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June 15, 2011

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Tycoon's castle in disrepair

The once-grand Spanish villa at 10 Dongping Road in Xuhui District was recommended to me by a 79-year-old local man, son of an old Shanghai entrepreneur.

"I visited the house very often during childhood because my relatives knew the family. It's a fabulous house and the owner had a great life story," says Qian Yongfu who also grew up in a big house in the former French concession.

The three-story stucco-and-wood house was the residence of tycoon Wang Yuqing, whose rise and career was similar to that of the Rong brothers (whose house was introduced on June 1 in Shanghai Daily). The Rongs were the father and uncle of the late Chinese Vice President Rong Yiren.

Born in 1879 in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, Wang Yuqing and his elder brother Wang Yaocheng came to Shanghai for a living. They started as apprentices in a shop selling iron products and vegetable oil. They gradually showed a gift for management.

"The Rong brothers then invited the Wang brothers to sell flour in Shanghai, Suzhou and Tianjin, and they were later appointed general managers for Rong's several flour factories," says modern Shanghai history researcher Zhang Sheng from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

"Employing old friends was a typical feature of the Rong's business," he adds. "The Rongs were often proud of the fact that their friends had turned managers. These capable, trustworthy friends like the Wang brothers had run Rong's business in an efficient way."

Wang Yuqing was manager of the No. 7 Flour Factory and he later co-founded the famous Fuxin Flour Factory with the Rong brothers. Wang made a fortune from the business and later expanded to other fields.

Wang's mansion on Dongping Road is one of the recently identified historical buildings in Tianping Community of Xuhui District.

According to community records, the 440-square-meter villa was built in 1940 by Dachang Construction Co.

My first impression was of its gigantic size, larger than most delicate Spanish villas sprinkled in the former French concession. It looked like a butter-colored castle. However big, the villa was designed in a simple Spanish style, graced by a curved gable, red tiles and three white Corinthian columns with spiral decoration on the first floor.

The house is not well preserved. The western portion on Hengshan Road houses two shops and the interior is divided by many families whose goods are scattered around.

"The house provided a good view of Hengshan Road but the Wang family now owned only half the mansion," says 79-year-old Qian. "Wang had married several wives. One of his wives, the second or the third, used to live here with her children. Today Wang's descendants are mostly living overseas, some in Italy."

Among the galaxy of old-Shanghai tycoons who had made fortunes from modest beginnings, Wang was known as the builder of a famous garden in his hometown Wuxi - the Li Garden.

Around 10 kilometers from downtown, the lakeside garden was named after Fan Li, an influential politician during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Legend has it that after leaving politics, Fan became a successful entrepreneur and enjoyed boating on the lake with Xi Shi, one of the "Four Great Beauties of ancient China."

In a recorded narration of history in the 1960s, Wang recalled that he built the garden at the age of 49: "I named the garden after Fan Li because I admired his personality. The garden faces a mountain and is close to water, creating a natural scene. I've further decorated it with flowers, trees and rockeries."

"From my memory Wang Yuqing was a great collector and his favorites were the rockeries from Taihu Lake, which were perfect for decorating Chinese gardens," recalls Qian.

"Many wealthy men in old Shanghai rose from very humble beginnings but they admired culture and often did good things with their money. Many rich people today are not like that."

Before 1949 Wang moved to Hong Kong where he died in 1965 at the age of 87. His brother Yaocheng died in Shanghai one month earlier at the age of 97.

In addition to the Dongping villa, Wang had another famous residence in Wuxi, a cluster of three Western-style buildings that are now part of a hotel.

And the Li Garden is now a famous scenic spot in Wuxi.

So is this castle-like Spanish villa at Dongping and Hengshan roads, home to a man who was once a humble apprentice and went on to make a fortune and build one of China's most beautiful gardens.


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