The Old houses that still remain in the ancient city of Wuxi represent the history of the development of the city. The walls, windows, small lanes, and houses built along the ancient canal reflect Chinese culture.
As the birthplace of the Wu Culture, found in the middle of the Shanghai-Nanjing line, Wuxi boasts many southern residential houses with characteristics of the Wu Culture. The houses represent a mixture of national and Western cultures. They show how Wuxi has changed from a prosperous southern town into a commercial and industrial town and then into an economic and cultural center.
Just as Wuxi people like to get together, so do their residential houses. Residents were once divided by trade and position. Cloth businessmen lived on Cloth Trade Lane. Those who made bamboo poles lived on bamboo poles lived on Bambo Lane. The Taozao River was a place for selling goods from both the north and the south. The Mountain Tour Boat Wharf was especially for people from outside Wuxi who came to the temple fair on Mount Huishan on March 3 every year. Beitang Street was the distribution place of rice. Today, Yaochewan, Sibaoqiao, and Xiaoluo Lane are the few old residential houses remained.
The gates of old houses are varied. The stone-carved gate towers in Ming and Qing (1368-1911) styles, also called "captain gate towers," were built with fine and solid bricks. They are carved with figurines in operas and historical legends, birds, flowers, fish, and elephants symbolizing good fortune and prosperity.
Another kind of gate, the "stone warehouse gate," were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. Under the influence of Western buildings, hosts built the gates integrating both national and Western themes. The gates are made of wood, enclosed by stones, and are solid and practical. Some wealthy people carved flower veins on the gates wrapped with iron sheets and stuck nails on the gate in auspicious designs.
The third kind, the "tuichao ban," was used for shops and are thus durable and solid. The gate is composed of several wooden boards. During business hours, the wooden boards were put down. At closing time, they were pushed in one after the other and then locked up with an iron rod.
Common gates, "damen," are inscribed with the characters "da" for ventilation and "men" for entrance. Usually artisans used wood tenons instead of nails.
Windows on old house are in various shapes. Some are made of bricks in geometric designs and are used in corridors or on walls of gardens where there is wind and rain. Some are wooden lattice windows used for guest rooms and are mounted with paper or thin satin. Modern lattice windows are glazed with a piece of glass in the center. In the 1940s and 1950s, wooden-frame glass windows were common in Wuxi. There is another gate named "geshan" (separating with fans) that has a window above the gate. Usually, the gate were decorated with four fans and inlayed with a thick board engraved with figurines, birds and flowers.
There are cross lanes, water-separation lanes and wall-seperation lanes. In northern China, small lanes are called "hutong." But in the south, they are named "nongtang." Small lanes formed because Wuxi people liked to live in compact communities. Long or short, wide or narrow, straight or zigzag, those small lanes made travelling easy for residents. Cross lanes made full use of space--residential houses are built up high and the lanes passed beneath them. The water-separation lanes were built to channel rain water away from the base of houses. Wall-separation lanes were constructed between wealthy people's courtyards.
Tiger Kitchen Range
"Tiger Kitchen Range" refers to small shops that sell hot water. The fuel mouths were like the head of a tiger, the two big pots like the body of the tiger, and the chimney like the tail. Before, residents had to queue to get hot water, but now they take hot showers at home. At present, only eight such kitchen ranges remain in Wuxi.