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Tycoon Victor Sassoon built himself a garden villa

Legendary tycoon Victor Sassoon is remembered this summer with the reopening of the Bund landmark Peace Hotel, which he originally constructed as his own home, Sassoon House.

But he didn't stay long in what was first called the Cathay Hotel. Just three years after its completion 80 years ago, the tycoon built two impeccable properties at the city's west side far beyond the foreign concessions, and moved into one of them.

On an extremely hot Saturday noon I visited the Rubicon Garden, one of the two properties on 2310 Hongqiao Road. (Sassoon lived at No. 2409, now a closed private residence.)

The 960-square meter British country villa is empty now. White walls are crisscrossed by black half-timbered framework. Sloping roofs, red tiles, steep chimneys and charming dormer windows. All that a British villa should have it has. The villa is named after its neighboring Rubicon Road, which is called Hami Road today.

I tried to enter the empty villa but was stopped by a warning sign, "Dogs within. Trespassers will bear the consequences."

Well, it was a pity that I could only stand in the scorching sunlight on bustling Hongqiao Road to appreciate this beautiful building.

Fortunately, Shanghai historian Xue Liyong stayed briefly in the house 20 years ago when it was used as a sanatorium for workers of the Shanghai Textile Industry Bureau.

"It was a very nice villa with 12 rooms when I stayed there for several days," recalls Xue who is famous for books on modern Shanghai history. "Generally speaking, the south facade is the highlight of the building. But visitors always see first its northern facade facing Hongqiao Road, which is also well-designed and stunningly beautiful. But the south facade is even better."

According to Xue's recent book "Behind the Streets," the Sassoon property was built in a period of Yue Jie Zhu Lu, or constructing roads outside the foreign concessions.

"To further expand the territory, the Shanghai Municipal Council, the ruling power in the concessions, had raised a variety of excuses to construct roads outside the concessions. After each road was completed, the council would send policemen for management."

The book also lists dozens of roads that were constructed under such circumstances, including what is now Yuyuan Road, Jiangsu Road, Xinhua Road and Hongqiao Road. Throughout the city, Changning District has the highest number of roads of this kind.

"Hongqiao Road was built to connect the concessions and the Xijiao State Guest Hotel, which used as a golf course for foreigners," says Xue. "As the roads were constructed, more and more foreigners began building houses along the roads and Sassoon was one of them."

Wealthy as Sassoon was, he built two villas in similar styles along Hongqiao Road. The other one is widely known as the Sassoon's Villa at 2409 Hongqiao Road, which is now a private residence and not open to the public.

Both villas were constructed with expensive imported materials and designed by Palmer & Turner Architects and Surveyors, a leading British architecture firm.

Like other historic buildings, the Rubicon Garden has experienced a lot of changes during the ups and downs of Shanghai and its owners.

"After World War II broke out, the Japanese took over a lot of properties in Shanghai and sent Westerners back home," says Xue. "The Japanese sold the villa and after several rounds of auctions, it was purchased by the owner of Shanghai Yinfeng Wool Textile Co."

Although Sassoon had tried to take the house back after the end of the war, the company refused, saying it had been obtained legally.

According to the book "The Best Historical Buildings in Shanghai - Changning District," the owner moved to Hong Kong in 1956 after his company was nationalized into the state-owned Shanghai Textile Industry Bureau, like many other private enterprises. And from then on the building served as a sanatorium for hard-working textile workers when historian Xue got a chance to stay here.

As the textile industry was declining, the villa was rented to a real estate group in the 1990s.

Standing in the scorching August sun, I still regret the dog warnings had prevented me from fully experiencing this building.

The now empty villa is alluring under bright sunlight. The country villa capped with withering vines, a white goddess sculpture in the yard and even the artistic black fences create an idyllic picture evoking a story of wealth, power and ambition.

No city in China has such a short and vivid history as Shanghai, so colorful, condensed, breathtaking, so East-meets-West. Shanghai has grown from a place of narrow streets to a boom city today in less than 200 years.

On the surface, Shanghai's history has vanished and made room for skyscrapers. But inside and often concealed in the depth of lanes and gardens, thousands of old buildings are telling yesterday's stories in a silent way. That's the charm of our city.

Unlike my previous Shanghai Daily column "History Revisited" years ago about famous old houses, this new biweekly column focuses on old buildings that are not known to the masses. All about the hidden beauties and the untold stories.

For each house featured in this column, I paid a visit. It's exciting to revisit these buildings, find traces of their past like a CSI investigator and put into words the fascinating, forgotten past.

I also suggest you visit some of them in nice weather, or at least cast a long glance at them when you pass by.

To me, old houses sprinkled around the city are like the broken ceramic tiles that adorn Gaudi's Guell Park in Barcelona.

They are small broken pieces, but together they make up a compelling, grand picture of the city's vivid history, bit by bit telling us how our city has grown from an unknown narrow-street town to what it is today in such a short period of time.


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