The history of a Shanghai villa

Update: The Atlantic has published “The Elegant History of Shanghai’s Rundown Communal Villas” which I wrote based on this post. But I had the luxury of adding more context of villas serving as public housing, and discovering more interesting facets of this villa on Beijing West Lu. Such as, it served as a foreigners-only dormitory known as Henley Home prior to belonging to the Shanghai Huiming Flashlight Company. (The post will be remain sticky for a day.)

Even from a distance, the former residence of Wu Tingfang* (伍廷芳) tucked in along Beijing West Lu (北京西路) looked huge. The red brick so common in Queen Anne architecture in Shanghai seemed to burn under the sun at half-noon. Under the main porch, mumbled voices mingling with the clattering of tiles as a cluster of middle-aged to ancient residents played a lazy game of mahjong. Nobody batted an eyelash to a stranger in their midst as they were used to visitors with cameras.

Wu Tingfang House 05

Wu Tingfang House 02

I entered through two sets of aged wooden doors flung open in welcome and adjusted my eyes to the dim hallway. It opened up into an airy space and a magnificent stairwell bathed in sunlight. The first thing one noticed was how aged the interior looked. Dust was lodged in every crevice of the intricate woodwork along the side of the banisters. Sunrays colored by glass windows illuminated European-styled arcs and moldings against tired and stained walls.

The floors creaked underfoot as I run my fingers along the sides walls where electrical switches on each floor controlled the over 50 households in the house. On the second floor, I could hear the hiss of wet vegetables against a smoking wok coming from the common kitchen. Next door, someone flushed a toilet and I later discover them to be in their original state. The suspended wooden stall doors gave little privacy to a human squatting atop the hole in the floor. It was rudimentary and uncomfortable.

Wu Tingfang House 03

A pair of middle-aged women was gossiping excitedly in Shanghainese as I continued upstairs. They giggled when I guessed them to be sisters and later shared with me a few tidbits of the history of the villa. As did many other passing residents, including an older man in a leather Mao flat cap, a heavily wrinkled woman stroking her cat and a middle-aged man wheeling his bike out. Everyone gave a different anecdote that seemed to map the many points of history of this house and they were similarly proud of its heritage.

The villa was built in 1910 and first served as the residence of Wu Tingfang (伍廷芳), a learned Mandarin official who also acted as an Envoy for the Qing Government in the United States, Spain and Peru. In America, Wu promoted Chinese culture and advocated efforts to mitigate discrimination against Chinese emigrants working in the country. Under Sun Yat-sen, Wu served as foreign minister to the Republic of China and even as acting president in Sun’s absence. He later passed away in 1922 in Guangdong.

(As past lives would intertwine, I later discovered that Wu had lived in beautiful Romanesque Revival style house* (now a boring looking apartment block) on Q Street in Washington DC, a block from my old apartment when I lived in the district.)

Wu Tingfang 1908

Wu Tingfang Washington DC

The villa in Shanghai was later taken over as a factory and dormitory by the Daxing Tobacco Company (大新香烟厂) and subsequently sold to the boss of Shanghai Huiming Tochlight Company (汇明电筒厂) named Ding Xiongzhao (丁熊照).

Ding had started his company in 1925 and grew to become the “King of Batteries”. He was unlikely to have stayed in Shanghai after the Communists came to power in 1949 as he had amassed significant wealth and businesses in the US and Europe. Records showed him settling and later passing away in Hong Kong in 1976. The house continued to serve as a dormitory for workers of the former Shanghai Huiming, whose descendants still live in the house till this day.

The current state of the villa – individual cramped quarters with backward communal amenities, facades in need of better upgrades and conservation – is still a common sight in Shanghai’s many old neighborhoods. So much so that the villa was deemed perfectly authentic to serve as a location set for a 2009 television series called  “Dwelling Narrowness” or “wo ju” (蜗居). It literally translates into “snail house” but “humble abode” is a less awkward translation.

The TV series revolved around two sisters who struggled with life in a fictional city that strongly resembled present-day Shanghai. The plot focused on the sacrifices the sisters undertook to afford a home in the city – the younger sister becoming a mistress to a married politician while the other lived in a small room in the very villa with her husband as they scrimped to save money for a future together.

The show highlighted the conflicts arising from the widening gap between rich and poor, political corruption and an erosion of traditional Chinese family values. In particular, against the background of a real estate bubble in China and rising inflation, “Dwelling Narrowness” hit a chord with many viewers, especially in Shanghai, who saw themselves ball-chained for decades to burdensome mortgages like “house slaves” (房奴).

Wu Tingfang House 06

Wu Tingfang House 04

A resident told me that he appeared as an extra in the TV series and conveyed a mixed sense of pride and exasperation about the villa. “Everything is very much in its original form,” he said as he pointed out the sealed up fireplace, subtle moldings and wooden carvings, “That’s why the TV crew wanted to film here. They clearly appreciate the house, and I hope that the government does too. I certainly don’t want to leave.”

And with that, he wheeled his bicycle through the dim hallway and into the bright outdoors, his body cutting a sharp silhouette. My hand still on the banister, I decided to head up for another tour of the villa.

August 2011

* Photos of Wu Tingfang and his Washington DC residence are from Wikipedia Commons.

Wu Tingfang House 07

Wu Tingfang House 08


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