IT’S been 70 years since World War II ended in August 1945. Many people who lived through that difficult period are now gone, but some buildings from the era still stand. They still have “war scars” and remain a silent yet powerful reminder of what transpired all those years ago.
Upon the 70th anniversary, I explore the history of the mysterious Columbia Country Club, tucked away in the compound of a state-owned biological institute, and several other noteworthy buildings that featured prominently during the war.
The gray-looking country club is next to a villa designed by Laszlo Hudec and built for Dr Sun Yat-sen’s son Sun Ke. The building puzzled me when I wrote a series on Hudec’s buildings in Shanghai. The country club was in fact designed by an American architect as an American club. After the Pacific War broke out in 1941, the Japanese military used it as a transit camp and later an internment camp for allied nationals who had remained in Shanghai.
Here, let’s embark on a war-themed architecture tour right from this eventful building.
The Columbia Country Club’s history is a tale of opposites. From 1927 to 1942 it was a joyful place where Americans came to socialize with one another and “escape” life in Shanghai. After Japanese soldiers occupied the city, they used it as a camp for Western captives, some of whom were forced to sleep in the former bowling alley.
Today, it’s used by the state-owned Shanghai Institute of Biological Products, and there are plans to renovate it into a compound housing creative businesses.
The building is largely well preserved today with the original Spanish façade. The interior is graced with teak flooring, a grand patterned stone fireplace, solid twisted stone columns and a spiral staircase with cast iron railings. Sure, it looks old and in disrepair, but its former glory is easy to imagine from these details.
Construction started in 1923. The club was originally founded in 1918 at 50 Route Doumer (today’s Donghu Road), but after membership increased from 90 in 1918 to over 400 in 1923, a bigger clubhouse was required. So an 8-acre site on the south side of Great Western Road (today’s Yan’an Road W.) was acquired.
The club was established due to a desire by the American community to have a place of their own. Up until it had opened, some Americans had been admitted as junior members to clubs of other nationals, according to a report in the English newspaper China Weekly Review in 1923.
“The lack of a club is particularly unfortunate in a city like Shanghai where amusements are scarce and where it is a particular solace to get amongst one’s own after a day of contact with people and ideas from all over the world. The intense war atmosphere which pervaded all European clubs in Shanghai during 1914, 1915 and 1916, years when America was trying to preserve neutrality, further aroused Americans to the desirability for clubs of their own. The Columbia Country Club, organized in April 1917, was one of the first expressions of this feeling,” the report said.
According to the report, the relocated club was “a distance requiring about 20 minutes’ ride from the business district of Shanghai and adjacent to the residences of a large percentage of Shanghai’s American community.”
The report published a sketch of the building by American architect Elliott Hazzard, who had designed the Foreign YMCA Building and Wing On Tower. Hazzard created a two-story clubhouse with arched windows, tiled roof and twisted columns, featuring a dining room, a ball room, a billiard room and abundant sports facilities ranging from swimming, bowling, baseball, tennis and squash.
After the club’s completion in 1927, American families living nearby, such as that of Patricia Luce Chapman, often went there for “sports and fun.”
“The club was in a real sense the cornerstone of our Columbia Circle community,” she recalled, noting lunches were usually hamburgers smothered in catsup and ice cream for dessert. “Most of our neighbors came over to my parents’ parties, or bridge and poker games, and my parents to theirs. We loved the sports and the parties in the Columbia Country Club. Tennis courts, a swimming pool and a squash court were there for us, and a large bowling alley. Under the Spanish-Mexican style arcade was a long verandah for dining and dancing ... I had fun at the Club and so did my parents, who knew we were safely watched over by an assortment of nannies, Amahs and governesses of different nationalities. Mother and Father joined other couples enjoying their whiskey sours and gin fizzes on the verandah on the other side of the building.
“There had been intermittent skirmishes and battles north of Shanghai among Japanese, Koreans, Russians, and Communists ever since I could remember, but those hadn’t directly affected my life,” she added.
But the happy times vanished once the Pacific War broke out in 1941 and allied nationals in China were interned by the Japanese.
The Columbia Country Club was used as a transit camp beginning in 1942 and became an internment camp in May 1943.
Historian Xiong Yuezhi of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences says Japan held more than 6,000 allied nationals from more than 10 countries as captives in over 20 camps around Shanghai between 1943 and 1945.
“Their ages ranged from only six months to 88 years old. Among them were officials, merchants, policemen, journalists, missioners, engineers, teachers and housewives. It was a striking historical phenomenon, a very influential and important international event happening in Shanghai during World War II.”
British writer J.G. Ballard recalled the club as the gathering point for his family’s trip to Lunghwa Camp in his biography “Miracles of Life.” The club was only a little more than 1 kilometer from his home on Amherst Avenue (today’s Xinhua Road).
“When we arrived, we found a huge press of people, mostly British with a few Belgians and Dutch, sitting with their suitcases around the swimming pool, many of the women in their fur coats. Some of the men carried nothing apart from the clothes they were wearing, still confident that the war would be over within days,” he wrote. “Others had strapped tennis rackets, cricket bats and fishing rods to their luggage — we had been told that there were a number of large and very deep ponds within the camp. A few were drunk, aware that they faced long months far from the nearest bar. Together we waited around the swimming pool, sitting at the tables where the American members of the club had once sipped their bourbons and mint juleps. Then the Japanese guards arrived with a small fleet of buses, and we were on our way across the open countryside, among the last group of Allied nationals to be interned.”
According to American historian Greg Leck, who wrote “Captives of Empire: The Japanese Internment of Allied Civilians in China, 1941-1945,” the camp was known as Western Area Camp No. 3 after it became a Civil Assembly Center in 1943 when a small group of Britons who were still left in the club were officially interned. But several groups transferring from Ningbo, Xiamen and other Shanghai camps arrived soon, which led to overcrowding. Every bit of space had to be utilized for sleeping purposes, such as the hallways, the veranda, the bowling alley and a spectators’ gallery upstairs.
“However, the feeling was short-lived; for two hours each morning, a parade of internees lined up, according to a roster, and trooped through their room to get to the attached bathroom for baths,” Leck said. “There were 11 wash bowls, 11 toilets, 6 urinals and 8 showers for 367 internees. In addition to the bowling alley, men slept in the club bar, and women slept in the dining room, lounges and library. The library contained some 2,500 volumes, making it one of the better stocked collections of the camps, but the books had to be arranged in hallways due to lack of space. Internees ate their meals while sitting down on the terrace or by the swimming pool.”
Though camp life was harsh, historian Xiong finds differences between Japan’s treatment of Western captives and how the Nazi’s treated Jews.
“To Japan, the Americans and the British were military enemies. But culturally Japan had always learned from them and therefore had a complicated attitude toward these countries,” Xiong says. “So generally speaking, captives had few life threats if they obeyed all the camp rules. But if they violated the rules, the Japanese would still prosecute them in a cruel way.”
In late April 1945, all internees were moved to Sacred Heart Convent Hospital at 41 Ningkuo Road. The Japanese troops quartered there were moved to Columbia Country Club.
“The Japanese stripped much of the club of furniture, plumbing, fixtures, and other materials, leaving it only a shadow of what it once was,” Leck said.
But fortunately the gray club building remains well-preserved today, especially the adjacent swimming pool. Paved with the original tiles and surrounded by an arcade of butter-hued columns, the pool is still used by institute employees every summer. It remains largely the same as when young Chapman had her swimming lessons and captives were eating their simple camp meals.