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April 20, 2011

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A breathtaking garden

Spring is for outings but is there any garden or park in this city that is big, beautiful and almost empty? The answer is "yes" - Ye's Garden deep in the grounds of a hospital in Yangpu District.

This perfect classical garden is an oasis of calm in the leafy grounds of the Shanghai Pulmonary Hospital on Zhengmin Road.

History always leaves relics. A recent documentary about the history of the Bund describes legendary life of Ye Chengzhong, a Ningbo tycoon who made a fortune from his good heart and business smarts in the late 19th century in Shanghai.

Although Ye had been dead for more than a century and his family had already left Shanghai, this amazing garden built by his son is well-maintained and tranquil.

Ye's Garden was completed and open to the public in 1923 by Ye Yiquan, the fourth son of tycoon Ye, according to Yangpu District records. The garden was funded with profits the son had made from running a racetrack since 1910. He built the garden to entertain racecourse patrons.

I visited the garden on a Saturday afternoon when it unfortunately turned cloudy as I entered the hospital. A blue signboard and a long, narrow path guided me into the garden.

It was such a large and breathtakingly quiet garden with almost no visitors except me. I felt a bit unreal walking in such a garden hidden away in our densely populated city.

A mirror-like lake is the centerpiece, which was dotted with small rocks and crossed with a bridge. Around it are pavilions of many styles. Pine trees, magnolia, maple, camphor trees and bamboo are just part of the plantings.

Although full of Oriental ambience, the garden appeared to be designed in a simpler and cleaner style, which came from its Japanese designer.

Standing there I could feel a Zen mood in the cloudy air. Without a good heart, Ye's family may never have built a perfect garden like this.

Born into a poverty-stricken family in Ningbo of Zhejiang Province, Ye quit school and went to Shanghai to start working as an apprentice in a grocery store at the age of 14. With a small saving, he bought a mini-boat and spoke simple English as he sold food to foreign sailors.

According to the book "The Century-Old Famous Factories and Stores in Shanghai" (1987), an American business man once hired Ye's boat for a ride in 1862. But he left behind a briefcase full of cash and valuables.

Ye waited for a long time for the owner to return the briefcase. When he did, he was greatly touched by Ye's honest. The American businessman helped him open the city's first hardware shop on Daming Road in Hongkou District, selling much-needed tools and suppliers to sailors and military personnel at premium prices.

As the hardware business boomed, Ye expanded into many areas, including finance, commerce, industry, shipping and education, and made important contributions before he died in 1899. In the documentary, the growth of Ye's business empire also echoed with the development of the Bund at the early stage.

It was interesting wandering in the seemingly vast garden (originally around 50,000 square meters) and recalling Ye's life stories. Deep in the garden stands a white classical Western building, highlighting a portico supported by large ionic columns.

I was enamored of the multicolored mosaic flooring of the two-story building, which is unused now. The delicacy of the many geometrical patterns could be detected beneath the layers of dust and it appeared to be an artist's muted palette.

According to the district records, Ye's son, Ye Yiquan, donated the garden in 1933 to Shanghai Medical College, and was renamed Chengzhong Pulmonary Sanatorium in his father's honor. The son made the decision after hearing his teacher Yan Fuqing, head of the medical college, say tuberculosis patients needed a place for healing.

During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), the medical school and grounds were occupied by Japanese military officials; at the end of the war in 1945, it was restored to the medical college.

It has been 88 years since the creation of this rare garden. After wars, turmoil and changes over the past century, the garden is well preserved and tended. According to the Ye family's wishes, it is enjoyed by pulmonary patients.

Around 150 years go, when penniless Ye patiently waited on his boat with a briefcase stuffed with riches, he never imagined that his good heart and honorable behavior would lead to his own riches - and this beautiful garden.

Tales of Tiles

Inspired by a hand-written archive, I started to explore Shanghai's historical buildings six years ago and began a Shanghai Daily column about them.

The column became popular, was turned into a book, suspended for a while and resumed last May in our Expo Daily.

In 2011, this biweekly column continues to tell tales of buildings. I will also write about historical buildings in other cities and the interesting people who built them, lived in them and were part of the mosaic of their time.

Old buildings represent a unique spirit of our city, which has grown from an ordinary place of narrow streets to a booming metropolis in less than 200 years.

It's fun to discover the stories behind old buildings. The problems, concerns and interests of the designers and dwellers in this "Paris of the East" are very similar to those of today.

I visited each building featured in this column, sometimes I paid several visits.

It's exciting to revisit these buildings, finding traces of their past like a CSI investigator and putting into words the fascinating, forgotten past.

Quite often I feel like the character Ruth in Amy Tan's novel "The Bonesetter's Daughter," who happened to read her mother's diary and understood, with a throbbing heart, what life really was for her

To me, old houses scattered around the city are like the broken ceramic bricks that adorn Gaudi's Gurell Park in Barcelona.

They are small broken pieces, but together they make up a compelling, grand picture of the city's vivid history.

Finally, I suggest you pay a visit to some of these houses, as I did.


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