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Old villa meets Art Deco on Wukang Road

Many old buildings are architecturally beautiful but for me, the most intriguing are the traces all over their facades, walls, roofs and terraces left by layers and layers of historical events.

Standing close to the imposing Normandie Apartments, the butter-hued building at 393 Wukang Road is relatively low, virtually unknown and easy to pass by.

However, it's quite an "eventful" building composed of two distinct parts built in two different eras and in different architectural styles for different uses.

The older southern part is a four-story wood-and-brick villa built from 1912 to 1915 where poet and respected revolutionary leader Huang Xing lived in 1916.

Huang had fought shoulder by shoulder with Dr Sun Yat-sen to overthrow China's last Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Sadly, this hardworking revolutionary only lived in the villa for several months and died there of stomach disease at the age of only 42.

The northern newer part is a four-story ferroconcrete Art Deco structure right on Wukang Road. It was built in 1933 as the Shanghai headquarters of an influential cultural society, Shijie She, or The World Society, which also operated a school on that site for children of intellectuals, China's future leaders.

The complicated history and entirely different architectural styles in one structure make this an interesting place to visit.

Today the older southern part, poet Huang's last home, now houses 27 families, mostly middle-aged and elderly people.

"The building is warm in winter and cool in summer," says resident Jin Guifang, who has been living on the third floor since 1984. "The building is a spacious villa with grand corridors. It's a pity that many families have used the public space as their kitchens or storerooms."

She is right. Though much of the public space has been occupied, I could still imagine the original scale, intricate details and passageways of the original villa.

Topped with red tiles, the house has gray ovals on the exterior walls and a big garden on the south side. The period wooden staircase graced with exquisite patterns is dusty but still in a good shape.

This southern part was designed in a neo-classical style, originally with a parlor, dining room and studio on the second floor and four large en suite bedrooms on the third, according to Qian Zonghao, an architectural historian from Tongji University and co-author of the book "Shanghai Wukang Road."

"Although the space was rearranged over the years, it is still a well-preserved building. Some original fireplaces are maintained," Qian says.

After Huang died in 1916, the villa was used over the years as an exhibition hall, a library and a school by Shijie She, the society founded by Chinese intellectuals in Paris in the 1910s to promote revolution, science and new culture.

Founded in 1936, the Shijie Xuexiao (The World School) recruited children of intellectuals to prepare them for further education in France. The main founder of the society, famed socialist Li Shizeng, himself taught French there.

According to the book "Shanghai Wukang Road," The World School was part of the society's famous "Work-Study Movement" that sent many young Chinese to study in France starting in 1919.

The movement later provided China a considerable number of open-minded talents, including Chinese leaders Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

As a venue for cultural exchange, the building at No. 393 hosted many international exhibitions, and in February 1933 the society received British author and playwright George Bernard Shaw, right after his lunch reception at Soong Ching Ling's home just five minutes' walk away.

The government sponsored the Art Deco expansion in 1933 to fulfill the growing needs of the society's activities. The facade features narrow slit windows, pale yellow plaster and grayish-brown brick.

It is highlighted by two white-on-white panels carved in low relief and titled "Science" and "Democracy." They are still snowy white today.

Just recently the Xuhui District government renovated the Art Deco part as a visitors' center for historical buildings near Wukang Road. The two-floor grand hall features paintings of old houses and models of buildings in the former French Concession.

Old house lovers can download pictures through Bluetooth, read history books and rent bicycles to fully enjoy the history-rich neighborhood.

In 1963 The World School once inside the villa was renamed and relocated 200 meters away but still on Wukang Road. Just two years ago the original name was restored.

Headmaster Liang Bin even announced the resumption of French classes next semester for all students, reminder of those French lessons decades ago for China's Paris-bound future leaders.

From a leader's home, an exhibition hall, a library, a school rich in French culture to a paradise for old house explorers, 393 Wukang Road is low-rise and relatively unknown, compared with its striking Normandie Apartments neighbor.

But knowing a bit of its layers of history, one should not just pass the butter-cream facade by.

No city in China has such a short and vivid history as Shanghai, so colorful, condensed, breathtaking, so East-meets-West. Shanghai has grown from a place of narrow streets to a boom city today in less than 200 years.

On the surface, Shanghai's history has vanished and made room for skyscrapers. But inside and often concealed in the depth of lanes and gardens, thousands of old buildings are telling yesterday's stories in a silent way. That's the charm of our city.

Unlike my previous Shanghai Daily column "History Revisited" years ago about famous old houses, this new biweekly column focuses on old buildings that are not known to the masses. All about the hidden beauties and the untold stories.

For each house featured in this column, I paid a visit. It's exciting to revisit these buildings, find traces of their past like a CSI investigator and put into words the fascinating, forgotten past.

I also suggest you visit some of them in nice weather, or at least cast a long glance at them when you pass by.

To me, old houses sprinkled around the city are like the broken ceramic tiles that adorn Gaudi's Guell Park in Barcelona.

They are small broken pieces, but together they make up a compelling, grand picture of the city's vivid history, bit by bit telling us how our city has grown from an unknown narrow-street town to what it is today in such a short period of time.


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