Enclaves, “Foreignness” and Architecture

Enclaves, “Foreignness” and Architecture

Ran Mei and Huaye Wei


Chinatowns, foreign concessions and religious city-state share a common character of “foreignness”. They are zones in which their inhabitants are “foreign” from the countries that the zones are located in. Because of the “foreignness”, architecture in those areas are usually designed in a way that not only represent their inhabitants by presenting unique cultural elements but also separating themselves from the local context by accommodating their own architecture styles. Furthermore, due to their foreign identities and geographical disadvantages, the architecture has to interact with its representations to reserve and protect the ethnic or religious identities of their inhabitants from being affected or even lost in the larger surrounding environment. This paper focuses on the effect of “foreignness” on the architecture in three very different contexts; Chinatowns as ethnic enclaves, western concessions in China during WW1 and WW2 as political enclaves and the Vatican City State as religious enclave.


Chinatowns as ethnic enclaves

Chinese Telephone Exchange, 743 Washington Street, San Francisco, 1909

Chinatowns are historically any ethnic enclave of expatriate Chinese, Hong Kongese, Macanese and Taiwanese people. Areas known as ‘Chinatown’ exist throughout the world, including the Americas, Europe, Africa, Australasia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. One of the oldest chinatowns was built in Nagasaki, Japan, originally as home for many Chinese sailors and traders who trade goods with the Japanese from the 15th to 19th centuries and generally developed to a Chinese-themed commercial district. The oldest the and biggest chinatown in the U.S was established in 1848, in downtown San Francisco. Since its establishment, the Chinatown has been an enclave that continues to retain its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. In this microcosmic Asian world, filled with herbal shops, temples, pagoda roofs and dragon parades,traditions and Chinese characteristics are largely amplified and dramatized, in the folklore and, especially in the architecture of Chinatown.

In Winston Kyan’s essay “Electric Pagodas Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 8.33.07 PMand Hyphenate Gates”, he described chinatown as “a space of tension and contradiction in which the visual culture of difference is packaged for consumption.” The architecture of chinatown interact with its representation to tell the tales of Chinatown as providing ethnic protection for its inhabitants as well as as translating ethnic difference for broader consumption.

The “Old” San Francisco Chinatown, the enclave before 1906, were developed organically around Portsmouth Plaza, neighboring the wealthy residential area of Nob Hill and the financial district. Occupying the valuable real estate of the city, the Chinatowns was the subject of extensive political debate for the city politicians and officials who oftentimes deemed the area an eyesore and health hazard since its wooden buildings and tenement houses were far from aesthetically pleasing and was overpopulated.

After the fire that followed the 1906 Earthquake receded Chinatown to smoldering ashes, there was a movement by the Reconstruction Committee to relocate the community or eradicate it all together. In order to save their community from being uprooted, Chinese leaders convinced municipal leaders and the neighborhoods white landlords that the “New” Chinatown should be rebuilt in a distinctive Oriental style that would attract more tourism and business hence boosting San Francisco’s economy as whole. The results were the familiar curved eaves, colorful street lanterns, recessed balconies, and gilded facades that we today instantly associate with Chinatown. Most importantly, the enclave was rebuilt at its original locale.

Emphasizing their “foreignness”, the original builders Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 3.16.32 PMof Chinatown created an architectural fantasy of chinoiserie. At the same time, the appropriation of architectural specificities that were reserved for high-ranking buildings in traditional China spoke to a collective cultural pride. Marked by tiered roofs, flying eaves, elaborated bracketing and dragon-emblished columns, the pagoda-styled architecture presented memories and imaginations of the remote land for both the inhabitants and the local residents.

The visual tropes of post-earthquake chinoiseries discussed above are replicated in the Chinese Telephone Exchange at 743 Washington Street, completed in 1909 under the direction of its manger Kum Shu Loo. As a pagoda that accommodated the mythic traditions of a remote homeland and the latest innovations of current technology, The Chinese Telephone Exchange maintained a distinct fusion of culture and commerce, past and present. Moreover, unlike many other Chinatown buildings in which the “oriental” decoration were essentially added to the Western architectural forms of massive steel-and-brick emporia, the Chinese Telephone Exchange depended on traditional Chinese building techniques for both its structural integrity, with beams supported by columns that sat on bases, and its visual appearance, with eaves creating a rhythmic facade that did not reflect the floors within.


Foreign concession territories as political enclaves

The Bund, Shanghai, 1842-1960

the bund analysis  copyThe_Bund_Shanghai_Simon_Fieldhouse-2

Concessions in China were a group of enclaves in China’s main treaty ports that were governed and occupied by foreign powers. The first treaty ports in China were British and were established in 1842 as the aftermath of the First Opium War by the Treaty of Nanking in which China was forced to open up key ports for trade, lease territories and make other concessions to foreign “spheres of influence”. Following the end of the Arrow War in 1860, more than 80 treaty ports were established in major port cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Hanko, controlled by Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan and other foreign forces. In these concessions, the citizens of each foreign power were given the right to freely inhabit, trade,convert and travel. They developed their own cultures districts remotely like the rest of China with the intention to exclude their own little world from the chaotic and troublesome site.

Each administration try to make their concession feel or, at least, look like home, and at the same time, distinguishable from the “neighborhood”. As a result, the architecture in each concession present a unique architectural style that represent the identity of their possessors, making the concession port areas into many “Museum of World architecture”. The “Bund” of Shanghai, for example,  which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River and was lined by over fifty Japanese, Russian, French, German, British, Dutch, and US banks,trading markets and consulates of various styles, displaying predominantly Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic Revivals, Beaux-Arts styles, and some in Art Deco style.

The mini-collection of Western architecture separated itself so distinctively from the old Chinese neighborhood that arrogantly clamor for their sovereignty and privilege as conquerers. Ironically, some of these concessions eventually had more advanced architecture of each originating culture than most cities back in the countries of the foreign powers.


The Vatican City State as religious enclave

The Vatican Wall, the border of Vatican City in Rome, 1400 – 1930vaticancity

The Vatican City State is a landlocked sovereign city-state whose territory consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome. It has an area of approximately 110 acres, and a population of around 840. This makes Vatican City the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world by both area and population. Originally known as the Papal States, the city of Vatican fought for its independence twice, first from the Holy Roman Empire in 1177, later from the Kingdom of Italy in 1920.

Unlike the buildings of chinatowns and foreign concessions,which were purposely built in certain styles that distinguish themselves from the local context, although the independent city-state was not established until 1929, the building of the Vatican can be  dated as early as the 6th century when Emperor Constantine built his first Basilica of St. Peter above the grave, more than a millennium before Italy was unified as one country. In order to protect its invaluable legacy and property, the popes decide to enclose the Vatican city with thick walls.

The construction of the Vatican Wall started with Leo IV in the 800s to build a defensive wall to protect the holy shrine, due to the falling of the Roman Empire and often invasions of barbarians during medieval era. Before building the wall, the Vatican area was poorly used;  Only rovers coming to Rome to worship St.Peter’s grave. The walls formed a small enclave that remained separated from Rome for more than eight centuries. Only in 1585 the city was officially included in the Rome’s historical districts called Borgo. By the mid sixteenth century, pope Pius IV had a new set of walls built around the Vatican, along the direction of Vitelleschi , which became the new city boundary, opened with two main gates called Porta Castello and Porta Angelica. When the wall was taken down in 1888, Porta Castelo was replaced by two modern archways that shaped as identical as Porta Angelica with a square frame topped by the coat on pope’s arms. Two stone-carved angels stand on the sides of the gate, which were carved with inscriptions, “POPE PIOUS IV BUILT THE NEW GATE AND THE WALLS FROM THEIR VERY FOUNDATIONS” and “WHOEVER WANTS THE REPUBLIC TO BE SAFE, FOLLOW US”.

Shortly after 1929, when the Vatican become independent, a modern wall was built that now marks the official boundary between Italy and the Vatican State. Nowadays, constantly looked over by Swiss Guards, a small gate called Porta Sant’Anna is the only access to the Vatican state for non-Vatican citizens.



In the three enclaves, architecture were designed in response to their representations and their inhabitants’ attitudes towards the surrounding environment. Their “foreignness” was emphasized through architectural languages of each enclave. As a way to protect the ethnic legacy of its residents and to preserve its locale in an longer economical term, the architects of San Francisco Chinatown created a distinctive yet politicized fantasy of chinoiserie. With the goal to exclude themselves from the larger setting, the western occupiers of concessions in Shanghai built their neighborhood in purely western architectural styles regardless of the site. As for the Vatican City State, when using distinguish architectural style was not an option, a thick wall that enclose the whole city works just fine.



“Enclave and Exclave” last modified October 2013  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enclave_and_exclave

“Ethnic enclave” last modified on 16 October 2013  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_enclave

D. Camus, France  “Paris of the Orient” The Shanghai French Concession http://www.medicographia.com/2010/04/paris-of-the-orient-the-shanghai-french-concession-1849-1946/

Winston Kyan, “Electric Pagodas and Hyphenate Gates: Folklore, Folklife, and the Architecture of Chinatown”, Amerasia Journal vol. 39 , 2013-01, http://aascpress.metapress.com/content/N13G62165V14U381

“Concessions in China”  last modified on 19 June 2013 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concessions_in_China

“The Fake China”  last modified on October 2010 http://thefakechina.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/concession-kitsch-2/

“Unequal Treaty” last modified 14 September 2013 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unequal_treaty


John Thavis “On This Rock – Architecture of the Vatican” http://www.officialcatholicdirectory.com/special-feature-article/architecture-of-the-vatican.html


“The Roman Question” last modified on 21 October 2013 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Question


Simon Fieldhouse, “Shanghai Architecture – buildings on the Bund” http://www.simonfieldhouse.com/galleries/shanghai/

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