Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

The rags-to-riches tale of a remarkable woman

The best time to visit the former residence of Dong Zhujun - one of China's first modern businesswomen - is late afternoon on a very sunny day.

Intrigued by Dong's life story - rise from a brothel singer to a national entrepreneur and prominent figure in Shanghai - I bicycled into the former French Concession searching for the lovely yellow villa at 147 Fuxing Road W. just before sunset.

Sadly No. 147 turned out to be a couple of fashion stores, which broke my heart. Another historical building destroyed, I thought. But on closer inspection, I saw a beautifully shaped outdoor staircase, which emerged just a few steps away.

It too was marked No. 147. And a history book I read said this staircase leads to the suite on the third floor where Dong lived in the 1950s.

Dong was a real Chinese version of Henrik Ibsen's Nora. This Shanghai-born woman was sold to a brothel. There she met Kuomintang army officer Xia Zhishi and they fell in love.

He bought her freedom and on a spring night in 1914, the 14-year-old Dong abandoned all her jewelry acquired as gifts in the brothel, and they ran away together.

Xia married her and took her to Japan. There she went to universtiy and received the education that would help her rise to prominence later.

Later the couple returned to Xia's hometown in Sichuan Province where he was returned to his old habits - drinking heavily, gambling and chasing women.

Dong was so devastated that she chose to divorce him, take away their four daughters and start a new life by herself in her hometown Shanghai.

According to records in the Xuhui District Cultural Bureau, No. 147 is a three-story villa built in 1931. Dong used to live in a large suite comprised of six rooms, two bathrooms and one balcony.

It is a nice, quiet building on a delicate scale, flanked by huge trees on Fuxing Road. Compared with the colorful fashion stores nearby, this building is so quiet that I even wonder if anyone is still living there.

Then I heard the sounds of washing dishes and saw a bowl slowly entering the window frame. I walked on the staircase, knocked at the wooden door and an old lady named Li Aizhen kindly let me in.

"Dong used to live on the third floor and famous playwright Ke Ling and his wife lived on the second floor. After they passed away, the room has been empty," says Li who has lived here for nearly 30 years.

Her husband lived there since 1952 and knew many stories about Dong, but he died years ago.

"The inner staircase and the ceramic floor tiles are original. The couple of fashion stores used to be garages of the villa," she says.

As Li says, the building is quite well preserved. The railings of the interior staircase are designed in striking patterns of flowing spirals. The ceramic tiles on the floor are in a warm yellow hue.

One of the few Chinese women who dared to file for divorce in those days, Dong opened a textile factory in Shanghai in 1929; she is said to have been among the first women to own a factory. It was bombed during the Japanese invasion.

Strong and determined, Dong opened the popular Jinjiang Sichuan Cuisine Restaurant on Ninghai Road W. in 1935, drawing on her years' experience in Sichuan. She later opened the Jinjiang Tea House on the same road.

The restaurant was popular and Dong herself rose to prominence. In 1949, Dong helped the government by running Cathay Mansions guesthouse on Changle Road, where shifted her restaurant and teahouse.

The guesthouse became the Jinjiang Hotel famous for receiving foreign VIPs, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former US President Ronald Reagan.

After bidding farewell to lady Li, I closed the period wooden door, walked down the staircase and saw the beautiful shadows cast by the huge trees on the villa, a sharp contrast with the honey-hued walls in the late afternoon sunlight.

Dong never remarried and always put her wedding photo in her bedroom. It is said before her death at age 98, she asked the Irish folk song "The Last Rose of Summer" sung at her funeral. In happier days, it was the couple's favorite song while they were in Japan.

And late afternoon of a very sunny day is a good time to appreciate the villa, where once lived a Chinese Nora, still remembering the man she loved and hated so much.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend