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TitleStraddling three eras: Shanghai’s hutments between rejection and remodeling (1926-1965)
AuthorChristian Henriot

Paper presented at the International workshop “« Spaces in-between: from non-place to shared space in developmental cities » Goethe-Institute Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi - 19-23 October 2010
B11 New Urban Imaginaries: Difference, Danger and New Urban Imaginaries of the Public in Asia and Europe - Asia and Europe in a Global Context - Heidelberg University

[Note of the author: this is a very preliminary draft based on freshly collected archival materials, a large part of which remains to be processed]

Hutments – one of the least used terms to designate “beggars’ villages”, “straw-house villages” or more bluntly “slums” or “shantytown” – became a standard feature of Shanghai’s urban landscape in the early 1920s. Located in peripheral areas, they became a major object of concern by the authorities that governed the foreign settlements in the city (Figure 1: mock photomontage in 1946). The variety of terms applied to these communities reflected the wide range of perceptions and misrepresentations held not just by officials, but by a growing circle of economic and social actors. Over time, due to economic crisis and above all wars, “hutments” slowly colonized the whole urban space. The Chinese civil war (1945-1949) eventually turned “penghu” settlements into a massive housing issue and a problematic historical legacy. Despite all claims to the contrary, and in fact in spite of actual measures to address this issue, the communist authorities were never able to solve the problem of hutments in Shanghai. This paper will examine hutments from the angle of perceptions and policies over three major periods through the discursive constructions (and distorting lenses) of nuisance, public health or city beautification. Power-holders in each era carried over the concerns and/or prejudices of their predecessors. Yet, each also brought in new cultural and political postures that changed the overall discourse and treatment of hutment dwellers substantially, even if it improved their actual condition only very slowly.

An issue of definition

Writing about the topic of this paper, a very preliminary and unavoidable issue is one of definition and choice of the terms to use to designate the areas, communities or life style/living conditions under examination. Of course, in a way, it is part of the very exercise this study is concerned with – the production of categories/representations through discursive constructions.1 This essay will attempt to establish how labeling/self-labeling or perceptions/misperceptions/self-perceptions created competing discursive modes that highlight complex web of relationships within the social and political body. In particular, it will show how the same “object” – hutments – can be seen as a nuisance to get rid of at all costs or a quasi-normal category of housing.

Deconstructing categories, however, does not provide a ready term to address the issue at stake. First, shall the historian pretend to look at it “from inside”, from within these communities themselves, and fully abstract himself from the labels attached to them over time? This may help in objectifying one’s object of study, but by the same movement somehow obliterates the “reality” of social discursive constructions that had a direct and concrete impact on the life of these communities. Second, the historian is not dealing with an unchanging and monolithic reality. The fact that policies vary, that improvements were made (gradually and not uniformly), that the general physical, social and political environment changed, etc., translated into an objectively transformed reality that makes it difficult to select a single term to cover 40 years of history.

Eventually, as the title of my paper indicates, I settled for “hutment” that somehow sums up more appropriately the nature of the vast majority of the human settlements under study here. The term itself was hardly used at the time in the documents I perused. It appeared in a 1938 newspaper article about the condition of hut dwellings and lack of suitable and affordable housing in the city.2 It never became a standard expression – in English-language documents and press, “slums”, “shantytown”, “squatter villages” were the most commonly used terms. In the French Concession, “straw huts” were never an issue and no specific terms emerged beyond the mere description of individual “paillote” (hut). “Hutment”, a term more widely used in another context, that of Indian cities, seems more appropriate for another reason.3 It matches quite closely the expression through which these communities were called in Chinese. The almost universal term was “penghu” (棚戶), or “hut household”. By extension, areas where whole communities formed were designated as “hut household area” (penghu qu - 棚戶區), a fairly neutral term for these human settlements that “hutment” quite accurately reflects.

The existence of hutments in Republican Shanghai is not a very specific phenomenon. The emergence of similar modes of housing can be found in many cities around the world. Whatever the cause, the power of attraction of cities created opportunities for new migrants to settle in the “voids of the city”, spaces not yet developed, especially at the periphery of the commercial/residential quarters, or spaces created by destruction like military conflicts.4 The process of migration in large numbers over short periods of time overran the capacity of cities to establish housing, services, and utilities that could match the demand from mostly low-income population: “Migrants occupied whatever land was available and constructed huts and shacks from material they could afford”. This description from the India habitat Report (1976) reflects most accurately the process that took place in industrializing Shanghai.5 The existence of three separate administrative jurisdictions within the same city and the lack of incentive and motivation by the colonial authorities in the foreign settlements to invest into “social policy” contributed to the general diffusion of hutments in many parts of the city. Hutments turned from being targets of contention and rejection to object of reform and remodeling policy only after 1949.

In 1962, the Institute of Economy of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences published a small book that hailed the achievements of the Shanghai Municipality in the transformation of the city’s hutments.6 The book emphasized the shameful responsibility of Western imperialists and reactionary Chinese authorities in the formation of this disreputable legacy of neglect and exploitation of the laboring classes. On one single map – no date or sources were provided – it showed the string of dense hutments all around the city and, most strikingly, all around the former foreign settlements (Map 1). This particular distribution, the book pointed out, was due to the relentless and systematic demolition of huts in the foreign settlements and the forced evacuation of their occupants into Chinese-administered territory. There was definitely some truth to this interpretation as we shall see below. Yet this glaringly politically based interpretation overlooked most of the major factors that had led to the emergence and development of hutments in Shanghai. Likewise, it obscured the various phases that eventually led to the legacy the People’s government actually inherited in 1949. This lack of a proper understanding, or rather desire to obliterate more actual factors, can explain why the phenomenon did not vanish after “Liberation”. On the opposite, hutments expanded even more.7

This was about how much attraction and attention the fate of the population that lived in hutments actually received in scholarly or official publications.8 The matter seemed to have been settled once and for all thanks to the effort of the new regime and the mobilization of the masses themselves under the guidance of the CCP.9 Of course, this story did not hold water. I have had the small 1962 in my library for more than three decades, perusing it occasionally with the idea that at some point I would tackle this issue.10 My own fieldwork in the late 1980s had convinced me that whatever the term, some areas in Shanghai looked shabby enough to warrant a serious look into the issue of penghu. Chinese academia has rediscovered this topic in the past few years with a few solid articles and a book based on oral history.11 These works scraped down the official rosy version and established the persistence of hutments in the city, the half-measures taken to renovate these areas, and even the rebirth of this phenomenon in the 2000s. Quite interestingly, the new hutments were often established in the very same areas where they had been inexistence in the Republican period (Map 3).

Shantytowns”: Between rejection and empathy

Hutments were linked to two parallel processes. The first one was the process of industrialization of the city. The second one was the influx of refugee populations in times of natural disaster or armed conflicts in neighboring provinces (Jiangsu and Zhejiang). It is impossible to disentangle the two phenomena. Early records from the foreign concessions mention very regularly the presence of more or less large transient population (most often designated under less flattering terms) that came and went depending on troubles outside. In the same manner, the population census made from 1865 always registered a proportion of “boat people”, those living permanently on the roofed vessels moored along Soochow Creek, the Huangpu River and the numerous creeks that ran through an as yet untouched rural landscape.12 The “transient population” or the “boat people” did not become the residents of the hutments that eventually sprayed the city from the 1920s onward. They were, however, the forbearers of all those who came to Shanghai in search of jobs in the increasing prosperous city or in search of safety, sometimes sheer survival, when they felt threatened back home.

While some scholars have described the process of development of squatter areas as one of a transition from “water” to “land”, this is only partly true and, for the most part, too simplistic.13 Given the dense hydrographic network that ran through the rural landscape in the Jiangnan/Jiangbei region, whatever the motives of those who came to Shanghai, it is no surprise to observe that that came mostly on small boats that served both as a means of transportation and housing. In itself, this process was hardly new. People came and went. Some settled down along one of the numerous arteries that brought water into the city. Pictures such as Figure 2 and Figure 3 were common views in and around Shanghai. Living on a boat, within a confined space, was not a particularly novel matter. The “boat people” registered in the census surveys had occupations that allowed them to live a normal life. Over time however, or due to particular circumstances, such boats eventually accumulated to a point where it was no longer possible for them to move (Figure 4 & Figure 5). Furthermore, as stretches of canals and rivers came to be filled in with urban development, the flow of water stopped, creating indeed less than ideal environments.14 Through this process, there emerged more permanent settlements of people who eventually moved onto land, either because their boats eventually decayed to a point where they might sink, or simply because it made sense to built a dwelling on land with whatever material (including the original boat) was available. Such areas came to be dubbed “slums” by officials and photographers alike (Figure 6).

While boat people were certainly one of the sources of squatter areas, they were not the sole element that contributed to the rise of expanding squatter colonies. In fact, from the perspective of the authorities, there was hardly any worry about these communities. They were not the target of specific policies or discourse. They had been here for a long time, mostly at the periphery on small canals or along the banks of the two main rivers. Even if Shanghai attracted an immigrant population due to its commercial development and role as a harbor, many of those who came found proper housing and work place. Things started to change after 1900 when foreigners were allowed to open factories in China. This was a slow process in the initial phase. By 1913, there were about 140,000-150,000 workers in the city. Yet as we know from M.-C. Bergère’s work, there was a quick and powerful surge during and in the aftermath of W.W. I.15 By 1919, the industrial workforce was well above 180,000.16 Although industrial development followed an uneven and precarious path in the following years and decades, plants, factories, and workshops of all sizes multiplied throughout the city, with the International Settlement and Zhabei as the major concentration areas.

That “beggars’ villages”, as they were initially called in SMC documents, came for the first time to the attention of the authorities in 1921 is no surprise. Two decades of industrial development had created the conditions for an increasing influx of “new population”. This was not an extension of the previous boat people communities, even if some also found employment in the local factories. Industry required labor in great numbers and drew its workforce from villages in a wide radius. The SMP drew the attention of the SMC to the erection of numerous “beggars’ villages” in the western part of the settlement, “practically all occupied by the families of the worst class of mill coolie, who formerly lived on boats or in Chapei”. While these huts were established outside the settlement, they bordered the extension of municipal roads built in Chinese territory. For the SMP these hutments “will tend, in times of unrest, towards lawlessness”.17 Inspections by the Public Health Department (PHD) not only confirmed the phenomenon, but it pointed out the unsanitary nature of these installations and the potential danger for public health in the settlement. In this initial phase, strong prejudice prevailed in the assessment of the population that had elected home in these dwellings. SMC officials lumped them together as a bunch of refugees that sought safety and food in the city. (Figure 7 - Figure 8 - Figure 9).

The dominant view was to get rid of these communities: “the nuisance would be eliminated without occupying time and attention in fruitless correspondence”.18 Yet the SMC was wise enough to contact the local Chinese authorities to state its case and ask for measures of removal of these unwelcome dwellers. The SMP, meanwhile, distributed a notification to the inhabitants of huts requiring them to move out voluntarily by a set date. The representative of the Bureau of Foreign Affairs expressed his willingness to tackle the problem, although he also stated that this would take time as these were hard-working people with little means. What is more important, he affirmed very clearly that this was a matter for the Chinese authorities to address and that the SMP was totally beyond its jurisdiction and had no right to infringe upon the rights of the hut dwellers.19 The SMC was powerless. On its own territory, in the Yangshupu area, it was not really more successful. First, it decided to delay its action until the winter was over so as not to render these “poor people” homeless. By spring, however, no action was taken. This first round of reports and discussions clearly set the tone and difference of appreciation between the SMC and the Chinese authorities. The SMC perceived the hutments as unwelcome refugee encampments that polluted the sanitary order of the settlement. The Chinese authorities saw them as workers that had put together their meager resources to erect a badly needed roof for their families. Landowners objected to the eviction of their tenants and were content to leave them unmolested until such time they could secure a more profitable lease. The result was less than ideal, but it met the needs of populations accustomed to similar dwellings in the countryside. Quite clearly too, the issue of porous “boundaries” emerged early as one of the most vexing problems for the SMC, an issue that other colonial powers found hard to address.20

What SMC officials clearly perceived as “slums” was no more than the reproduction in the city – in fact on tracks of land that were empty – of a housing model that dominated the countryside. The shabby appearance notwithstanding – there were indeed discrepancies among the huts in terms of materials, construction, etc. – the huts built in Yangshupu recreated the living conditions of the less affluent in villages (Figure 10 - Figure 11 - Figure 12 - Figure 13). What would indeed be a source of concern was their increasing number and concentration, something unknown in rural villages. The SMC kept an eye on this development, but from the available records, did not address this issue again until 1926. By then, far more colonies of straw huts had congregated in the eastern district around the factories that peppered the area. The same motive – the preservation of public health – guided the authorities. The PHD in particular wanted to establish the seriousness of the “beggar huts” to “those members of the council who are unfamiliar with the outskirts of the settlement and industrial areas”, even if its census figures revealed an obvious confusion and uncertainty about the actual size of this population.21 There was now a serious concern due to the expansion of such colonies. To take the full measure of the situation, the SMC decided to carry out a full survey of hut dwellings on its territory. The first result was to provide a quantitative measure of the problem. The IS had 1,282 straw huts under its jurisdiction, with a total of 14,394 hut dwellers.22 The survey was also an eye-opener for mostly prejudiced officials. They realized that most of the hut dwellers were properly employed people, not “beggars” or “refugees”. Altogether, 1,396 men, 2,152 women, and 1,340 children worked in textile mills. As the survey included professional occupation, it clearly showed few people were without a job (13%), beggars were almost non-existent, most women and many children worked in nearby factories, men labored in factories and a wide range of manual occupations (coolies, rickshaw pullers, peddlers, etc.).23

Professional occupation of the hut population in the Eastern district

1926 huts










Wheelbarrow men



Mill hands





Farmers or gardeners





Municipal coolies



Carrying coolies



Rickshaw coolies






Some sort of school









Source: Letter PWD-Sec (8/12/26), U1-3-1370

The SMC was somehow caught in a quandary. On the one hand, it wanted to rid the settlement from these unsanitary dwellings. On the other hand, it could not afford to evacuate forcefully the workforce that labored in the factories of the IS. The SMC was aware that the major issue was housing: “The question would thus seem to be primarily a housing problem and not a question of unemployment, and therefore anything in the nature of forcible removal is an extremely difficult matter.”24 In fact, it had become aware of the issue of housing quite early on, as can be read in its annual reports. From at least 1916, the PHD deplored the state of overcrowding in Chinese houses that it attributed to the shortage of low-rent housing in the settlement. One can find the same observation all through the 1920s and early 1930s.25 Yet, in a quasi schizophrenic way, the PHD was also a major adversary of the hut dwellings. Although its own surveys and those of the DPW highlighted in essence that hut dwellers were regular workers who simply could not afford paying a rent in a proper house, its obsession with public health – above all those of the “regular” residents of the settlement – made it prone to support high-handed measures of demolition of hut dwellings.26

In October 1925, the SMC ordered the SMP to distribute notices to hut dwellers to voluntarily demolish their huts and move outside. It relinquished its order when it realized this would throw people out of their home on the eve of winter, but new notices were issued in the following spring. As in 1921, it also sought the cooperation of the Chinese authorities to facilitate the evacuation of the hut dwellers into Chinese territory. The paper trail shows that promises were made, that even a benevolent landowner accepted to have a piece of property made available to hut dwellers. Yet nothing happened. The SMP blamed the Chinese authorities – “we have been badly let down” – on this issue.27 We also learn from the archival records that the hut dwellers bulked at the idea of moving to a remote place, seven or eight li away from their workplace, with no basic facilities like hydrants or electrical lights.28 As most of them came from the Jiangbei area, they had organized under a Kiangpeh [Jiangbei] Association to start negotiating with the SMC. They offered to set up a proper organization, with a committee and a headman for ten families, to organize the cleaning of huts, ditches, the removal of night soil, prohibiting pigs, and to limit the number of huts. They also sought to obtain a right of residence in exchange for the payment of a small tax.29 The SMC rejected the proposal.30 Yet the Kiangpeh [Jiangbei] Association persisted in its application for a definite reply by the SMC.31 A dispirited DPW wrote to the Secretary that the issue of “beggars’ villages” was a matter of concern for the PHD and the SMP and that in the absence of further instructions, the DPW would not pursue this issue.32

The major ingredient that killed the demolition plan of the SMC, however, was the general political context. As soon as the notices were served, hut dwellers turned to various organizations like the GMD or the Chinese Ratepayers’ Association to seek support against forceful evacuation. These organizations wrote to the SMC to advise relinquishing the demolition order. More to the point, this was less than a year after the May 30 Movement, marked by a strong nationalist surge. Quite realistically, the SMP advised against “anything drastic in the nature of eviction of the beggars.”33 Another obstacle was the location of many such huts outside the boundaries of the IS in the Western area. For the second time, and despite an even stronger urge and disposition to force hut dwellers out of the settlement, the SMC had to shelve its plan under the pressure of political factors. National politics fused with local pressures by elite organizations to neutralize the power of the SMC over its administered territory. The project of getting rid of hut dwellers was not abandoned. It would eventually turn into a policy of containment.

There was continued pressure and bickering between the SMC and the Chinese authorities after 1927 about the heavy-handed measures taken by the SMC against straw huts. Although it failed to implement a general plan of demolition, the SMC regularly ordered the demolition of huts that ‘violated the Land regulations and posed a threat to public health”. In 1927, 60 such huts were demolished.34 The following year, it succeeded in removing all the huts in the Western district.35 There was of course no end to this process. Industrialization kept attracting more workers in their vicinity, without providing proper housing most of the time. Rents even in shabby and overcrowded Chinese houses were well above the means of workers.36 In 1929, the PHD found a new settlement of 272 huts nearby the Eastern Police depot, with a total population of 1,440 people. Most of them were employed in cotton and tobacco mills. The construction of huts was inevitable: “the principal reasons for huts is shortage of Chinese dwellings and saving of rent […] every house and hut in Eastern district is occupied”.37 The PHD adopted a policy of limited intervention through regular disinfection of latrines and ordure pits. Its overall assessment, however, remained highly negative toward sanitary conditions.

By 1931, the SMC felt in better position to address the issue of hut dwellers. The PHD continued to press for their removal from the settlement, arguing that besides being a potential hotbed for infectious diseases, it must have been one of the foci of the recent cholera epidemic. Even if the PHD did not substantiate its claims, hut dwellers could only be a source of trouble for the rest of the population. They were also an eyesore, even if they were located in areas that few people visited, and they constituted a shameful element in a city – the IS – that prided itself for modernity, hygiene, order, etc. In other words, straw huts and their dwellers were a nuisance not to be tolerated. In spring 1931, the SMC decided again to take the measure of the phenomenon and asked the DPW to make a full survey. It was completed by the summer when each involved department (DPW, PHD, SMP) and the Secretariat received a set of maps and statistical tables. The survey confirmed the continued expansion of huts since 1926 and their concentration in the Eastern district. If hut communities existed in western Shanghai, they were beyond the reach of the SMC and were not mentioned in this survey. Altogether, there were 2,274 huts with 11,400 residents in the Eastern district.38 The same process unfolded: notification to hut dwellers to evacuate before a set deadline. The context, however, was once again more complex than the SMC anticipated.

First, hut dwellers were far from being without resources. When they heard of the SMC plan, they set to organize themselves into an association in an attempt to negotiate with the SMC. They also hired a lawyer who made several representations to the SMC, especially on the legal grounds for the planned demolition of the huts.39 Hut dwellers also sought the support from the Chinese Municipal Government, the Chinese ratepayers’ Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Trade Unions, etc. The CRA squarely put the blame on the SMC for its lack of social policy despite a budget twice as large as that of the Chinese municipality.40 Face with pressure from all quarters, the SMC asked its assistant secretary to assess the situation. T.K. Ho produced a well-balanced and detailed memorandum that described in a fairly neutral tone the living conditions of hut dwellers, their mode of organization, the physical conditions (low land), and the constraints of the shortage of adequate cheap housings for the working population. Ho recommended avoiding a policy of general demolition that would only result into a riot – something disproportionate with the actual issue at stake – and suggested a process of general improvement with the elimination of only the huts on land scheduled to be build or filled in. It bet on the development of the Eastern district to eventually eliminate all huts.41

The Works Committee admitted that wholesale demolition was not advisable and practicable. The SMC should aim instead at gradual reduction and prevention of increase. Yet since there was no reason to believe that hut dwellers were prepared to cooperate, registration should be effected with a view to reduce their number by annual quota.42 The SMC eventually adopted a general posture of phasing out the demolition over time. Concretely, each hut was registered and assigned a number (materialized by a plate) by November 1931.43 They would be allowed to stay, but each year 10 percent would be selected for evacuation or demolition. In exchange for this relative stability and predictable demolition plan, the Kiangpeh [Jiangbei] Association was expected to guarantee that there would be no further addition.44 New additions would be forcefully demolished by the DWP or the SMP. Hut dwellers remained relentless in pressing the SMC for a permanent solution and official recognition of their dwellings.45

Basically, in view of the opposition from both the hut dwellers and their supporters, the SMC adopted a policy of containment – preventing further expansion – associated to a plan for gradual reduction. Besides it own action, it also bet on further urban and commercial development to push out hut dwellers. Politics, war, and spontaneous development came into the way of the designs of the SMC. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September 1931 triggered a strong nationalist movement in the city. In January 1932, the first direct Sino-Japanese conflict in the city threw hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes. Overall, war and political and economic conditions prevented the SMC from carrying out its plan as projected the following year. On the opposite, both the SMP and the PHD warned about the rapid increase in the number of huts in the IS. In view of this situation, the PHD suggested in September 1932 a scheme allowing the construction of a certain number of huts under the supervision of SMC departments.46 Its proposal did not receive the approval of the Works Committee. On the opposite, the committee recommended the destruction of all huts.47 Notices were served to hut dwellers. By November 1932, 550 huts had been demolished – mostly by the dwellers themselves – without meeting with opposition, despite the letters of protest by the Chinese Municipal Government, the Chinese Ratepayers’ Association or the Shanghai Citizen’s Federation.48

In contrast to the policy of containment and outright demolition of the SMC, the Chinese municipality took initial steps to address the issue of hutments in a more positive way. On the one hand, the Shanghai Municipal Government pursued a policy of supporting hut dwellers in their claims for protection from SMC demolition, though with little success. On the other hand, it embarked on a policy of construction of low-rent housing (the so-called “pinmin zhusuo”). They viewed hut dwellers as hard-working laborers with limited means that deserved the support of the authorities. In 1927, the SZF established a Committee for the construction of poor people’s housing.49 In 1929, it carried out the first full survey of hutments on its territory. In part this was meant to give the authorities a more concrete assessment of the need for low-rent housing. The survey also served to identify hut dwellers properly and to register the population. Each hut received a door plate that somehow officialized its existence.50 Two years later, as it observed the continuous increase of hutments, the municipality again ordered a new survey of hutments. The survey was completed in May 1931. It recorded about 30,000 families living in straw huts scattered among 300 locations of various sizes.51 The intention was to locate where there was the greatest need for low-rent housing.52 Five years later, the municipal government was still working on regulating hutments, attributing door plates and registering the population. Military priorities and lack of funding limited the concrete realizations of the municipal government in that arena (altogether four “model villages” were established).53 Yet there was definitely an official empathy toward this segment of the population.54

Throughout the remaining years before the war, the SMC resumed its planned demolition of the registered huts and enforced forceful evacuation or demolition of unregistered new huts.55 This was a losing battle. As the DPW observed, it was very difficult to ascertain how new a hut was as they were made of discarded materials. Some registered huts built extensions.56 Some sold their plate to new comers. All police and DWP records confirm the continued expansion of straw huts in the settlement. The PHD continued to compile lists of “unsanitary huts” for demolition. The policy of gradual reduction was implemented in 1933. Forceful demolition targeted small groups or individual new huts. By the summer of 1934, it became clear that a rapid growth was going on. Notices were issued for evacuation, but when the DPW sent staff, a crowd of 500-600 men and women had assembled, armed with stones, to defend their huts.57 The quota-based policy of gradual reduction was abandoned. Yet the SMP observed that an approach focused on new huts was inefficient and detrimental to the reputation of the SMC. Little was achieved, while much social resentment was created by such actions. The SMP favored a return to the original policy of demolishing a quota of 10 percent every year – “at least 10 percent” – and to crack seriously on all unregistered huts.58

By 1936, the SMC felt again confident enough to brush away its critics and to force a solution along its plan. It announced a thorough plan of demolition of straw huts based on the lists of unsanitary huts established by the PHD.59 According to its survey, the IS hosted 1,694 registered huts and 3,400 unregistered huts for a total population of 30,439 residents.60 The decision of the SMC generated a heated debate in the press. Again notices were served. And again the same process of intervention from various quarters to discourage the SMC from implementing its plan unfolded. The Chinese members of the SMC voiced their opposition to demolishing the registered huts.61 By the set date, 15 July 1936, the police sent several squads to maintain public order and back up the workers and officials of the DPW. They had underestimated the capacity of organization and resistance of slum dwellers (despite clear warnings that hut dwellers would resist by force). When the police made its way into the targeted squatter area, they were welcomed by a barrage of women who threw night soil cans on them. The police withdrew. The demonstration was called “grotesque” in the English language press.62 The drive was postponed until September when a new charge was organized. As before, the police was welcome by an organized party of women with their night soil cans, while men attacked with stones and iron bars. A second charge managed to disperse the angry crowd. The police went after the organizers and arrested seven “recognized agitators”.63 The violent confrontation took its toll on the hut dwellers and their organization. According to police reports, the women were very unhappy by the turn o events and broke into the office of the association and smashed the furniture. Eventually, the SMC was able to dismantle the targeted huts.64

In April 1937, a new round of eviction notices was served to a group of some 470 huts targeted under the annual demolition quota. All huts had to be removed before May 1. The dwellers protested and threatened to re-enact their action of forceful resistance as in 1936.65 They actually staged a demonstration from their hut area into downtown. One person per family was appointed to demonstrate before the SMC building. The SMP managed to stop the 3,000-strong crowd before crossing Soochow Creek, but a group of some 300 demonstrators made their way into downtown.66 Twelve delegates were reluctantly received by representatives of the SMC. Eventually, the crowd dispersed in exchange for the promise of a reply on the very same day.67 A crisis meeting was held at SMC headquarters, which once again showed the SMC opt for avoiding a violent confrontation and for “bailing out” the hut dwellers.68 Assistant secretary T.K. Ho was once again entrusted with the delicate mission to work out a settlement.69 The Chinese Ratepayers’ Association strongly supported the hut dwellers.70 Rather than risk a confrontation, the SMC paid $14 to each dweller that accepted to move out voluntarily.71 By mid-May, all the hut dwellers had moved to Zhabei (which was no guarantee that they would not return later). The SMC was satisfied that no trouble of any kind had occurred and had solid hopes that it would be able to demolish 500 huts per year as scheduled and to complete the program in five years instead of ten.72 The Chinese press praised the SMC for choosing a peaceful solution, but it criticized it severely for its lack of genuine commitment to raise money and build low-rent housing.73

What sort of places were “straw hut dwellings” before the Sino-Japanese war? How did hut dwellers perceived themselves? It is clear that one of the reasons of the conflicts between the SMC and hut dwellers was one of misperceptions. Of course, SMC officials had a genuine concern about public health. This was what guided their policy toward hut dwellings. In all their descriptions, they pointed to the absence of basic facilities, to the intermingling of men and animals (pig-sties), to the lack of clean water, etc. One of the major criticisms expressed by both hut dwellers and the organizations that supported them was precisely the lack of “positive” intervention by the SMC. Its policy was geared toward demolition. It was also criticized for not raising money to build low-rent housing for the workers. The SMC did consider the question, but eventually gave up the idea. As early as 1926, the PHD had proposed to build 50 houses as a model village on Pingliang Road to serve as model for Chinese authorities.74

The SMC failed to follow up on this idea. It preferred to opt for the less expensive and committing plan of offering a gratification to the out-moving hut dwellers, “but only after Kiangpeh representatives asked for it”.75 One decade later, the situation was just the opposite. The DPW suggested constructing something similar to the villages built by the Chinese municipality as “enforcement of rules carries some responsibility for alternative housing”. It even provided figures to suggest the Council would break even.76 Yet, obviously the SMC was not prepared to put a finger into a process that might lead it to devote public money into a housing scheme for the poor. Out of sheer necessity, however, it did help in making water available, especially in the summer months, through a scheme with the Shanghai Waterworks.77 During the war years, it also tried to “organize” hut dwellings by laying down some basic infrastructures like drains, pits, etc.). On the whole, however, this was a minimal level of intervention after two decades of debates and disputes.

Hut dwellers certainly did not perceive themselves in the same way the SMC imagined them. Most were indeed people with a regular form of employment. This reality had eventually come to the attention of the SMC by 1926. They usually rented the land on which they built their huts. They were not illegal occupants and found it hard to accept a demolition order of their housing. There was a wide range of quality, though most were elementary constructions. Yet the visual sources for most of these huts point to constructions that differed little from dwellings in the countryside. The basic materials (bamboo, straw, mud) were just the same (Figure 12 - Figure 13 - Figure 14 - Figure 15). Even the SMC had to admit that while some of the huts were built of materials salvaged from rubbish, almost all had straw roofs.78 The presence of animals nearby was not either very disturbing for them. Pigs were raised in villages, often behind the house. Whereas the PHD inspectors saw them living in filth, in the middle of their excrements, there was mostly a system of depositing night soil and other refuse in place where they were collected by coolies to be sold to peasants.79 No doubt, PHD inspectors were right to point out the risks and deficiencies of this form of housing, especially when large congregations emerged. High infant mortality told a story of deprivation and unsanitary conditions.80 This is not to say that these communities were hotbeds for both social and corporeal diseases.

As the SMC slowly came to realize, even at its own expense, they were well-organized communities. Many came from the same place, especially Jiangbei.81 From the survey by Stanley Ho, we learn that they were formed of entire families or people with kinship ties. Unmarried males were not accepted, except when they lived with a relative. Within the community, senior figures or individual with a “higher status” served as peacemakers to address the recurrent conflicts among residents. If this proved insufficient (as when someone stole property), residents would take the culprit to the police.82 From similar testimonies in the press, one gets the picture of rural communities making their transition into the urban world. In the absence of adequate resources, they found the best available solution for housing nearby their workplace: “Occupiers are chiefly factory workers, but many other kinds are represented […] some huts have good furniture, some have radios, 179 have electrical light […] one has a garage and a car.”83 Even with a proper income, many found straw huts the only way to accommodate a large family. Rents averaged 1 cent/square foot, which translated in monthly rents of $0.40-$0.80 for the smaller huts to $1.00-$3.00 for the larger ones.84 This more or less set the acceptable threshold at $1.00 for most workers families. If manual workers dominated in the 1920s and 1930s, and remained prominent in the later periods, we shall see that a wide range of people eventually settled for this form of dwelling in the 1940s and 1950s.85

War and postwar “squatter villages”: The failure of regulation

The Japanese army blew away any hope the SMC might have entertained to eliminate straw huts. With Zhabei and parts of Hongkou razed to the ground, Chinese plant owners moved in large numbers into the International Settlement. Capital and machinery also flowed in from neighboring cities. While this allowed Shanghai to recover quickly from its wounds, urban infrastructures did not keep up with this economic development.86 The housing shortage became even more pronounced than ever, especially in the Western district where large numbers of plants and workshops eventually settled down. In the Eastern district, the number of huts (1177) decreased by 70 percent from its pre-war level in 1937 (4341).87 Yet it increased again. By December 1938, the DPW had demolished no less than 10,004 huts since the end of the hostilities in the city.88 Yet, all over the city, migrants or homeless residents built huts and shacks, sometimes in the middle of ruins, to have a shelter in the city (Figure 14).

The major development took place in the Western district and neighboring Chinese territory around the settlement. Plants and workshops attracted large numbers of workers who formed huge “villages” that created new problems. Within its territory, the SMC basically gave up trying to contain, not even mention demolish huts. In April 1938, there were 1,800 huts south of Soochow Creek and more than 4,300 in the Northern and Eastern districts.89 For those located right at the border, there was nothing the SMC could do.90 In June 1938, it could only observe the inexorable growth of hutments between the railway line and the Western district, 7,000 altogether with a population of 45,000 individuals. Their number increased daily.91 There was no alternative, as the PHD admitted: “Owing to the conflict, large numbers of people who previously were sheltered are now homeless […] it is impossible to abolish huts without running risk of rendering large numbers of people homeless […] squatter huts and villages are an unfortunate necessity”.92 The decision was made to help improve the conditions of hut dwellers by organizing them into camps and provide manpower to make the minimal sanitary arrangements.93 We do not know how far this was implemented. As one newspaper noted, nothing had been done over the years to alleviate the shortage of cheap housing for workers. The end result was the rise of “hutment colonies”.94 The newspaper also urged the SMC to take responsibility and initiative to get rid of dangerous housing after a spate of fires in hutments.95 By 1940, in the Western district alone 110,000 lived in straw huts.96

Shanghai came out of the war a devastated city. Although it overcame its economic losses during the war years, the city was never in a position to repair the damage done to parts of its territory during the 1937 conflict. The municipal institutions did not find proper stability before 1940. Even if they restored a semblance of municipal management, they lacked the financial resources, and probably the autonomy, to devote money to destroyed urban infrastructure or to promote a reconstruction plan. With the migration of factories and workshops within the city, especially into the Western districts of the International Settlement, large hutment colonies emerged at the fringe of these areas. Compared to the pre-war situation, these hutments encompassed a much larger number of huts and families. Fire hazards became more frequent and devastating. Whereas fires had caused destruction and the intervention of the fire brigades before 1937, this had never become a major source of official concern in the International Settlement. Between 1926 and 1933, there had been 21 instances of fire. By 1936, incidents were clearly on the rise with 56 incidents in the 30 months since March 1934.97 The situation continued to worsen throughout the war, despite the seriousness of fires both for hut dwellers, but also neighboring residences and plants. One of the largest hutments in the Western district caught fire three times, leaving several dead people and thousands homeless.98 Yet each time the hutment was rebuilt in the very same place, using salvaged materials. Within a week, the original hutment had been reconstructed.99 Quite clearly, however, the number of fires was on the increase and had devastating effects due to the inability of the fire brigade to get near the source of the fire.100

By 1945, therefore, the Nationalists inherited a city whose population had swollen to more than four millions and about to receive increasing numbers of refugees. Areas like Zhabei, Hongkou remained in their war-torn condition. In the post-war period, there was a dramatic shift in the size, spread, and nature of hut dwellings. This was no longer a form of housing linked somehow to economic development. Massive population influx actually turned the city into a massive hutment area. Because a lot of vacant land was available, especially in Zhabei, Yangshupu, and all along the former foreign concessions, it offered an ideal situation for the emergence of the rise of hut dwellings. The control of the authorities during the war was very weak and there was no interest in these deserted areas. People from outside, as well as included former residents established their “residence” on this free available land. Many were indeed technically “squatters”.

In 1945, the Nationalists came back to Shanghai with a plan to rebuild the city. The demise of the foreign settlements and the reunification of the whole city into one single entity drove a desire to finally launch a grand plan. The initial reaction by the new municipal authorities toward hut dwellings was to try to control their development. They had a real concern about shirong (city appearance), which became the main motto in public discourse.101 In September 1946, the municipality decided to enforce a plan of systematic removal of straw huts built before 1946 in the downtown area and to prohibit new constructions. They adopted such regulations for the sake of city beautification. They also designated areas where existing hut dwellings should be transported. Since this posed a real challenge in view of the large number of communities, it opted for a preliminary run on one area, the Jing’an district, one that the authorities considered as fashionable (shishang) and planned to preserve from the presence of hut dwellings.102 There were usually four lines of argument to justify banning slums: health, fire, city appearance (市容), and traffic (交通)]. This policy proved impractical in view of the massive influx of the population.

The municipal authorities were faced with a very different challenge. On the one hand, they inherited a badly shattered city in which large chunks of the population were living in huts because they had nothing else to go and often were recent immigrants without jobs. As the tensions between the GMD and the CCP escalated into full war, streams of refugees sought protection in Shanghai. The scale of this migration was massive. And it was beyond the ability of the authorities to handle this issue. It was a deluge of migrants that took over both vacant land and empty buildings. In the 1946-1949 period, the population increased from 3.8 to 5.0 millions with no matching record in terms of construction. In other words, the newcomers had to make do with what they found. One typical phenomenon, for instance, was the forceful occupation of the coffin repositories throughout the city. Refugees removed the coffins outside and turned the premises into cramped housing. The guilds complained and called upon the police, but a couple of police officers were not match to hundreds of determined refugees.103 This was even truer of vacant land. Even when companies protested – archival records provide ample testimony of these requests104 – the police was hardly in a position of force. In a few rare cases when the police tried to impose an evacuation, the officers were surrounded and beaten up.105 By November 1946, the chief of police noted that despite the new regulation, hutments had continued to increase – he estimated there were 50,000-60,000 huts in the city – and called for a meeting of all those concerned. The police alone could not cope with the problem.106 The City council itself eventually asked the municipality to refrain from removing squatter huts owing to the difficult circumstances of the population.107

The Civil War period saw the real transformation of Shanghai into a “squatter city”. Even if “traditional” locations got reinforced, especially all around the Zhongshan Boulevard, no area was spared, especially where there was vacant land. The 1946-1949 period created the configuration depicted on the map published in the 1962 book about the transformation of hut dwellings. Most subsequent studies have used this map, with its attendant interpretation, namely the concentration of slums all around the former foreign settlements due to systematic demolition by the foreign authorities (Map 1). As we have seen before, even if there was indeed a policy that aimed at removing hut dwellings from the International settlement, it was by land large unsuccessful. The SMC kept running after an uncontrollable unfolding process. By 1937, this scheme was fully abandoned. In the French Concession, there was indeed a strict policy to that regard, but this was due to strict regulations in urban construction. It applied to any form of non-permanent and inflammable construction. The Bureau of Public Works and the Police regularly rejected applications for such installations, even during the war, by Chinese or foreign applicants (e.g. classroom, pony stable, bicycle shaft, etc.). Illegal constructions had to be removed.108 What made a difference in the case of the French Concession, and what made it easier to enforce this policy, was the low level of industrialization of its territory and the zoning regulations that allowed factories only in the southern portion along Chinese territory. In other words, there was no pressure for cheap housing or hut dwellings as they could be constructed just across the creek, at a walking distance from the work place.

Another reason why we hardly find hut dwellings in the central parts of the city – the former foreign settlements – was simply that land was not available. It was most often built up and offered no room for the erection of straw huts. City blocks were surrounded by a string of shops and workshops, while buildings and narrow alleys filled in the back. Where vacant land was available, it was owned by individuals and companies that could call upon the police to have illegal hut dwellers to be removed, except after 1945. The “birth of the slums” in Shanghai, such as has been often described, dates back to the post-war period and is related to the unfolding civil war that threw hundreds of thousands of peasants and townsmen on the road in search of safety and protection. Under such circumstances, hutments were no longer a “space of transition” between the countryside and the city. It was a deluge of despaired men and women who sought refuge in the city in the hope of better days. The move into the city was both rapid and brutal. It was also massive. If peasants are often pointed out as the main in-comers, this does not necessarily reflect into the composition of the hut dwellers. In fact, a much wider range of people came that would eventually settle in Shanghai for several decades or for good. The straw huts would become their regular mode of housing.

Hutments in the socialist city: remodeling and laissez-faire

In 1949, the communist authorities inherited a situation made much worse than for the Nationalists in 1945. They faced a vast expanse of hut dwellings inhabited by the very “laboring masses” the CCP was keen to support and enlist. City officials were aware that large numbers of very poor people lived in hut dwellings. Yet their priority after 1949 was never these populations per se or their housing conditions. The priority was on development and investment in industry. The general strategy of development meant that no serious effort was made to eradicate hut dwellings. It came to be a neutralized and sanitized category of “housing”. Whereas nationalist official had had the ambition to rebuild the city and get rid of the shantytowns and had harbored fairly unsympathetic views toward hut dwellers, the CCP accepted that reality without moral or other form of judgment. Conversely, however, it was not prepared to invest significant resources into housing renovation. In fact, one is struck by the very absence of “discourse” about hut dwellers beyond the recurrent and formulaic condemnation of foreign imperialists and Chinese reactionaries in having left such a pitiful legacy. Many reports were made about hut dwellings between 1950 and the mid-1960s. They all took it for granted that hut dwellings existed and were part of the “housing market”, even if by the early 1960s city officials realized the increasing expectations for better living conditions among Shanghai residents.

Main hutment areas in May 1949

Number of families

Number of locations



Above 200




Above 300



11 million m2

Above 500




Above 1,000



Above 2,000






Source: Chen Yingfang (2008), p. 83

It would be unfair to state that nothing was done or that city officials did not care. One obvious measure was to try to encourage the hut dwellers to leave Shanghai and to return to their original place. City officials sought a mix of voluntary compliance and forced repatriation under the monitoring of the Bureau of Public Safety (BPS). The government was prepared to pay the fare for those who could not afford it.109 We do not know from this report how successful this measure (banfa) was. The measures taken, however, targeted more infrastructure improvement than actual renovation. For instance, the city deployed a denser grid of water hydrants (1200 throughout the whole city between 1950 and 1953). Fire hydrants served to combat fires, but often also served as spots for water supply. Fires and the safety of residents was indeed a major concern.110 In the early 1950s the municipal government strove to pierce fire lanes through hutments to facilitate the access of firemen and avoid the major tragedies that struck large hutments in the past. 1953 was the worst year for hutments. There were 1,944 alerts for the whole city and 538 (28%) in hutments. Yet of the 177 actual fires, 70 (40%) occurred in such areas (2,792 of the burnt down 3,184 rooms). There was definitely a problem and a high risk for the hut dwellers. 111 In March 1954, the Bureau of Public Security proposed a plan for opening up fire lanes in all the hutments with more than 400 families. By August, the city government adopted the plan for all the “non moveable” hutments.112 Progress was made, but the statistical record revealed only limited achievements.113 The city also worked out an insurance plan that covered whole communities in case of fire. It proved unsuccessful – either there were indeed fires or hut dwellers were suspected to have ignited fires themselves to get money back or to be relocated – and the insurance company pulled out. It was not restored until 1957 when conditions had improved and care was taken to educate the population through the residents’ committees. Statistical reports confirm that fire protection improved markedly.114

The second realm of intervention was sanitation and public hygiene. This concern matched that of the SMC before 1937, except that CCP officials targeted the populations living in the huts themselves. Attention to these problems translated into drains, sewers, running water and electricity. There was also an attempt to improve circulation and traffic within the hutments, even if by 1960 hut dwellers bitterly complained about not being able to bring in an ambulance or remove a coffin from their home.115 It was a new dimension in the public policy toward this form of housing. The concern was double. On the one hand, it was about improving circulation within the hutments by enlarging the alleys and allowing for smoother circulation (or evacuation in case of an emergency). On the other hand, it was about eliminating structures that obstructed traffic in public space (along a road, at the entrance of a lilong, etc.). This was easier to deal with, as these were mostly individual or small groups of huts.

The third level of intervention was housing improvement. City officials opted for a policy of “mobilization” and “self construction” (Figure 16 - Figure 17 - Figure 18). They considered that it was beyond the financial capacity of the state – here Shanghai – to fund a complete overhaul. There were other priorities – production – and housing improvement had to rely on people’s work. One can debate whether a wealthy city like Shanghai could have funded a large program of hutment renovation. Besides a few profusely hailed “Workers’ Villages” – the first one opened in 1952 – new constructions were limited.116 Certainly, it could have improved the situation markedly, but the city became the milk cow of the central government and lost control of its finances. One of the largest hutments, Fanguannong 蕃瓜弄 (Figure 19), was listed in the first batch of renovation plan, but real action started only in 1960.117 With the years, the quality of hut dwellings improved slightly. For instance, straw roofs made way for tiled roofs, which decreased the risk of fires. Rules were also introduced to protect both owners and hut dwellers ad to fix the rent within a limited range (0,1-0,3 yuan/month/square meter).118 By and large, however, city officials transferred the responsibility for housing onto the shoulders of companies, which in turn created new inequalities in access to proper housing and prospects of leaving hutments.

Life remained difficult in these hutments for at least a part of the population. Some still lived in dire straits and had difficulties to make ends meet, in particular when special circumstances reduced or stopped their usual activity. In times of acute difficulties, the authorities would dispense relief through the Shanghai branch of the China Relief Association (中國人民救濟總會上海市分會). After 1950, it was not politically acceptable to leave members of the “laboring masses” to live in hunger or worst. Yet as official reports show, great care was taken to convey the proper message when distributing relief. There was also a serious concern about the seriousness of the situation for those living in hutments. In spring 1952, rain had poured for weeks unabated. For those living on selling their workforce or peddling various edible items, this had turned into a nightmare on top of living under leaking roofs. The Three Anti and Five Anti campaigns had also strongly affected economic activity and the use of casual labor. Thousands of families – 2,300 in the Xuhui district alone – were in bad need of relief. Two families had committed suicide in their home. The Shanghai branch designed a relief scheme with two slogans: 不餓死一個人 救急不救窮. The CCP committee thought it wise to delete the second item.119 The city committee also emphasized the need to ship back to their villages all those that could return there.

This was implemented in a more systematic way the following year. In September, the Shanghai branch wrote a directive about the repatriation of hutment dwellers who had no authorization (無照搭建棚戶遣送回鄉辦法). While the Shanghai branch initially sought voluntary compliance, the revised version by the CCP committee hardened the tone and placed the scheme under the BPS. All those that failed to have appropriate documents would be deported. Those who could had to pay for their own transportation, while the other would be assembled in expedition stations (遣送站) and taken care of by the Shanghai branch. The text included a clear political dimension as it pointed out specifically landowners (dizhu) who were to be deported by force and, if suspected of “awful crimes” to be sent to local authorities for proper treatment. Two other categories were targeted for forced repatriation: peasant drifters (農村二流子) and vagrants (無業游民).120

By and large, however, the municipality chose to delay or postpone the radical transformation of hutments. Their number had hardly changed since 1949. Actually, it is striking to read in the reports that the municipality actually had a difficulty to know exactly how many hutments there were in the city. The lack of a homogeneous system of record-keeping among the various branches of the administration produced a blurry image. Police or fire brigade stations did not keep the same records: number of families, number of huts, only places with more than 300-500 huts, an entire area as unit, etc.121 A general report prepared in January 1957 relied mostly on data from 1955 to which it applied a general discount of 15%.122 The report acknowledged that it was unable to know how many huts there were (Map 2). It offered a total figure of 1,856,890 m2 (3.6% of housing) with approximately 800,000 people (14.8% of the urban population).123 On average one family had 0.77 room (jian), or 9 m2, but in Zhabei, it was not unusual to find two families sharing one hut (up to 20 people). Of the recorded 153,340 huts, 79,183 meet housing conditions (51,6%). Consequently, 74,157 did not (48,4%).124

Renovation focused on a few cases like Fanguannong (蕃瓜弄) where huts were razed to the ground and replaced new modern high-rises (Figure 20 - Figure 21). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, however, city officials clearly stated that this model could not me replicated. It was too expensive. The issue, however, is that the various policies instituted after 1949 tended to make it increasingly difficult even for “self-improvement”. The socialization of the means of production and control over building materials imposed strict restrictions on access to materials. Detailed reports had to be submitted to the city committee to obtain permission and the related materials. Recycling existing materials was a central concern. As local officials lacked experience in building (not to mention the lack of experience of workers brought from the countryside), renovation programs often fell below expectations in terms of realization, but went well above the planned budget. Materials came in from various companies, in different sizes and qualities. The final result was very often very inadequate.125 Some officials took rash measures, which included demolishing a hutment before any serious preparation had been made to accommodate the families and plan the reconstruction.126 The limited policy of hutment improvement, therefore, stumbled upon the contradictions of the system put in place by the new regime. It stumbled upon issues of resources, quality, and power.

Locations of hutments with more than 300 families in 1957


Above 300

Above 1,000





















































Source: B6-2-303 - Report on huts (本市棚戶地區調查報告) - (18/1/57)

Fundamentally, the communist regime failed to address the issue of hutments. The initial drive to improve infrastructure faltered with the Great Leap Forward. There was even less concern for housing and living conditions. As China came out of this experience and the great famine badly shattered, city officials had even less resources at their disposal to work on a significant transformation of hutments. The reports of that period made it very clear how scarce resources were, how plain goodwill could not supplant actual resources. Once again, city officials called upon the good old method of people’s mobilization, but they had little to offer beyond slogans. They proceeded by experiments to be expanded if successful.127

By 1962, the municipality perceived the new expectations of the population as economic recovery sets in. There was a new attempt at examining the situation -- new surveys are made, stamped “secret” -- and finding ways to do more than upgrade existing hutments. There was also a renewed concern at that time about shirong and the necessity to get rid of ugly straw huts in the city, especially in or at the entrance of lilong. In February 1963, the Party committee adopted two resolutions on prohibiting the construction of straw huts. All local party committees implemented this directive. The regulations prohibited the erection of new structures, while the authorities instructed the local level to work toward dismantling unwanted structures “through discussion” (but eventually by the police if this was warranted by the necessity to improve traffic). By 1964, the municipality realized its efforts were fruitless. In May 1964, an internal report still blamed “imperialism and reactionaries” for the persistence of hutments in the city. Yet the suggestions made to improve the situation were all of a very general sort. Basically, it stated plainly that state finance could not solve the issue, nor the dwellers themselves and that both had to work hand in hand to improve situation. A lot would depend on mobilization.128 The hutment population still represented 290,000 families (or 1.3 million individuals) living in 484,000 m2. The mathematics was dramatic. There were 232 locations, about the same number as in 1952 (see table).129 Of these, 92 locations urgently awaited solving the issue of fire lanes. The authorities still placed the emphasis on improving local conditions through safety measures, not through general overhaul or clearance.130

The policy of controlling population growth and movement was a failure. In 1965, city officials observed that in the two previous years population had increased as could be seen from application for building permits: in 1963, straw huts represented 10,000 of the 15000 applications; in 1964: they represented 20,000 of the 28,000 applications.131 Obviously, with better economic conditions, hut dwellers wanted to improve their living conditions. A complete overhaul was not feasible with current financial means. Moreover rent and water/electricity cost remained beyond the means of many current hut dwellers. Officials proposed an active policy of rebuilding hutment under guidance and planning and initiated experiments with “private house safety surveillance groups” (私房安全監督小組). Eighty such groups were set up in October 1964 in one hutment in Yangpu to discuss construction work, to do educational work, to take into account the opinion of the population and to organize work. This seems to have worked to avoid new “savage” construction (10 cases instead of 280), but it failed to stop the process and to fundamentally transform the condition of the vast majority of hut dwellers. In relative terms, the situation had improved. In the 1950s, hut dwellers represented almost a quarter of the population. In 1965, they represented only 14.5 percent of the population, but in absolute numbers they surpassed by far the pre-1949 figure. This process never stopped.132 Officials blamed the approach that focused on “slum clearance”. By 2000, hut dwellers were very much present in Shanghai, though more to the periphery.

The process through which hutments emerged and developed in Shanghai show several stages. They functioned indeed as “in-between spaces” that met the needs of migrants on their way into becoming “urban”. Yet these spaces were perceived in different ways by the various and successive power-holders, as well as by the dwellers themselves. Whereas “threat”, “danger” (for public health, public order) or “eyesore”, “filth” were the most common “tags” attached to these areas, they were home to fairly well structured and organized communities, in part because many came from the same regions. Whatever the period, however, these groups hardly had a real say in the way they were represented in official (and internal) reports or in the public media. They had a relative capacity to voice their grievances when faced with an order to move away or demolish their property, but they had little agency in obtaining more positive action to improve their lot, both under the “colonial regime” of the foreign settlements or the communist regime. By and large, despite the “threat” they represented, public money and resources became scarce or non-existent when it came to public investment and policy.


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Mohanty, L.N.P., Mohanty, Swati, Slum in India (New Delhi, APH Publishing, 2005)

Sawant, Shashikant B., The City of Poona: a study in urban geography (University of Poona, 1978)

Shanghai penghuqu de bianqian 上海棚戶區的變遷 (The transformation of Shanghai’s hutments) (Shanghai : Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1962)

Singh, H.H. and Kumra, V.K., “Slums: Threat to urban environment”, Shanti Lal Kayastha & Harihar Singh (eds.), Geography and environment: Issues and challenges, pp. 113-138

Topalov, Christian (ed.), Les Mots de la Ville: Divisions (Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2002).

Wang, Xiaoming 王曉明 & Cai Xiang 蔡翔 (ed.) Refeng xueshu 熱風學術 (Hot Scholarship) (Guilin, Guangxi shifan daxue chubanshe, 2008)

Wu Junfan 吴俊范, “Hedao, fengshui, yimin: jindai shanghai chengzhou juluo de jieti yu penghu qu de chansheng” 河道、风水、移民:近代上海城周聚落的解体与棚户区的产生 (Rivers, Geomancy, Migrants: the disintegration of villages at the periphery in modern shanghai and the birth of hutments), Shilin 史林 (History Review), no. 5 (2009), pp. 51-61

Xue, Yongli 薛永理, “Jiu shanghai penghu qu de xingcheng” (The formation of hutment areas in old Shanghai), in Shanghai wenshi ziliao cungao huibian, “shizheng jiaotong” (Compilation of historical and literary materials on Shanghai – “Municipal administration & Communications”) 上海文史资料存稿汇编 (Shanghai, Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2001), pp. 36-45

Zhang Xizhe 张熙哲, “Shanghai penghu qu gaizao wenti chutan” 上海棚户区改造问题初 (A preliminary exploration of the reform of hutments in Shanghai) (M.A. thesis, Tongji University, 2005)

Zhao Yeqin 赵晔琴, “Wailaizhe de jinru yu penghu qu bendi jumin richang shenghuo de chongjian” 外来者的进入与棚户区本地居民日常生活的重构 - 对上海市C棚户区的个案研究 (The influx of outsiders and the reconstruction of daily life bu local hutment dwellers. A case study of C hutment block in Shanghai) (M.A. thesis, Huadong shifan daxue, 2005)


1 On the issue of how words influence the perception of a city, see Christian Topalov (ed.), Les Mots de la Ville: Divisions.

2 “Hutment colonies”, Shanghai Times (6/12/38)

3 Shashikant B. Sawant, The City of Poona: a study in urban geography; Geert de Neve,Henrike Donner, The meaning of the local: politics of place in urban India; L.N.P. Mohanty, Swati, Mohanty, Slum in India ; Gopal Bhargava, « Slums of urban India : Planning and policy framework »; Nandini Gooptu, The politics of the urban poor in early twentieth-century India.

4 Andreas Huyssen, “The voids of Berlin”.

5 H.H. Singh and V.K. Kumra, “Slums: Threat to urban environment”, p. 121

6 Shanghai penghuqu de bianqian 上海棚戶區的變遷

7 Chen Yinfang 陈映芳, “Kongjian yu shehui: zuowei shehuizhuyi shijian de chengshi gaizao – Shanghai penghuqu de shili (1949-1979)”, p. 79

8 It does not mean lack of interest or action by the municipal authorities as can be seen from the wealth of reports to be found in the Shanghai Municipal Archives. There was a genuine concern, even if it failed to turn into a voluntary program of renovation with adequate means.

9 A book in a similar propaganda tone was published in 1971: Huan le renjian : Shanghai penghu qu de bianqian 换了人间: 上海棚戶区的变迁.

10 I made a brief foray into this issue when I studied the Shanghai Municipal Government and its social policy, especially the construction of Poor People’s Homes (pinmin zhusuo) in the late 1920s-mid-1930s. Christian Henriot, Shanghai 1927-1937. Municipal Power, Locality, and Modernization, chap. 7

11 Chen Yinfang 陈映芳, “Kongjian yu shehui: zuowei shehuizhuyi shijian de chengshi gaizao – Shanghai penghuqu de shili (1949-1979)”; Chen Yinfang 陈映芳 (ed.), Penghuqu. Jiyi zhong de shenghuoshi 棚戶區: 記憶中的生活史. A few M.A. thesis and Ph.D. dissertations have also addressed this issue: Jiang, Jianjun 江建軍,“Penghuqu ben di jumin de daiji liudong yanjiu” 棚户区本地居民的代际流动研究; 赵晔琴,“Wailaizhe de jinru yu penghu qu bendi jumin richang shenghuo de chongjian” 外来者的进入与棚户区本地居民日常生活的重构 — 对上海市C棚户区的个案研究;Zhang Xizhe 张熙哲, “Shanghai penghu qu gaizao wenti chutan” 上海棚户区改造问题初; Meng Meijun 孟眉军, “Shanghai shi penghu qu kongjian bianqian yanjiu” 上海市棚户区空间变迁研究.

12 Nicholas Belfield Dennys, William Frederick Mayers, Charles King, The treaty ports of China and Japan, p. 390

13 Lu, Hanchao, “Creating urban outcasts: shantytowns in Shanghai, 1920-1950”, Journal of Urban History, vol. 21 no. 5, Jul 1995, pp. 563-596; Xue Yongli 薛永理, “Jiu shanghai penghu qu de xingcheng”, pp. 36-45; Cai Liang 蔡亮, “Jindai shanghai Penghu qu yu guomin zhengfu zhili nengli”, pp. 24-25

14 On rivers and hutment development, see Wu Junfan 吴俊范, “Hedao, fengshui, yimin: jindai shanghai chengzhou juluo de jieti yu penghu qu de chansheng”, pp. 51-61

15 Bergère, The golden age of the Chinese bourgeoisie, 1911-1937

16 Shanghai gongyunzhi 上海工运志, p. X

17 Letter SMP-Sec (7/6/21), U1-3-1372

18 Letter Sec.-Watch committee (9/6/21), U1-3-1372

19 Letter Comm. of Foreign Affairs (27/7/21), U1-3-1372

20 Kidamb, The making of an Indian metropolis. colonial governance and public culture in Bombay, 1890-1920, p. 150

21 Letter PHD-Sec (22/9/26), U1-3-1370. Population figures in villages and huts:

23853 (1900) 37503 (1905) 36442 (1910) 36772 (1915) 20226 (1920) 10381 (1925)

In shipping and boats

11331 (1900) 12358 (1905) 12604 (1910) 11246 (1915) 10612 (1920) 14062 (1925)

As these figures show that in 1925 less than half of the number of people lived in villages, huts, and boats, than did so in 1910, it is presumed that no census is taken of the population in the huts and boats now under consideration.

22 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

23 On hutment and the development of textile industries in Shanghai, see Luo Suwen, “gaolangqiao: 1914-1949 hudong yi ge miangfangzhi gongren shenghuoqu de xingcheng”, pp 42-43.

24 Letter PWD-Sec (21/12/26), U1-3-1370

25 SMC PHD Annual Report, 1921, p. 37; 1923, p. 39; 1924, p. 44; 1926, p. 43;1926, p. 66; 1927, p. 61; 1928, p. 64

26 The 1926 annual report of the PHD provides the following example of the very high pressure on housing: A block of new Chinese houses was completed in June 1926. They were “let” to an agent who immediately sublet every available inch available. Upon inspection of the 14 houses designed to accommodate 28 families of approximately 118 people, it appeared they actually accommodated 76 families with 299 people. To “create space”, 31 wooden partitions, 27 sleeping stages, 17 floors had been added added. U1-16-4690 SMC PHD Annual Report, 1926, p. 67

27 Letter SMP-Sec (4/9/26), U1-3-1370

28 Short distance between workplace and residence is a common feature – and money saving solution – for slum dwellers. H.H. Singh and V.K. Kumra, “Slums: Threat to urban environment”, Shanti Lal Kayastha & Harihar Singh, Geography and environment: Issus and challenges, p. 130

29 Letter Kiangpeh Assoc (29/8/26), U1-3-1370

30 Letter PWD-Sec (3/9/26), U1-3-1370

31 Letter Kiangpeh Assoc-SMC (undated - 1926), U1-3-1370

32 Letter PWD-Sec (16/8/26), U1-3-1370

33 Letter SMP-Sec (4/9/26), U1-3-1370

34 Municipal Gazette (8/7/27)

35 Letter PWD-Sec (28/6/29), U1-3-1370

36 A survey of rents in Chinese houses nearby in an alley way revealed the following rates: Whashing Rd: $25, Dalny Rd: $18, Fenchow Rd: $25, Yulin Rd: $25, Jansen Rd: $25, Yangtszepoo Rd: $18, Yangchow Rd: $14. These houses were of a very poor type, but all have rentals of not less than $25. Report Inspector-PHD (25/3/31), U1-3-1370

37 Report Inspector-PHD (undated - 1929), U1-3-1370

38 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

39 Letter Yu Tse (16/6/31), Letter Yu Tse (29/6/31), U1-3-1371 ; Letter representatives of hut dwellers-SMC (1/12/31), U1-6-582

40 Letter CRA 29/6/31, U1-3-1371

41 Memorandum (7/7/31), U1-3-1371

42 Work Committee minutes (7/7/31), U1-3-1371

43 Letter PWD-Sec. 18/11/31, U1-3-1370

44 Certificate (SMC) (30/11/31), U1-6-582

45 Letter representatives of hut dwellers-SMC (1/12/31), U1-6-582

46 Report PHD, 2/9/32, U1-3-1371

47 6/9/32: Minutes of Work Committee, U1-3-1371

48 Work Committee minutes 3/11/32, U1-3-1371; Letter SZF, 8/11/32; Letter Chamber of commerce (5/11/32); Letter CRA, 8/11/32; Letter Civic Association, 11/11/32; Letters of reply SMC, 18/11/32, U1-3-1371

49 Q1-23-42

50 Report GAJ (30/11/29), Q1-23-24

51 Letter SZF-GAJ (5/5/31); Letter GAJ (14/5/31)Q1-23-24

52 Survey of slums (June 1931), Q1-23-24

53 Zwia Lipkin comes to the same conclusion about the pinmin zhusuo policy in the new capital, Nanjing, before 1937. Lipkin, Useless to the state, pp. 124-128

54 Set of documents (1936), Q5-3-3441

55 See documents in U1-4-3389

56 Letter PWD-Sec. (24/7/35), U1-4-3389

57 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

58 Report SMP-Sec. (31/7/36)

59 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

60 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

61 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

62 China Press (13/7/36)

63 NCDN (3/9/36)

64 SMP report (14/9/36), U1-16-2199

65 The China Press (26/4/37)

66 Report SMP (Special branch) (27/4/37), U1-4-3393

67 NCDN (27/4/37)

68 Minutes Special Committee meeting (28/4/37), U1-4-3394

69 China Press (29/4/37)

70 China Press (28/4/37)

71 NCDN (1/5/37)

72 Shanghai Times (11/5/37)

73 Shen Bao editorial (7/5/37)

74 Letter PHD-Sec (22/9/26), U1-3-1370

75 SMC Minutes (29/9/26), U1-3-1370

76 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

77 Letter hut dwellers (30/6/36), Letter PHD (6/7/36), Letter hut dwellers (July 36), Report health inspector (16/7/36), Letter hut dwellers (29/10/36), Letter PHD-Sec. (13/3/37), Letter hut dwellers (9/6/39), U1-16-2204;

78 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

79 Report Inspector-PHD (25/3/31), U1-3-1370; Report Inspector-PHD (undated - 1929), U1-3-1370

80 Henriot, ‘Invisible Deaths, Silent Deaths’. ‘Bodies Without Masters’ in Republican Shanghai”.

81 On Jiangbei people and their “outcast” status in Shanghai, see Honig, Creating Chinese ethnicity.

82 Memorandum assistant sec. (7/7/31), U1-3-1371

83 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

84 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

85 That slums were far from being those “dangerous places” imagined by colonial officials or contemporary city officials is corroborated by various studies. See. Laquan, “The Asian city and the political process”, p. 51

86 Henriot, “Shanghai industries under Japanese occupation: Bombs, Boom and Bust (1937-1945).

87 Work committee minutes (21/12/38), U1-4-3394

88 Work committee minutes (21/12/38), U1-4-3394

89 Shanghai Times (28/4/38)

90 Shanghai Times (24/4/38)

91 Letter PWD-Sec. (8/6/38), U1-4-3394

92 Letter PHD-sec (2/5/38)

93 Minutes Health Committee (20/5/38), U1-16-2195; Municipal Gazette, 3/6/38

94 Shanghai Times (6/12/38). This is the first instance of the use of the term “hutment”.

95 Shanghai Times (7/12/38), “Fire traps must go”

96 memo PHD (30/8/40), U1-16-2195

97 Letter PWD-Sec. (11/9/36), U1-6-101

98 NCDN (5/12/38); Shanghai Times (30/12/39); Shanghai Times (22/2/40)

99 Shanghai Times (13/12/38

100 Shanghai Evening Post (28/1/39); Shanghai Times (6/1/39); Shanghai Times (13/1/39); NCDN (6/2/39)

101 Cai Liang, “Jindai shanghai penghu qu”, p. 28

102 Letter GWJ (6/9/46), Q131-4-73

103 Letter 上海市殯儀館柩運葬商業同業公會 (3/12/1947); Letter 久安寄柩所 (9/6/1948) ; Letter 久安寄柩所 (2/7/48) ; Letter 國際殯儀館 (9/4/1948), S440127

104 Q131-7-1087-Q131-7-11093; Letter Land owner-SZF (10/7/46), Q1-11-73

105 Letter Luwan GAJ fenju (11/11/46), Q131-4-73

106 Letter GAJ-SZF, Q131-4-73

107 Letter 泰山路分局 (Jan. 1947), Q131-4-1581

108 U38-1-1283

109 Banfa (22/9/53), B1-2-844-11

110 Letter GAJ-SZF (6/3/54), B1-2-1536. Overall, the share of fire alerts in hutments decreased after 1949: 59% in 1949, 22% in 1950, 15% in 1951, 13% in 1953, 11% in 1954, 9% in 1955, 8% in 1956. Report on huts (本市棚戶地區調查報告) - (18/1/57), B6-2-303

111 Report on huts (本市棚戶地區調查報告) - (18/1/57), B6-2-303

112 Letter GAJ-SZF (6/3/54), B1-2-1536

113 Fire lanes opened in hutments after 1953: 26 in 21 hutments, 21 in 1954 in 16 hutments, 3 in 1955 in 3 hutments, and 2 in 1956 in 2 hutments. Report on huts (本市棚戶地區調查報告) - (18/1/57), B6-2-303

114 Letter Caizhengju-RMWYH (30/4/57), B6-2-303

115 Report on improvement of 西方子橋 penghu (Dec. 1959), A60-1-25-32

116 Chen Yinfang 陈映芳, “Kongjian yu shehui: zuowei shehuizhuyi shijian de chengshi gaizao – Shanghai penghuqu de shili (1949-1979), pp. 12-13

117 Chen Yinfang, “Kongjian yu shehui”, 2007, p. 14

118 B258-1-427-1

119 Letter + “办法” (29/3/52), B1-2-490

120 Banfa (22/9/53), B1-2-844-11

121 Report on huts (本市棚戶地區調查報告) - (18/1/57), B6-2-303

122 There was a general increase of population in 1952-53, followed by a return of population to the countryside in 1954-55. More recently, however, the migration flow had started again.

123 By comparison, in 1953-1954, Madras had 306 slum localities with 59,573 huts and a population of 265,000 (for a total population slightly above one million). Singh and Kumra, “Slums: Threat to urban environment”, p. 129 & p. 141

124 Report on huts (本市棚戶地區調查報告) - (18/1/57), B6-2-303

125 Report (虹口區 (提籃) 第35號街坊改建試驗工程小結)(28/3/60), A54-1-222_1

126 Rapport 10/21961 檢查小組, A54-1-222_1

127 Report (13/1/60), A60-1-25-7

128 Report Jiansheju-RMWYH (25/5/64), B11-2-81-1

129 Report Jiansheju-RMWYH (25/5/64), B11-2-81-1

130 Letter 規劃建設設計院 (19/12/65), B11-2-125-3

131 Report RMWYH 公用事業辦公室 (10/3/65), B11-2-106-22

132 Each decade saw its crop of slogans and policies: “Fanguanong” as model in the 1960s, the Caoxi beilu line as planned development in the 1970s, “相對集中, 成片改造“ or “舊房利用,內部改造” in the 1980s, and the “365 危棚簡” in the 1990s. Chen Yinfang, Penghuqu, p. 20

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