THE most striking decoration inside No. 4 Wukang Road is a gigantic family tree that covers an entire wall. The building’s fate has been tightly entwined with a legendary family for more than half a century.
“Great-grandfather Moh bought No. 2 on Wukang Road and moved there in 1926. He gave a part of the garden to his eldest daughter, Pearl, and son-in-law, Hsiung Tsai. My grandfather hired Xi Fuquan, a well-known Shanghainese architect, to build No. 4 Wukang Road,” wrote Marjorie Yang in her book “Hsiung Tsai.”
Yang is Moh’s great-granddaughter and chairperson of the family’s Esquel Group.
“We were very fortunate to have been able to reacquire both properties and have turned one of them into a small gallery showcasing the lives of generations of industrialists,” she writes.
Her great-grandfather Moh Shangqing was an influential silk tycoon in old Shanghai. Moh owned more than 10 silk factories and is at the top of the big family tree on the wall. To mitigate risks caused by fluctuating global silk prices, Moh had decided to enter the silk-weaving business and founded Mayar Silk Mills in 1917. Later he employed his son-in-law, a graduate from Lehigh University in US, to manage it.
It proved to be a wise decision. Tsai adapted American management techniques and achieved great success. By 1930, Mayar had 859 looms and more than 2,000 employees.
“It was China’s first modern silk company. They used modern machines rather than traditional family mills that had been used for thousands of years,” explains Guo Weidong, a senior director of Esquel Group, who renovated the interior and designed the exhibition at No. 4 Wukang Road.
“Mayar’s modern way of production avoided handmade flaws and improved product quality. Many old Shanghai movie stars chose to wear Mayar’s silk,” Guo adds.
The Moh family left Shanghai for Hong Kong in the 1950s. Tsai’s son-in-law Yang Yuan Loong restarted the textile business, Esquel Group, in 1978. It has also been very successful. His daughter Marjorie Yang inherited the business and used No. 2 Wukang Road as her local residence after reacquiring two villas on the street around 2006.
“This classic garden villa was also where Yao Wenyuan, one of the ‘Gang of Four,’ wrote the article in 1965 that criticized a play about Ming Dynasty official Hai Rui. The article was later regarded as the trigger of the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76),” says Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao, co-author of the book “Shanghai Wukang Road.”
No. 4 has been renovated and is now a private gallery exhibiting the family’s history and their textile business. Graced with flowing curves and large glass windows, this simplely cut, utterly modern villa is the work of a Chinese architect who had studied in Germany.
“Architect Xi Fuquan was a student of famous German professor Ernest Boerschmann, who had published six academic studies about Chinese architectural history. He suggested Xi study the Qing Dynasty’s (1644-1911) royal mausoleum for his PhD thesis,” says Tongji University professor Qian Feng, who is working on a research project about Chinese architects.
“However, Xi must have been strongly influenced by Germany’s modern architectural movement, including Der Ring,” Qian adds. “These societies hosted many lectures and exhibitions to promote modern architectural concepts. So when Xi returned to China, you can see most of his works are purely modern, such as Hongqiao Sanatorium, which is regarded as a signature piece of modern architecture in Shanghai.”
When Guo visited No. 4 before the renovation, he says it was in a poor condition. “I used a variety of textile products to decorate the house, from curtains, the hanging carpet to yarn cone. Even the light is embellished with cloth,” he says.
“I also used cotton from our Xinjiang farm to make a stool and bought an antique weaving machine from Jiangsu Province to showcase the beginnings of the textile industry,” he adds.
In addition to a rainbow of textiles from antique silk to cotton and cloth, No. 4 also has a recreation of a 1940s study with antique table, original suitcases and calligraphy by Tsai, who had lived in the building.
“My grandfather was ever gentle and rarely raised his voice,” Yang says. “He dressed as a gentleman and sometimes wore a hat. He favored white shirts and that may be why I have always been partial to clean white shirts. Mother said he commanded the respect of others and often, with the raise of an eyebrow drew fear from his staff.
“When I was with him, I was too young to understand, but his words did leave an impression. Now I appreciate and benefit from his wisdom. I am inspired to carry on his ambitions,” Yang adds.
Thankfully, those ambitions include protecting the heritage of their former home on Wukang Road.
Address: 4 Wukang Rd
Built in: 1942
Architect: Xi Fuquan
Architectural style: Modern
Tips: The building opens as a private museum and to the company’s guests and friends only.