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August 10, 2011

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Coin collector's dream home

What kind of home would you build if you inherited a great fortune? Known for his collection of precious ancient Chinese coins, collector Zhang Shuxun (S.C. Chang) had built a dream house with an inheritance in the 1930s - a trendy villa with a huge garden which is now hidden inside the yard of the administrative building for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra at 105 Hunan Road.

According to the book "Shanghai Wukang Road: A Historical Approach to Urban Regeneration," Zhang's villa in a contemporary style was designed by the Palmer & Turner Studio, one of the city's most prolific architecture firms at that time. The firm had also designed many buildings on the Bund, including the monumental Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank building.

The three-story simply cut villa topped with a flat roof was stunningly avant-garde among a galaxy of British and Spanish mansions in the community along Wukang Road.

The "China Hong List," an annual business and residential directory published by English newspaper The North China Daily News & Herald in 1936 indicated two similar garden villas at the location belonging to Zhang, according to Qian Zongyao, a researcher of architectural history from Tongji University.

"The eastern one inside the orchestra yard was Zhang's former home while the other one at 119 Wukang Road was once the home of Zhang's nephew Zhang Congyu. During World War II the Zhangs sold the houses and moved to the United States," says Qian.

After entering the yard on the quiet Hunan Road, it was a short walk to the villa, which was surrounded by a large green lawn.

The villa looks a bit plain at first glance, but it must have been very stylish back in the 1930s when shikumen (stone-gated) houses and classic European buildings were still playing a leading role in Shanghai's architectural scene.

Topped with scarlet tiles, the villa has a vivid facade - butter-colored walls dotted with red bricks, flat roof and lots of windows. The lawn is green and large compared with the city's many surviving garden villas.

Born to a super wealthy family in the ancient town Nanxun in Zhejiang Province in 1899, Zhang had a famous uncle named Zhang Jingjiang, an influential Kuomintang senior official who had been the mentor of the late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek in his early years.

According to the book "The Zhang Jingjiang and Zhang Shiming Family" by historian Song Luxia, Zhang Shuxun decided to build his own home after inheriting a good fortune from his father Zhang Shiming.

House owner Zhang was described as a "happy prince with great curiosity" in the book, who was fond of playing tennis, horse racing and car racing among many other Western pursuits. It seems that "he had never grown up, always playing and pursuing 'novel things'."

The "happy prince" spent almost two years before finally finding this "ideal green land," which was then owned by a British merchant who built a classic-style villa, where he displayed a mini collection of trains on the lawn.

Zhang disliked the villa, so he only bought the lawn "as big as four tennis courts" to start building his own dream house.

The interior of the villa is well preserved. An artful dark-wood staircase leads to the second floor, which is still paved with the original teak-wood floors. The former master room is designed with a beautiful curved window which is now an office for the orchestra's general manager.

"The bathroom of the master room was formerly in a green tone with walls all paved with green tiles. Even the bath tub and water basin were decorated with green mosaics, a very beautiful emerald green," says Zou Qi, a senior staff member with the orchestra.

"The other bathroom on the second floor was all in a creamy yellow tone. Last year an unidentified old man came back to visit the house and said he used to live here. He might be a descendant of the Zhang family."

It is said Zhang took around 2,000 precious ancient Chinese coins when he moved to the US, where he made great profits from stock market investments. He reportedly lost much of his fortune after World War II. His coin collection was sold after he died in 1948. Some of the family's antiques are now exhibited at Shanghai Museum.

Since 1956 the century-old Shanghai Symphony Orchestra moved into the dream house once built by a "happy prince" who may have never grown up.


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