American journalist Helen Foster Snow once said Shanghai’s only golden-glamorous thing was “the brave and beautiful and lonely widow of Dr Sun Yat-sen, Soong Ching-ling.”
The second daughter of China’s famous Soong family, Soong’s life and destiny were closely tied to her hometown Shanghai, where she was born, raised and buried. Her last home was near Wukang Road.
Soong’s previous Shanghai home with her husband was a villa on Xiangshan Road, now a museum for Sun. When Soong returned to Shanghai from Chongqing after World War II, she found her house had been partially damaged by the Japanese. She was then assigned to live in a smaller house on Taojiang Road by the Kuomintang government.
“She complained of the humidity and the heat in the house, which had been poorly built and thus was bad for her skin condition,” says Fu Qiang, director of the education department of the Soong Ching-ling Memorial Residence and author of the book “Soong Ching-ling Life Stories.”
“When Kuomintang generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling (Soong Ching-ling’s sister) went to visit her in 1948, Chiang also felt the house was not good enough for his sister-in-law. So he gave orders to find a better one for her. The villa at 1843 Huaihai Road M., today’s Soong Ching-ling Memorial Residence, was recommended,” Fu says.
The European-style villa built in 1920 was shaped like a gigantic ship, which was probably owing to its original owner, Greek-German shipmaster, captain L. R. Ball.
The chimney for the fireplace looks almost like a mast. The green wooden blinds are carved with tiny, delicate patterns of junks and anchors.
Covering an area of 4,330 square meters, the rectangular yard is surrounded by tall camphor trees. The 700-square-meter villa is a brick, wood and concrete structure that faces a big lawn in the south and has a mini garden at the back. The two-story villa has eight rooms including a sitting room, dining hall, study and bedrooms.
According to the museum’s archives, Ball sold the house in 1930. It was owned by several people after that including renowned Shanghai financier Zhu Boquan. The Kuomintang government confiscated it after 1945 and used it temporarily as an official guesthouse to receive American guests.
Soong moved into this villa in the spring of 1949. Owing to a tight budget she continued to use furniture left by previous owners except for a set of bedroom furniture, her dowry.
In 1950, the government renovated the villa for security reasons, but she refused to have an electric fence installed on the surrounding walls.
“She said the cats and dogs entering the garden were her guests and she feared they might be hurt by an electric fence. A bamboo fence was used instead,” Fu adds.
Soong lived there until she moved to Beijing in 1963, when she was appointed honorary vice chairperson of the People’s Republic of China. From then on she spent time in both cities each year until her death in 1981, when the Huaihai Road residence became a museum commemorating her life.
Yang Xiaofo, the son of her husband’s former secretary Yang Xingfo, has said Soong liked to entertain.
“She had many friends, especially foreign friends, and she took part in many social activities,” Yang Xiaofo says. “But she didn’t like seeing two different friends at the same time. So, if I wanted to dine at her home, I had to call beforehand.
“Her chef cooked Cantonese and Western food, which were her favorites. The chef also made delicious French cream cakes. Soong Ching-ling spoke Shanghainese with me and Cantonese with her chef and maid,” Yang recalls, adding she always treated him as an adult, even when he was a child.
“She used to take me to Cathay Theater to watch foreign movies and to my father’s tomb to pay homage. She would discuss novels and films with me over lunch. She was a beautiful, kind, easy-going and humorous woman,” he adds.
Born in Shanghai on January 27, 1893, and growing up in the Soong family home on Shaanxi Road, Soong Ching-ling lived in Shanghai for most of her life and is buried in the family mausoleum in Songyuan Road. She succeeded her elder sister, Soong Ai-ling, as Sun’s secretary and married him in 1915. Her parents strongly objected as they felt at 27 years her senior that Sun was too old for her.
In her later years she was largely alone. She was a widow with no children, no childhood friends, her parents were both dead and her siblings were far removed from her, both geographically and politically. Her younger sister, Soong Mei-ling, had fled to Taiwan Province with Chiang Kai-shek after 1949 and never returned to China’s mainland. Her elder sister, Soong Ai-ling, had immigrated to the United States.
According to Fu’s research, then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had suggested she move to Beijing during the “cultural revolution (1966-76)” so he could ensure her protection.
“However, she always loved Shanghai and in private letters Soong only referred to this Shanghai villa near Wukang Road as ‘my home’,” Fu says, chuckling.