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June 1, 2011

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Art Deco villa of 10 balconies

How many balconies can a three-story villa accommodate and still be elegant? Among the hundred or so historical houses I have visited in the city, none features as many balconies as this Art Deco residence hidden in a quiet lane on Gao'an Road.

The house in Xuhui District was built in 1939 as residence of tycoon Rong Desheng, one of the pioneers of the renowned Rong Family. His son, Rong Yiren, was vice president of China from 1993 to 1998 and was involved in opening China to Western investment.

Today the butter-yellow villa serves as the Xuhui District Children's Palace where primary school students learn music, calligraphy, dancing and kung fu on weekends.

I visited on an early spring afternoon when it was bathed in a mild sunlight. The paint is peeling and the building is run down due to lack of preservation, but the condition is original.

The main facade is simple and modern, with clean curving lines and white trim around windows and doors of various shapes and sizes. Two white Doric columns support the portico, the white a nice contrast with the yellow exterior.

The interior looks more historical. The patterned terrazzo ground floor, the artful staircase and the wooden parquet floors on the second and third floors are all original. Some doors, windows and copper fittings and knobs are still functional.

Born in 1875 in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, Rong Desheng and his older brother Rong Zongjing started out in Shanghai as apprentices in a traditional Chinese private bank.

There they studied the business and opened their own small private bank in 1896, according to researcher Zhang Sheng from Shanghai Academy of Social Science.

The Rong brothers switched to manufacturing and opened a flour mill in 1902 and a textile mill in 1907; in the 1920s and 30s they owned 12 flour mills and nine textile mills.

The residence was built during hard financial times for the family, according to "Old Shanghai's Famous Residences" published by Tongji University.

When World War II broke out, the family lost their Wuxi factories that were bombed by the Japanese. The death of the elder brother Rong Zongjing in 1937 also set back the management of the family business.

With only a limited amount of wheat in the warehouse, Rong Desheng reopened the business and further expanded to 16 flour mills and 18 textile factories by the end of the war in 1945.

Housekeeper Shen Huiying, a middle-aged local woman, showed me around. The house built during hard times is still striking and elegant.

The corridors are now decorated with traditional Chinese paintings by students. The former bedrooms, converted to classrooms, now are filled with the fragrance of black ink used to practice calligraphy. Shen adored the balconies and tried to show me each one.

I was dazzled by the many balconies and lost count. But after I left the building and walked around - I counted 10.

They are in many sizes and some curve and wrap around corners. Most face east, but some fast west and north. Some are spacious, longer than 10 meters, some are tiny and practical.

"It's nice to stand on the balcony to appreciate the pine trees and blossoming flowers that grow like waves in the garden," says Shen who has worked in the house for seven years.

She also showed me hidden closets, which most rooms contained.

Life is full of turns and twists. As Rong's business reached a peak in 1946, he was kidnapped along with his son Rong Yixin on April 25. After 33 days of harsh captivity and payment of US$500,000 in ransom, both were released. The kidnappers were captured.

Rong Desheng returned to his hometown Wuxi and died in 1952. His daughter Rong Shuren continued to live in the house and married into the Yang Family next door.

In 1956, the house became the district children's palace.

"An old man from Taiwan visited the house last autumn," recalls Xu Xuping, director of the children's palace. "He claimed to be son of Rong Shuren and wanted to take back some of his father's books, which he had kept for the family on the third floor for many years."

As I left the house and counted the 10 balconies, I appreciated the designer's skill in shaping and arranging the balconies so they do not overpower the three-story residence.

The balconies appear to merge into the house that had witnessed the ebbs and flows of the fortunes of one of Shanghai's most powerful businessmen.


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