, and came to an abrupt stop after the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War and establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Though shikumen were introduced to other port cities in China, the vast majority, approximately 9,000 at their peak popularity, were found in Shanghai. Shikumen are classified into two main types. Old type shikumen were built between the 1860s and the end of World War I, were two stories tall, and used wooden framing with brick load-bearing walls. New type shikumen were built from 1919 to 1949, had three stories, and used reinforced concrete construction with brick exterior walls. Over time, shikumen designs incorporated more Western features, and reduced the width of each unit while increasing the width of the lanes.
Beyond the physical parameters of shikumen architecture, longtang neighborhoods are notable for how much of life is lived in the lanes. As shikumen are demolished to make way for modern residential and commercial towers, it isn’t just heritage architecture that is lost, but an entire culture of interacting in communal space. Li Haoling grew up in a shikumen longtang. One of his goals for Shanghai Koi was to preserve the memory of the warmth of that environment.
Sue Anne Tay is the creator of Shanghai Street Stories, one of the best sources of photography and English language writing about shikumen architecture and longtang culture. She was an enormous help in pointing me to general resources about shikumen and tracking down information about the specific longtang neighborhood that appears in Shanghai Koi. If you would like to read more about shikumen beyond what is covered in this article, Sue Anne’s post Understanding lilong housing and shikumen architecture, Qian Guan’s architecture masters thesis Lilong Housing, A Traditional Settlement Form, and the Wikipedia entry for shikumen are good places to start.
To go straight to the heart of the Shanghai Koi setting, you can take the metro to Baoshan Road Station in Jing’an District and walk south just a few minutes until you reach the pedestrian footbridge. When I first realized this was my target area I smiled, as I’d visited this neighborhood several times previously to browse at Shanghai Audiovisual City, the closest thing we have to Akihabara Electric Town. I usually come with my daughter when we are looking for supplies to build our next home science project.
When I make the first butaitanbou visit in 2018 July, the first thing I notice is how much of the neighborhood adjacent to the electronics market has been vacated and sealed off.
In this photo from 2015, all of the shopfronts on Baoshan Road are occupied and there is brisk foot traffic on the sidewalk.
Presently, only a few shops near the footbridge remain. The other shopfronts are not only shuttered, but completely sealed off with bricks and cement. The gates that allow passage to the neighborhood inside have temporary heavy metal doors with locks. These are all indicators that the government is in the process of vacating all of the residents and tenants in the neighborhood, and will most likely demolish it. On my first visit, I’m unaware that this will complicate my efforts to find locations used in the film.
The film depicts Shanghai at several points in time, present day, the last year of the protagonist’s middle school in 1999-2000, and a few touch points in between. The present day depiction of Baoshan Road (above) is idealized, with environmental lighting and skyscrapers that don’t actually exist.
The 1999 depiction is much closer to the neighborhood as it exists today. Note that the Oriental Pearl Radio & Television Tower is not visible from this position or from atop the footbridge; it has been relocated in the setting so that it can be included in some of these cuts. You can see just a bit of it above the rooftops if you walk up the street until almost back at the metro station.
Li Haoling takes a page from Shinkai’s playbook. Throughout the film, the footbridge is used both as a barometer of the relationship between Li Mo and Xiao Yu. At their closest, he carries her up the tall staircase. When they are unable to connect, they exit in opposite directions. The bridge is also a link between different points in time, allowing present day Li Mo to travel back to his adolescent years.
This apartment building just south of the footbridge is a key discovery that helps me triangulate locations for multiple scenes.
It appears through the windows in Li Mo’s shikumen home.
It’s also one of two buildings used as the basis for the apartment where he lives as an adult, lending its facade and view of the longtang neighborhoods below.
Because it is a residential building, you shouldn’t enter unless you’ve been given explicit permission to do so. However, the Yinli Building (银历大厦) on the opposite side of the main road is a commercial building with a public accessible elevator lobby that allows for almost the same view, though obscured by the apartment building.
The Yinli Building front steps and position relative to the intersection and footbridge are used, so the fictional apartment building is a composite of these two locations.
The longtang neighborhood depicted in Shikioriori is based on Yifuli (颐福里), located on the east side of Baoshan Road between the footbridge and electronics market, behind the shopfronts that are now sealed. Though 1958 is molded into the outer facade, this refers only to the construction of the shallow storefronts that face the main roads and form a barrier wall around the longtang neighborhood within. According to blogger Gaocan88 (高参88)—a prolific writer and photographer of shikumen and other heritage architecture in Shanghai—the Yifuli shikumen date to 1929. From the construction date and presence of three stories we can conclude these are new type shikumen.
It isn’t until my second visit that I narrow down the search area for the longtang, and my heart sinks a little when I realize it’s not likely I’ll be able to enter the neighborhood.
From the view through the gate, if you can imagine the photograph is inverted, you can see objects that match up, like power and telecommunications control boxes, and air conditioner mounts. If you click through to the full size image, you can also see Li Mo’s modern apartment building in the far background.
There is another sight line all the way at the opposite end of the trunk lane, from which you can see the window on the passage over the gate and anchor for the power lines.
The view through the gate at the next trunk lane to the east is a solid match, and is how I’m finally sure that I’m in the right place.
I’m making the assumption that, as in the film setting, the first branch lane inside the north gates to the longtang neighborhood is the one used as the basis for the artwork. But since I cannot observe directly, I looked for evidence that could help confirm or deny this.
This is a marketing image supplied to media during promotion of the film.
This is the photo from the location hunt said to be the basis for that artwork, also provided to media.
In Gaocan88’s article, I’m almost certain that the seventh image from the top (the second image of shikumen) is the first branch lane, standing about midway between the trunk lanes and facing east, based on the apartment tower in the background and house numbers in adjacent photos. In that photo, the more ornate shikumen gates appear on the left of the frame or north side, with the simpler designs on the other side of the lane.
In the location hunt photo, the ornate gates are on the right, simpler ones on the left. The two photos share the three pane windows on the upper level of the simpler shikumen.
In the marketing image and film scenes, the late afternoon setting sun suggests the lane end with two red doors is west, and ending with the window is east.
Considering all of these elements, I have a moderately high degree of confidence that these two photos are the same place. In the film setting, there are two doors where in real life there is a window, on the westernmost trunk lane. At the opposite end of the branch lane, in the film setting there is a window where in real life it is the intersection leading into the next trunk lane and continuing into another branch lane along the same line. Again, without seeing it with my own eyes, this is still just a guess, but I think it’s a good one.
The classic shikumen gate that appears when Li Mo moves out of the longtang neighborhood and is used in the film trailer is not part of Yifuli, but isn’t far away, in Tongleli (同乐里) facing Dongxinmin Road.
The awful coat of red paint someone applied over the bricks is criminal.
Quanjing images (Baidu’s equivalent to Google Street View) from 2016 captured the gate and surrounding facade in their original state.
Like Yifuli, Tongleli is also vacant and sealed off. Because this gate had been one of the first locations I discovered, I spend a lot of time circling around this longtang’s perimeter looking for clues.
There are beautiful old Art Deco and shikumen buildings that front on Wujin Road.
A gap in one of the doors on Wujin Road gives me a view of that Dongxinmin Road gate from the opposite direction.
On a subsequent visit, all of the metal doors are open for some kind of inspection. I take advantage of the opportunity to have a look around.
Gaocan88’s article on Tongleli includes photographs from when the shikumen were still inhabited in 2015.
Yifuli adjacent neighborhoods
Since I cannot enter Yifuli, I spend time exploring nearby neighborhoods to get a sense for what those lanes might be like, as well as look for other scenes from the film.
This trunk lane travels straight through Laianli (来安里).
There are still a few residents in this area, but it too is in the process of being vacated.
This branch lane is latitudinally in line with the assumed setting location in Yifuli. Had it not been for the wall behind me, I could have walked right into the target area.
These little white boxes with blue markings are included in the background art and you see them everywhere when you walk around older neighborhoods. I even have them in my apartment building, built in 1999. These were what people used to receive daily delivery of fresh milk from large state-owned dairy company Guangming, before home refrigerators were ubiquitous and the supermarket industry had developed. Guangming handles the milk from farm to door and its delivery network still exists. We see the three wheel carts making the rounds in the mornings. These days, they just knock on your door so you can confirm receipt and put it in your refrigerator. Better quality control, if less nostalgic.
Dekangli (德康里) is the easternmost of these three longtang neighborhoods between Baoshan Road and Luofu Road. There seems to have been some attempt to cosmetically upgrade the outward facing facades, though most of the units are now vacated and sealed, so it too looks likely to be slated for demolition.
I find several candidates for this street scene. This is my best guess.
The steel and red bulletin boards that appear in the background art are ubiquitous.
This shot of Zhongzhou Road facing south is also only a guess. I find several candidates for this scene, and feel this is the best fit based on the street width, utility poles and towers in the background. Because the buildings outside of the longtang neighborhoods have churned so rapidly in the past few decades, it’s very difficult to use them as a basis for matching.
Shikumen demolition and preservation
Baidu Quanjing only covers main streets, so most of my search for shikumen longtang is done with my own two feet. The upshot is that I learn much about this area beyond my search targets and make a few friends in the process. I’m a foreigner with a big camera, so I have no illusions of blending in during these visits. What I didn’t expect is how willing people would be to chat with me about what I’m doing and even offer help.
In Denianxincun (德年新邨) I meet my first new friend, Shu Ziying. We stay attached at the hip for the next several hours.
He’s interested in my hunt, and he also wants to show me Rongluli (荣陆里), an adjacent neighborhood with many ornate shikumen in the midst of demolition.
He says some of the units that face the main roads are planned for preservation, but most everything else will end up in the pile of rubble in front of us.
He thinks most of these were built by British developers. Judging by their complexity, they were likely intended for more affluent residents. We spend a lot of time walking around the wreckage, talking about who might have lived in these places, and what a shame it is that more of them can’t be preserved. He notes with a hint of chagrin that he only sees laowai like me take an interest in Shanghai historic architecture. I’m a little more optimistic than Shu, I think plenty of Chinese care about preservation too, and some are among my friends. But without the weight of government designated protected status, it’s difficult for individuals or civic groups (to the extent they are tolerated) to stand in the way of market forces. The land under most of these old neighborhoods, especially the centrally located ones, is incredibly valuable, making it attractive to developers.
Fortunately, not all of the shikumen in this area are in line for the wrecking ball. On a nearby street, Shu points me to one of his favorites, which is now used as a kindergaten.
When we’ve already been roasted by the sun for a few hours and I think we’re about to wrap up, we bump into his acquaintance Li Wencai on a street corner. Shu tells him the whole story, and we stand in the shade of a convenience store marquis talking about shikumen for another half hour.
They take me to one last longtang, one that has been recently refurbished and is still occupied by residents. Most shikumen that are preserved become museums, retail or foodservice business, and there’s even one hotel. With few exceptions, they do not remain residential. Shu and Li want me to get at least a little sense of what a healthy shikumen longtang would have looked like many years ago.
Jiangxi North Road
In the view from Li Mo’s apartment, we see Denianxincun and Rongluli. Though this scene is set in present day, there are no signs of the demolition taking place in the latter. Dividing the two neighborhoods, there is a main commercial street lined by shophouses. This is Jiangxi North Road (江西北路).
Only the shophouses on the west side still exist, though most of the shopfronts are shuttered or bricked over.
The east side, what had been the outer wall enclosing Rongluli, is completely gone.
A series of Quanjing images tells the story of how this road was swiftly cleared out. In 2013, it’s an active, healthy looking commercial street.
In 2015, some of the vendors have been cleared out. The vacant shops have either locked shutters or are sealed with bricks, painted with the character chai (拆 demolish).
In 2016, most of the vendors have been cleared out.
Propaganda posters papered over the empty units tell citizens how they should think about the destruction of their history and community:
- We don’t like a messy and dirty environment, but a clean and beautiful one
- We support banning illegal buildings, and strive to be good citizens, not breaking the law
- We support having businesses with proper licenses, we should get rid of illegal businesses on the street
- We hope to have well managed rental market, to create a peaceful and nice community
- We want to regulate the use of hazardous material, to have a peaceful and safe living environment
The lovingly crafted final cut of Shanghai Koi, the one used widely in marketing material, is one you won’t be able to see. Not unless you have official business at CITIC Plaza (中信广场). The 1997 building towers over the old neighborhoods featured in the film and, going by the photo uploaded to this Baidu Zhidao post, is the point from which this view is captured.
The building is limited to authorized access beyond the third floor.
From Jiangxi North Road and CITIC Plaza, it’s not far of a walk to this one-shot of an Art Deco residential building on Wusong Road.
At this point, you’re almost at the Suzhou River, so you might as well keep walking down to the Waitan. Unless someone can get you into CITIC Plaza, this is the next best way to enjoy the Pudong skyline.
Though I’ve always preferred the historic buildings on the Puxi side, myself.
To capture the tilt shot of the Suzhou River, you have to travel across the Huangpu River to Lujiazui (陆家嘴).
And there’s only one structure in the right position and tall enough to give you that sight line.
I recommend going first thing in the morning. Oriental Pearl Radio & Television Tower (东方明珠广播电视塔) gets very crowded and is a major tourist trap.
Great view, though.
If looking down through the glass floor doesn’t induce vertigo, you can spy the next location, the escalators linking to the elevated pedestrian deck at the Mingzhu Roundabout (明珠环岛).
The last stop in Lujiazui is in the financial district.
To narrow down the search field I used the fact that the Shanghai World Financial Center, which looks like a large bottle cap opener, is seen through the windows from Li Mo’s office building. There were two candidates that had similar glazing and were in the right position. I went with Shidai Jinrong Zhongxin, the one that reflects an image of the SWFC when viewed from the street.
The building now known as the Longchang Apartments (隆昌公寓) in Yangpu District began as a police station built by the British in 1933. It was used by Japanese forces as a military compound during World War II. After the establishment of the PRC, it became a district branch of the Public Security Bureau. This police function continues to use the south part of the complex, while the dormitories in the north section were eventually converted to residential apartments.
The use of Longchang Apartments as Xiao Yu’s home in Shanghai Koi is not its first association with pop culture media. Though it wasn’t filmed here, observers noted similarities between Longchang and the Pigsty Alley set in 2004 Steven Chow film Kung Fu Hustle. To my knowledge, Chow never publicly indicated any relationship between them, however growing interest led to many visitors, both Chinese and foreigners, treating Longchang like a tourist attraction. Despite its historic nature, this is still a residential building and should be treated as such.
My plan for approaching Longchang was to look for a door attendant to ask permission to enter, or if none was present, to introduce myself to someone inside the gate and explain what I wanted to do. I end up not having to do either. As I take a photo of the facade from across the street, someone approaches me to say hello. He asks if I’m interested in the building and if I’d come because of Kung Fu Hustle. I tell him I know about that connection, but I’ve actually come for an anime film by a Shanghai director, and show him the screenshots on my phone. I explain that I’m concerned about causing a nuisance to residents. He tells me, “I want you to go in. I’ll go with you.” He lives there, apparently. The kindness of strangers has really been the best part of this adventure.
Because the units are extremely small, residents in Longchang have developed a norm of using every bit of space for some function. When you’re standing in the staircases, landings and halls, you are literally in someone’s home. Smile and be respectful.
The school is modeled on what is about to reopen as Shanghai Fenghua Junior High School (上海市风华初级中学) after extensive renovation. It was previously the Shanghai Fengfan Private Middle School (上海市民办风范中学). Unfortunately, the renovation means that all of the wonderful ivy covering the walls is gone, but an image search using the old name brings up photographs of its former appearance, like this.
As always, remember that because this is a working school, you should not enter the grounds unless you’ve been given explicit permission to do so.
The primary marketing image for the entire Shikioriori anthology has some great details, and they all come from Shanghai, though none are linked directly with the locations used in Shanghai Koi.
An entrance gate to Pingdeli (平德里) on Shanhaiguan Road provides the overall structure and textures of the poster. Unfortunately, much of the neighborhood behind it has already been demolished.
This photograph from 2014 has all of the structures still intact.
This Quanjing image from 2016 shows shuttered shopfronts and increasing decay.
It appears that some nearby longtang may be preserved.
The window is very distinctive, and comes from an entrance gate to Siwenli (斯文里) on Datian Road. Siwenli was one of the largest shikumen longtang areas in what is now Jing’an District, though half of it is already completely gone, demolished to make way for the Shanghai Natural History Museum. What remains has been vacated and sealed off, however these buildings have been marked for preservation, which will be overseen by the Shanghai office of Chipperfield Architects.
Pingdeli and Siwenli are only a few minutes walk from each other. Neither were familiar to me before starting this research, but I recognized them immediately when I came across photos of them while reading about shikumen history.
The design of the gate itself is ubiquitous. Without a unique identifying feature, it is difficult to identify a specific candidate when it is removed from its original environment. I did find many examples of this in the neighborhoods near Baoshan Road.
An image search for Nanpu Bridge (南浦大桥) in either English or Chinese will yield hundreds of photos of its looping ramps taken from a high angle. But finding a perch from which to see this view is not straightforward. If you have a relationship with someone in a residential or commercial tower near the bridge, you’re good to go. I spent some time looking for commercial towers with publicly accessible upper levels, but didn’t come up with anything. It’s also a bit of an open secret that some photographers make unauthorized entries to get these photos. In a rather sketchy corner of the internet, I even found a step-by-step guide to breaking and entering a particular building. It shouldn’t have to be said, but trespassing is a red line that shouldn’t be crossed, at any time, for any reason. I’ll continue to look for legitimate opportunities to see the bridge from above.
Shanghai Pudong International Airport
In the epilogue to the anthology, the characters from all three short films converge in Shanghai Pudong International Airport (上海浦东国际机场).
In the end, there were just a handful of images I couldn’t place at all. I suspect the bicycles and bus stop are somewhere around the Baoshan Road area, but perhaps few of those buildings still exist.
None of the shikumen longtang near Baoshan Road have been converted to anything resembling the hotel in Shanghai Koi. There is one shikumen hotel development in the city, Shangxianfang, though the buildings look quite different. The vibe of the artwork feels a little like Xintiandi, but it’s not that either. My guess is this is a fictional setting.
When I started this investigation, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find enough of these locations to have a representative sample for the film, particularly the shikumen, which are numerous, but also rapidly disappearing. I also worried that I wouldn’t be able to find enough background information about the locations to say something meaningful about them. I was wrong on both counts. Though this is the first time I’ve used my Chinese language ability to do intense research, once I made the first few discoveries and with some helpful assistance from others, I began to make connections between different findings and the follow on discoveries started to flow. I suddenly had the opposite problem of deciding when to stop. There are always more questions to ask and more layers to peel back, but I hope this is a good jumping off point for anyone interested in learning more about these places.