White mansion one of homes for patriotic newspaper beacon
By Michelle Qiao
THE white Somekh Mansion is designed in a subdued style, but it once housed a brave-hearted newspaper. The nine-floor building on Yuanmingyuan Road was designed in an eclectic style in 1927 by the famous firm Moorhead Halse & Robinson.
Initially founded in 1907 by two Britons, the firm created a rainbow of the city’s signature buildings including the former Shanghai Club and the Shanghai Race Club after architects H.G. Robinson and H.M. Spence joined. The Somekh Mansion, however, is seldom on the list of Moorhead’s showpieces.
“The façade is divided in three sections and the overall proportion is quite proper. The upper two floors were later added, which fortunately merge well with the original style,” says architect Lin Yun from Shanghai Zhang Ming Architectural Design Firm, who has researched Waitanyuan heritage buildings.
There are carved cornices, solemn piers, an entrance graced by a keystone and two sculptures and cast-iron railings on the top balcony in a pattern similar to Greek key.
Lin says that despite “exquisite details on the gateway and balconies,” this is a rather plain building on the Bund. It’s properly designed with restrained decoration — no errors but nothing impressive either.
However, on the list of the building’s former tenants, two media organizations shine among other enterprises — Chinese newspaper Wenhui Daily and the Kuomintang’s Central News Agency.
According to research by Professor Wang Min from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai was the hub of journalism in China from the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) until 1949. Influential newspapers lined today’s Shandong Road, from where they were distributed from Shanghai to the rest of China and overseas. Among them, Wenhui Daily, founded in 1938, was a young newspaper but developed at an amazing speed.
Wang attributes the huge success to the paper’s bold anti-Japanese stories, which won the hearts of Chinese readers in the “isolated island” the city became. From the day the Japanese attacked Shanghai on August 13, 1937, until World War II that broke out in the Pacific in late 1941, the city’s international settlement and French concession were besieged by Japanese armies and thus called the “isolated island.”
“While most newspapers accepted Japanese censorship for various reasons, Wenhui Daily strictly followed the principles of ‘speaking on behalf of the Chinese’,” says Wang. “The paper was really brave because it had no political backing. This was a paper that glowed on the ‘isolated island’.”
The paper was founded by a group of ordinary employees by chance. Chief founder Yan Baoli was a former employee of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, who had worked once as a newspaper advertising agent. After the Japanese invaded Shanghai in August 1937, the bureau dismissed many employees, including Yan, who was given more than 1,000 yuan as compensation. It was a good bit of money at a time when a male factory worker might make 30 yuan a month.
With the money in the pocket, Yan worked out a plan to trade rice from Jiangsu Province to the settlement, which had food shortages. He persuaded several former colleagues to invest their compensation money in the business.
But when he was about to start, the Japanese forbid transporting grain. So Yan decided to start a newspaper with 7,000 yuan the group had collected. A 31-year-old journalist, Xu Zhucheng, was invited to be editor-in-chief soon after the paper was founded in January 1938.
According to Xu’s memoir, he had decided to establish a strong anti-invasion tone for the paper. In addition to local news, the paper also published the news of the Eighth Route Army from northwest China and the articles of American journalist Agnes Smedley, who was famous for reporting on the Chinese revolution. The Chinese paper first had an English name, The Standard, and an American shadow partner in an attempt to gain some protection from the Japanese.
“Only one month after I took over the paper, the circulation soared to over 10,000 copies. The advertising grew so quickly that advertisers had to queue to get published. The circulation kept rising to nearly 60,000 copies after April, which topped Xin Wen Bao, the city’s long-time leader. The latter dropped to 50,000 copies because it accepted Japanese censorship and was looked down upon by Chinese patriots,” wrote Xu, renowned for excellent opinion pieces and carrying the responsibility of a patriotic intellectual in Chinese journalistic history.
“The success of a newspaper had a lot to do with the editor-in-chief or chief commentator at that time. Sometimes an excellent writer could support a newspaper,” says Wang from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “In addition, the print media underwent a golden time in the 1920s and 1930s, which coincided with the urban development of Shanghai.”
But bravery often had a price. According to Zhang Gongquan’s 2010 book “Newspapermen during the Republic of China (1912-1949),” journalists had a breathtaking yet often bloody career during the “isolated island” times. When Japanese began censorship in December 1937, some newspapers refused to buckle and some temporarily closed down.
Among them, Wenhui Daily proved to be the bravest one, its newsroom filled with hot-blooded, patriotic journalists in their 20s, led by the young editor-in-chief. Soon after its founding, the paper’s management department on today’s Fuzhou Road was bombed by agents working for the Japanese Puppet Government, which killed an employee.
In the following days, the newsroom would receive a box with a bloody dead man’s arm or a basket of poisonous fruits each time the paper published a straightforward report.
In Xu’s own words, they were “working in a terrifying atmosphere every minute.” At the end of 1938, the printing house was bombed. The newsroom, then at Avenue Eduard VII (today’s Yan’an Road E.), got an iron gate and a special car was hired to send night editors home. Founder Yan secretly rented a suite in a neighboring hotel for his journalists to write articles and meet.
The paper closed down in May 1939 under great pressure but reopened at the white Somekh Mansion on Yuanmingyuan Road in 1946 after the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) ended.
According to Xu’s memoir, the building used to house the British Navy Club, which was occupied by the Japanese navy after the Pacific War broke out in 1941. The Kuomintang’s Central News Agency took it over as their Shanghai office after 1945. Owing to a favor owed by agency head Feng Youzhou, Wenhui Daily moved into the second floor and put the printing machines at the corner of the warehouse in the back.
The later years of this legendary paper were also filled with twists and turns.
The paper was forced to shut down again in 1947 by the Kuomintang government, moved to Hong Kong, reopened in Shanghai in 1949, transferred to Beijing in 1956 and returned to the white mansion again months later. The mansion now has been renovated into an office building for the Rockbund Project.
In a time of declining print media, it’s exciting to imagine how these young, brave journalists worked passionately in a terrifying “isolated island” near this white, calm building and the beautiful Bund.
Yesterday: Somekh Mansion
Today: Somekh Mansion
Architectural Style: Eclectic
Architect: Moorhead Halse & Robinson
Completed: In 1927
Address: 149 Yuanmingyuan Rd
Tips: The building is not open to the public, but you can visit Shandong Road to get a feel of newspaper's golden years.