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May 18, 2011

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Hidden art collection at villa

Shanghai has many Spanish villas but to me the one at 41 Sinan Road was love at first sight.

I found it during a random weekend exploration along the history-rich Sinan Road, where a rainbow of important figures in modern Chinese history once resided, including Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang.

Perched just a few steps from the chic Sinan Mansions, the villa's dome at the northwest corner caught my attention and made me think of a mosque. The dome is covered in red tiles shaped like fish scales, making it stand out from the other Spanish villas in the city.

The house was formerly home to a successful Chinese banker named Yuan Zuoliang, according to the book "An Appreciation on Old Shanghai Famous Residences" published by Tongji University, but is now home to the Shanghai Municipal Research Institute of Culture and History.

The banker, who was influential in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, is sometimes mistaken as the grandson of the general/politician Yuan Shikai, who was famous for his short-lived reign as the "Great Emperor of China" before dying in 1916.

As one of the heading members of Kincheng Bank, Yuan Zuoliang actually had nothing to do with emperor Yuan.

Founded in 1917, the bank was headquartered in Tianjin and was one of the largest banks in China early last century. Facing competition from foreign bankers, Kincheng formed a cooperative venture, the famous Joint Savings Society Bank, in 1923 with three other big northern Chinese banks including Yien Yieh Commercial Bank, Continental Bank and the South Seas Bank.

As the most influential Chinese financial institution, the Joint Savings Society Bank was also known as the owner/commissioner of the Park Hotel, a signature Art Deco building in Shanghai and the tallest building in the country for almost half a century.

In Yuan's former villa residence, Spanish features are prominent, ranging from spiral-shaped pillars, cast-iron railings, red Spanish tiles and vivid artful curves.

"Strictly speaking, this home is a mix-and-match Mediterranean style," says Tongji University researcher Liu Kan, who has completed a study on the city's Spanish architecture.

According to his research, Shanghai has more than 70 places of historical buildings featuring a Spanish style. Some places may contain more than one building and most are sprinkled around the districts of Xuhui, Luwan and Jing'an.

"Spanish and English styles were popular among high-end residences in 1930s Shanghai," he adds. "At the same time Spanish villas were also popular in California.

"Shanghai was so trendy at the time that it was always keeping up with the latest fashion in the West. Compared with French and English houses, Spanish villas were much easier and cheaper to build," Liu says. "I often find that these villas have a Spanish appearance but the interior is designed in a layout suitable for Shanghai dwellers."

The interior of the villa amazed me more than its Spanish exterior.

The inner part of the dome is gorgeous, glistening in a fancy golden light. The hall inside the dome is now an elegant VIP room.

The building has been well preserved with the original parquetry wooden floors, stained glass windows and more surprisingly, dark-wood frames to grace the walls of almost every room.

Art pieces, mostly traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy were put inside the frames, which add some Chinese charisma to the villa.

Covering an area of 800 square meters, the two-story brick-and-wood structure now houses an interesting organization, the Shanghai Municipal Research Institute of Culture and History.

The institute, which was founded in 1953, was initially created to support some intellectuals who could not make a living after 1949.

"For instance, some famous painters who used to sell their works to wealthy officials and tycoons had lost their customers after 1949. And since there were not many foreign books for translators, these people had lost their income and lived a hard life," says Shen Zuwei, director of the institute.

Former Shanghai Mayor Chen Yi founded the institute, which recruited more than 400 high-level intellectuals in the 1950s and gave them a regular allowance. The institute often organized seminars, conducted research and hosted cultural events like art exhibitions.

"Today most intellectuals can make a good living but being a member of the institute is still an honor," says Shen. "Currently we have 136 members and most of them are in their 80s. Among them are famous conductor Chen Xieyang and violinist Yu Lina. The members often gather in this villa and exhibit their new creations. The paintings and calligraphy on the walls are mainly created by our members, who have contributed more than 3,000 works for our institute over the past decades."

Banker Yuan probably never imagined the dark-wood frames he had put on the walls would frame up the city's best art pieces decades later.


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