THE villa at 40 Wukang Road is a beautiful Spanish house. However, it’s famous not for the Chinese architect who designed it, but for the assassination of Tang Shaoyi, the first premier of the Republic of China’s Cabinet.
Tang was murdered in the house on September 30, 1938.
The building was designed and built in 1932 by renowned Chinese architect Dong Dayou, a graduate of the University of Minnesota. One year before, he had created his masterpiece, the Shanghai Government Administrative Center (now the office building of the Shanghai University of Sports), a signature work in the city’s Greater Shanghai Plan.
When designing the Wukang Road villa, Dong chose a Spanish style, probably according to preference of its owner, C.N. Chu, who was Tang’s son-in-law, a former Chinese envoy to Norway and supervisor at Shanghai Customs.
“Spanish style was very popular for small villas at the time. Compared with the British country-style homes, Spanish designs were cheaper to build, and of course, they still looked nice,” says Tongji University professor Qian Feng, who has been researching China’s first generation of modern architects.
Premier Tang was born in a tea trader’s family in Tong Ka Bay of Guangdong Province, a town famous for compradors. These Chinese agents served foreign trade firms and usually made a fortune from it.
Tang was chosen as one of the 120 students sent by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government to study in the US between 1872 and 1875. According to the book “Chinese Educational Mission Students,” the students included 84 boys from Guangdong Province with seven of them from Tang’s hometown.
After returning from the US, Tang worked in several high positions within the Qing government. But he later joined Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, becoming the first premier of the Cabinet of the Republic of China, a job he later quit over political disagreements with powerful general Yuan Shikai.
According to the book “Shanghai Wukang Road,” the retired premier chose to live in his son-in-law’s home on Wukang Road in 1937, where he passed his time by collecting antiques.
At that time the Japanese government was eager to bribe former Chinese politicians to be their “political puppets.” Their goal was to solidify the areas they occupied after invading China. Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek’s government, which had retreated to Chongqing, had urged Tang to join them there.
The retired premier took up a neutral position and a Chiang military intelligence agent murdered him to prevent him from working with the Japanese, a story that shocked locals when newspapers reported it.
“Kuomintang agents were indeed cruel and they were harshly criticized for decades over this murder,” says Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao, who co-authored “Shanghai Wukang Road.”
“But I think it was Tang himself that caused his tragedy. By then his son-in-law Chu, owner of the Wukang Road house, was a traitor working for the Japanese. Another big traitor, Zhou Fohai, lived just a few minutes down the street. How could Chiang Kai-shek trust Tang, who was reluctant to go to either Chongqing or Hong Kong and chose to stay in the former concession, so close to Zhou’s home and right inside his traitor son-in-law’s home,” Qian Zonghao adds, chuckling.
“If Tang later decided to work for the Japanese, it would have been a disaster for the Chongqing government with his political influence and background,” he adds.
Last year Qian Zonghao traveled to Tang’s hometown in Zhuhai City, Guangdong Province.
“I visited the Gong Le Garden that Tang had built in the 1910s to receive important guests. He later opened it as a free public park,” Qian says. “It is filled with precious tropical flowers and fruit trees. And his former residence still remains with an exhibition detailing his eventful life.”
In Shanghai, the butter-hued villa on Wukang Road is graced by Spanish red tiles, small arches and spiral columns.
The villa’s most attractive features are the main entrance with fine ornaments. The arched door is positioned between two composite spiral columns, while the decorations of shells, spirals and grass adorn the small space above the door in elegant solemnity.
The villa is also significant as it is a living reminder of the Greater Shanghai Plan, which was a city government initiative to revive “Chinese-style” designs.
This was the city’s first true urban blueprint. It was initiated by the Kuomintang government in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Since downtown Shanghai was mostly occupied by foreign concessions at the time, planners looked to a vast area in the city’s northeast and selected Jiangwan Town to build a new center.
“Architect Dong was required by the Kuomintang government to design these political buildings with a Western structure but add traditional Chinese elements,” says Qian Feng.
Dong’s version of Shanghai City Hall is reminiscent of a Chinese imperial palace with big roofs, upturned eaves, huge scarlet wooden gates and exquisitely painted traditional patterns on its exterior. But the general structure, the façade and the entrance clearly showcase the eclectic style popular in the 20th century.
He also designed Shanghai Library (now Tongji High School) and the former Shanghai Museum (now Changhai Hospital’s Screening Building) as part of this ambitious urban plan, which as unfortunately halted after Japan invaded China.
“Although Dong is famous for buildings in Chinese Renaissance style, his own residence is completely modern. It’s a two-story house with flat roof and horizontal railings. This typical international-style home forms a sharp contrast with the big buildings for the Greater Shanghai Plan,” adds Qian Feng.
Life can be fleeting, especially for those in powerful positions. But sometimes buildings remain to remind us how history can be cruel.
Yesterday: C. N. Chu’s Residence
Today: Private residence
Address: Bldg 1, 40 Wukang Road
Architectural style: Spanish
Architect: Dong Dayou
Tips: The building is a private home but it’s concealed inside the compound of 40 Wukang Road, which is a nice neighborhood dotted with a rainbow of villas including Building No. 4, the former residence of renowned modern Chinese medical educator Yan Fuqing.