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February 23, 2011

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Spinning a yarn about a factory called the Cloister

The building known as The Cloister, at 62 Fuxing Road W., is not and never has been a cloister. As a resident living nearby, I passed by this mysterious yellow house many times before I recently paid a visit.

Though the neighborhood is graced by many similar Spanish-style villas, the so-called Cloister at Fuxing and Yongfu roads, is bright, eye-catching lemon-yellow.

It is, in fact, a complex consisting of two buildings, a two-story house in front and a three-story structure just behind; the two are connected by a gallery.

It once was a knitting yarn factory and residence of the owner.

I visited the front building, which is now the office of the Hunan Road Neighborhood Committee. Despite renovations to make it function as a government office, the building is well preserved and its original feeling remains.

While officials and residents ran in and out for business, I cautiously climbed the stairs near the grand gate.

Both the staircase and the second floor are dark in color, very dim. Spanish elements were prominent. Here and there I could see arches, spiral-shaped pillars and cast-iron railings.

The staircase finally led me to the loft with an antique wooden door. I opened the door and a large, bright balcony opened before me.

It was beautiful and empty, except for the withered leaves from the tall phoenix trees on Fuxing Road.

Red Spanish-style tiles were arranged in undulating curves, which reminded me of the platform atop Gaudi's Casa Mila in Barcelona.

The balcony offered a perfect view of Fuxing Road in the south and the sister yellow building to the north. The afternoon I visited, it was airy and sunny, full of historical ambience.

According to the book "Old Shanghai Classic Apartments" by Tongji University Publishing House, the Cloister was built in 1930 for the UK-based Knitting Yarn Mill of Patons and Baldwin.

The front building was the owner's residence, while the back structure was the factory.

Due to the popularity of knit-wear in the 1920s, the company opened a branch in Shanghai and produced "Bee" brand yarn.

In the 1930s, the company constructed a factory in Yangshupu of Hongkou District. The factory is also a famous historical industrial building listed in the "Historic Architecture of Modern Shanghai" issued by the Shanghai government.

But why was the residence of a factory boss named the Cloister?

Another book, "Stories of Old Houses along Wukang Road" compiled by the Xuhui District Government, takes a guess at the origin of the name.

According to the book, the neighborhood around the Cloister was part of the third expansion of the former French concession in 1914. At that time the neighborhood was home to many Protestants and Catholics from Europe. Churches mushroomed and several roads near the building were named after religious figures.

For instance, neighboring Wuyuan Road was formerly named Route Monsignor Maresca after Bishop F Xavier Maresca, and Yongfu Road was called Route Pere Huc after a legendary missionary. Hence the term "cloister" may derive from the religious atmosphere of the neighborhood.

Whatever the origins of the name, Bee yarn from the UK and other textile products from Germany and Japan had dominated the Chinese market for some time. In the mid-1930s, Chinese merchants began producing their own brands.

The challengers included Deng Zhonghe's brand "Hero" and the "Double Cats" and "Golden Dog" brands produced by Ningbo textile tycoon Li Shuxiong who built a factory in Shanghai. (His residence was introduced in this column on January 5).

As I stood on the balcony of the Cloister, I appreciated the interesting curves of the red tiles. But I still couldn't figure out why a British yarn producer named his home the Cloister, though the name might have been conferred by others. I guess that's the fascination of history that leaves unanswered questions to fire your imagination.


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