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April 28, 2018

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Shanghai’s 1931 YMCA marked China’s architectural renaissance

IN 1931, the Chinese YMCA Building was regarded “a first successful attempt in which Chinese architecture is incorporated into modern structure.” Today, it still stands tall, as a boutique hotel, with blue glazed tiles glistening in the heart of Shanghai.

“With the exception of pagodas, old Chinese buildings, most of which were made of wood, rarely have more than two floors,” says Tongji University Professor Qian Zonghao.

“But starting from the late 1920s, the Chinese government began to call upon Chinese to revive traditional culture, and Chinese architects applied their Western knowledge to design taller buildings with traditional elements. We call it ‘Chinese Renaissance Style’.”

When “the new $1 million Chinese YMCA building” was nearing completion in the August of 1931, the China Press called it “a harmonious composite of East and West” and “one of the most modern of its type in the Far East.”

“The lower level forming the base of the building is constructed of precast artificial stone ashlars, the upper part being faced with Taishan red face bricks and the top story treated with the effect of pillars and beams, latticed window work and the usual Chinese roof of glazed temple tiles,” the report said.

The nine-story building was erected as the new edifice for the Chinese Young Men’s Christian Association. The history of the YMCA dates back to 1844 when Englishman George Williams founded the international organization.

The YMCA in Shanghai was established in 1900 by a galaxy of Chinese elites and sponsors, including diplomat Yan Huiqing and prominent businessman Charlie Soong, father of the famous Soong sisters.

Although an institution with a religious background, the YMCA was not engaged in preaching religion but carried out various activities focusing on young people. The new building hosted numerous lectures, concerts, drama performances, art exhibitions and sports activities. Many celebrities including famous Chinese writer Lu Xun hosted talks here.

During China’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45), Chinese intellectuals initiated “Tuesday dining party” in the restaurant hall of the building.

These functions, in the name of dining parties, were informal forums that united people to engage in the underground fight against Japanese aggression.

Among the speakers were famous US correspondents Anna Louise Strong and Edgar Snow. The Chinese translation of Snow’s “Red Star over China,” an influential account of the Chinese revolution, was published with the support of “Tuesday dining party” members.

After 1949, the building became the state-owned Huaihai Hotel, but ownership was handed back to the YMCA in 1978, which still has an office inside but rents out most of the building to the Jinjiang Metropolo Hotel Classiq, a boutique hotel.

“The Chinese YMCA resumed its function in 1984 and is more of an organization today for social services,” says Ma Zhaozhen, director of YMCA Shanghai.

“We provide services ranging from education to culture, sports and day care in more than 10 community centers across the city. Every year, 3 million people — from children to youngsters and the elderly — benefit from YMCA services and activities, more or less changing their lives.”

Today, most of historical features are well-preserved. Walking through the stone-arched gate of the hotel is like entering a small Chinese palace. Most rooms are decorated in Chinese style, with tastefully decorated beamed ceilings that are set off with wood-panelled walls, retaining it’s original style.

“The composition shows a pleasant nicety of proportion of the Western order and yet every detail in the essential features and ornamentations is worked out strictly in accordance with the Chinese style of good taste,” a journalist for the China Press wrote in 1931.

“It can be safely said that this building is one of the first, if not the only, successful attempts to create a modern tall building in the Chinese architectural style and to prove that this style of architecture has become not only a study of archaeology but a living style of architecture.”

The building was designed by a trio of US-trained Chinese architects — Poy Gum Lee, Fan Wenzhao and Zhao Shen — according to Tongji University Associate Professor Qian Feng.

Fan and Zhao, both graduates from the University of Pennsylvania, also co-designed Nanking Theatre which is today the Shanghai Concert Hall (P8-9, Shanghai Daily, April 14).

“Unlike them, Lee was born in New York in 1900 and studied architecture in Price College, MIT, Columbia University and won a diploma from New York State University,” says Qian.

Before coming to Shanghai as a YMCA architect in 1923, Lee had worked in the New York office of American architect Henry Murphy, a foremost architectural proponent of the incorporation of Chinese architectural elements into modern construction.

“Familiar with Murphy’s manners and treatments, Lee later used the new style extensively in his China projects including the Chinese YMCA Building,” Qian says.

Although born and educated in the US, Lee’s architectural education in several renowned American universities coincided with the emergence of this modern Chinese style.

A year after the Chinese YMCA Building was completed in 1931, he adapted Chinese architectural elements and motifs to the eight-story bureau for the National Committee of the Young Women’s Christian Association of China which still stands on Yuanmingyuan Road near the Bund.

Qian notes that besides a rainbow of YMCA buildings across China, this prolific architect also took over the work for constructing Dr Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, a typical example of Chinese renaissance style, after chief architect Lu Yanzhi suddenly died of disease in 1929.

Lee, Lu, Fan and Zhao had all worked in Murphy’s office in New York. They were regarded as modern China’s first generation of architects, since building in China traditionally adhered to regional traditions, and architecture did not then exist as a profession.

During the first decades of the 20th century, many young Chinese were sent to America and Europe and later brought back skills to help modernize China.

“Like Fan, Zhao and other Chinese architects, Lee later turned to more modern style, and a noteworthy work is the Cosmopolitan Apartments, a simply cut Spanish-style building with Art Deco details hidden in a lane of Nanjing Road W.,” Qian says.

However, Lee’s successful career in China was cut short by the Japanese invasion, and in 1945 he repatriated to design projects in New York’s  Chinatown where he was born and grew up. This time he brought architectural modernism from China to New York and became the first Chinese-American architect to design for clients in Chinatown.

To commemorate Lee who bridged two cultures, the Museum of Chinese in America in New York hosted an exhibition titled “Chinese Style, Rediscovering the Architecture of Poy Gum Lee 1923-1968” in 2015.

The exhibition displayed a photo of Lee with a colleague fronting the grand Mausoleum of Dr Sun Yat-sen and his drawings of Chinatown projects. Most of these buildings featured big roofs and colorful paintings that resembled the blue-tiled hotel in the heart of Shanghai.

Yesterday: YMCA Building

Today: Jinjiang Metropolo Hotel Classiq

Address: 123 Xizang Rd S.

Architects: Fan Wenzhao, Zhao Shen and Poy Gum Lee

Architectural style: Chinese Renaissance

Date of completion: 1931

Tips: The hotel has a mini exhibition featuring archive photos of the building’s rich history near the lobby. Poy Gum Lee’s other work in the Chinese renaissance style, the YWCA building at 133 Yuanmingyuan Road, is also worth a visit. Both buildings are well-preserved and feature amazingly beautiful interiors.


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