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September 29, 2010

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Stories of patriotic architect Charlie Chen

Personally, I don't like to write about apartment buildings in this column and I would not write about the plain-looking Jiya Apartments if architect Charlie Chen had not lived there and experienced the May night that changed his life.

I first learned about the Jiya Apartments on Hengshan Road from a black-and-white picture in journalist Wang Jun's famous book "Beijing Record" (2003).

In this photo it appears as an elegant apartments block in a very simple style without much decoration. Following the photo is a description of the night architect Chen Zhanxiang spent on May 26, 1949.

According to the book, "Charlie Chen," Chen Zhanxiang's English name was known to many Britons in the early years after World War II. It is still a prestigious name in the international architectural and urban planning communities.

Chen was also mentioned in my last column because of his admiration for the Chinese-style former Shanghai Government Building built in 1935, which increased his Chinese pride and aroused his interest in being an architect.

Shanghai-born Chen studied at the Architecture School of Liverpool University, played a leading role in London's city planning and drafted the well-known "Liang-Chen Plan" for Beijing in the 1950s with Professor Liang Sicheng.

The plan, which was rejected, would have shifted the capital city's central administration to the west, preserving the old city center and residences.

Without the rainy May night at the Jiya Apartments, Chen would have lived another life. With tickets to Taiwan in hand, he saw the retreating Kuomintang soldiers looting. Hours later, looking from his home on the fourth floor, he was moved by the well-disciplined People's Liberation Army sitting in groups and sleeping piled on top of each other in the rain.

He asked his wife to cook a pot of beef soup for the soldiers who politely refused. Carrying the big pot of hot soup back home, Chen wept, tore the Taiwan tickets to pieces and decided to stay on the Chinese mainland.

Covering more than 4,000 square meters, Chen's apartment building (formerly the Georgia Apartments) was designed by famed architect Fan Wenzhao in 1942.

This low-key reinforced concrete structure in a simple contemporary style has only a few narrow bands of ornamentation on the pale yellow facade. All seven floors and staircases are covered in yellow terrazzo. The interior has neither bold colors nor novel decoration.

According to Wu Jiang's book "A History of Shanghai Architecture 1840-1949," this building was in a typical contemporary style which Fan had adapted after a trip around Europe in late 1935. During the trip he became interested in contemporary architecture and loathed the "Western-style buildings topped with Chinese overhanging roofs."

When I visited on a sunny afternoon, I was surprised to find the first floor is now occupied by a row of mini stores. The upper floors are residential.

After smiling at a middle-aged lady at the gateway, I entered the building, which is much bigger than I had imagined. A resident who has lived there for 50 years told me there were two huge en-suite apartments on each floor and others were very small.

I climbed the stairs that Chen might have mounted more than half a century ago. The higher I climbed, the more winded I became and the quieter I felt in this building on busy Hengshan Road.

In the early 1950s, Chen and Liang proposed the "Liang-Chen Plan" for Beijing's urban development that would both preserve history and construct a modern capital. It was criticized for lacking grandeur and not making the heart of the old city the heart of the new one as well. Only in recent years, belatedly, has the need for historic preservation been recognized.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Chen, an intellectual, was banished to the countryside to plant fruit trees and work as a translator. He returned to work as an architect and urban planner after China's reform and opening-up began in 1978. He was awarded the Edgar Snow Professorship by the University of Missouri in the United States.

In "Prisoners of Liberation - Four Years in a Chinese Communist Prison" (1973) coauthored by Adele and Allyn Rickett, Chen is said to have impressed people with his "precise Oxford accent that seemed completely out of keeping with his dirty, padded blue uniform and rundown boots."

"There was a small dance going on one evening and, after tossing off several martinis and wolfing down the club's best pheasant dinner, he made himself the life of the party by dancing with all the embassy women there," according to the authors, both Americans who spent four years in a prison.

The remaining pictures of Chen (he died in 2001 at age 85) show him wearing a warm and sincere smile, whether he was clad in a suit or padded blue work clothes.

"Beijing Record" author Wang Jun met Chen on a spring morning in 1994.

"This old gentleman wore a suit, a tie and a pair of polished shoes to meet me," recalls Wang. "He was like a noble man, elegant, knowledgeable and full of emotions. He had a deep affection for the country."

"It's a pity he returned to China at a bad time and experienced civil war and the 'cultural revolution' when he was unable to fully develop his talents," says Wang.

In Chen's later years he contributed to urban planning in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.

Wang remembers clearly that spring morning was a sunny day and Chen faced the south window. "He was looking outside the window and the sunlight had cast a shadow of swaying trees in the sitting room. In that moment of this tired old man I saw real history."


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