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June 22, 2019

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The fascinating history of life of Pei and his family homes

WORLD-RENOWNED Suzhou-born architect Ieoh Ming Pei — better known as I.M. Pei — who designed the Louvre’s glass pyramid and Qatar’s iconic Museum of Islamic Art, died aged 102 in New York last month.

An East-meets-West (haipai) garden villa at 170 Nanyang Road in Jing’An District showcases the history of the legendary Pei family which has prospered for 15 generations since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

“The villa is designed in Art Deco style with many traditional Chinese details,” says Tongji University professor Zheng Shiling during a lecture about the city’s architectural scene in the 1930s.

“It has an old Chinese layout with a sitting hall in the middle and bedrooms on both sides. The garden courtyard is graced by a well-designed pavilion which is modern-style but features traditional Chinese ambience.”

He adds that there’s a wall in the garden inscribed with 100 Chinese characters shou, or longevity.

The garden house, often known as the Pei Villa, has long been mistaken for a home of I.M. Pei’s father, Tsuyee Pei, a banker who headed the Bank of China.

But it was in fact a property of Pei Runsheng, a dye tycoon from another branch of the Pei family.

It was Pei Runsheng who also purchased the renowned garden — Lion Grove Garden (Shizilin) in Suzhou in 1917.

During his childhood, I.M. Pei spent many hours in this 14th-century garden built by the abbot of an adjacent Buddhist monastery, playing hide-and-seek with his cousins and studying the Chinese classics.

The sanctuary that inspired monks, artists and poets for centuries impacted his aesthetic attitude and architectural design.

American scholar Michael Cannell traced history of the Pei family to the Ming Dynasty in his book “I.M. Pei, Mandarin of Modernism.”

According to Cannell, I.M. Pei belonged to the 15th generation of this large, prosperous lineage of poets, painters, calligraphers and bankers based in Suzhou, a bastion of ornamental gardens and old Chinese crafts such as silk, embroidery and scroll painting.

The first Pei arrived in Suzhou during the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to practice medicine and sell curative herbs from a stall in the marketplace of the Xuanmiao Taoist Temple (Temple of Mystery).

His descendants developed the business into a shop purveying a variety of Chinese medicines using fungi, crushed leaves and ginseng.

By the 18th century, the Peis had become a great land-owning family in the area.

I.M.’s grandfather, Litai Pei, was a powerful and learned man ranking in the top of the ruling gentry. Pei Litai groomed his sons for banking careers, such as his third son, Tsuyee.

Tycoon Runsheng came from a poor branch of the Pei clan. It is said he parlayed two silver dollars his grandfather gave him into a fortune and thus became a tycoon.

Cannell said the tycoon’s ownership of the Lion Grove Garden “lent him a sense of gentility.”

“To own a garden demonstrated a proper appreciation of aesthetic and scholarly matters,” Carnnel wrote in the book. “It was the rough equivalent of a parvenu (person of lowly origin) acquiring a chateau from an impoverished aristocrat.

“Its new inhabitants could renounce the worldly duties outside its walls and devote themselves, as mandarins should, to cultivating bamboo, practicing calligraphy and receiving guests in waterside pavilions.”

As Pei Runsheng had received support from relatives when he was young and poor, he later set up the Pei Ancestral Hall in the Lion Grove Garden and would make generous donations to help other members within the big family, as well as people living in disaster-stricken areas, and poor students.

Although on a much smaller scale, the Pei Villa on Nanyang Road mirrors the tycoon’s Suzhou Garden in some ways.

Just behind downtown Nanjing Road W., formerly known as Bubbling Well Road, the garden house provided a tranquil place with lawns, a pavilion, rockeries, pebble paths and shrubs.

According to Li Zhendong, vice chief architect of the Shanghai Jing’an Real Estate (Group) Co Ltd, where many of Jing’an District’s housing archives were preserved, the villa covers up to 2,011 square meters of land on this prominent location.

“Pei Runsheng made his first bucket of gold from dealing dye with German firms before and after World War I,” Li said.

“He then invested most of his capital in real estate in Shanghai and owned nearly 1,000 buildings, including some tall buildings at the crossroads of Jinling and Sichuan roads near the Bund.

“He was so wealthy that his son, Pei Huanzhang, was asked to attend home school to prevent from been kidnapped.”

According to the Shanghai Archives Bureau, modern Shanghai’s high-profit, low-risk real estate market in the 1920s-30s attracted many wealthy merchants such as Pei from neighboring Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.

For instance, a silk tycoon surnamed Liu owned dozens of lanes on Fuzhou and Guangxi roads.

Almost one year after the purchase of Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou, Pei Runsheng started investing in Shanghai’s real estate and his property gradually added up to 160,000 square meters.

By 1949, according to archive records, there were more than 3,000 Chinese merchants who owned up to 60,000 buildings and houses that covered more than 10 million square meters. Among the top 30, each had more than 30,000 square meters, including Pei Runsheng.

As architectural scholar Cao Wei wrote in his book, “Shanghai Housing After its Opening to Foreigners,” the villa features a Western steel and concrete structure and the newest modern equipment of its times for safety and comfort, such as steel-framed glass windows, air conditioning and an elevator.

At the same time, the Chinese influence is strong. The windows are decorated with the colored pattern of the Chinese character shou.

The swirling staircase is shaped like a huge dragon. The interior of the villa is lavishly embellished with traditional Chinese architectural details. There’s a room for a Buddhist shrine on the second floor.

The East-meets-West Art Deco villa was designed by Chinese architect Gu Pengcheng who graduated from Tongji University and opened an architectural firm in 1935.

Art Deco took its name, short for Arts Décoratifs, from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925.

The style had been inspired by Russian ballet and the archaeological discoveries of ancient Egypt.

The Art Deco vogue coincided with Shanghai’s real estate boom from the 1920s to the 1930s and had a great impact on the city’s architectural scene.

“Just like New York and Paris, Shanghai was then a center of many Art Deco buildings,” Zheng says.

In 2015, when the World Art Deco Congress was hosted in Shanghai, the organizer chose to kick off the congress in the Pei Villa.

Fronting the facade which turned red and purple by a light show, the garden welcomed Art Deco aficionados from around the world.

Pei Runsheng had two sons and seven daughters. His youngest daughter, Pei Juanlin, married a younger dye tycoon named Wu Tongwen.

Pei gave land on Tongren Road to his daughter as a dowry.

Wu commissioned renowned Hungarian-Slovak architect Laszlo Hudec to design the famous Green House, which was only a few minutes’ walk from the Pei Villa.

Both the Green House and the Pei Villa were equipped with an elevator — a novelty in private residences at that time.

The young I.M. Pei left Shanghai to study architecture in the United States in 1935, one year after the completion of this garden villa.

In the 1950s, the villa was used by the Shanghai Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering.

The dancing hall was converted to a dining hall and the bedrooms on the upper floors became a dormitory for young employees.

Today, the villa with refractory brick walls has been turned into a boutique hotel and restaurant. Diners love to wander in the Suzhou-style garden and admire Chinese elements here and there, especially the wall of 100 characters of longevity inscribed by a family of long, successful history.

Today: PEI Mansion Hotel
Yesterday: The Pei Villa
Address: 170 Nanyang Road
Year: Built in 1934
Architectural Style: Art Deco with Chinese elements
Architect: Gu Pengcheng
Tips: The garden villa is open to customers of the restaurant/boutique hotel.

Next building: Henry Lester Institute of Medical Research


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