National YWCA Building shows blossoming influence of women
By Michelle Qiao
The National YWCA Building is the only edifice with a strong Chinese architectural character on Yuanmingyuan Road. This “Neo-Chinese” building was built to house a society of “new Chinese women.”
The eight-story edifice was erected in 1932 as the new bureau for the National Committee of the Young Women’s Christian Association of China, which was founded in 1923 following the YWCA’s entry to China in 1890.
According to the 1996 book “Christianity in China,” Chinese Christian women were not just onlookers in the unfolding drama of the missionary movement in China.
“At the turn of the 20th century, some of the Christian women responded to the needs of the time by organizing various social reform movements, such as the anti-foot-binding movement, temperance unions and health campaigns ... The YWCA played a crucial role in the promotion of women’s social and political consciousness.”
The society did become an important venue for social reform and the advancement of women’s status. In addition to professional and cultural education for women, the society also taught Chinese women how to better care for their babies, educate children and do housework in a scientific way. Healthy entertainment was promoted to prevent gambling.
“As an influential Christian society in China early last century, the YWCA constructed this building instead of a more expensive church because they wanted to spend their funds all on spreading Christianity. The expense for erecting a church could hire numerous writers and translators,” says Zhou Jin, a PhD researcher on Shanghai’s Christian architecture.
Glancing through North China Daily News issues from the 1920s, YWCA appeared frequently in notices of various women’s activities, which were hosted in other Bund buildings since the new bureau hadn’t been built yet.
For instance, a brief on November 29, 1924 mentioned that “a swimming class will be held as usual on Monday” in the Navy YMCA Building but the gymnastic class would not meet on Tuesday because “the Union Church hall will be required for another purpose on that evening.”
Three years later, a women’s barbershop, “a decided innovation” and “the first of its kind,” has been opened “under the auspices of the YWCA to meet the increasing demand on the part of the numerous Chinese women who now have bobbed hair.”
It is reported that the shop at 168 Sichuan Road not only met the desires of many women for a barbershop of their own, but set high standards for beauty, comfort and cleanliness. In addition, prices were reasonable and another purpose was to train Chinese girls as barbers, opening up a new occupation for them.
“It was smart for the society to focus on women because there was a big potential to spread Christianity among Chinese women, who just began to pursue their own social values at that time and showed strong desires to participate in activities. The YWCA in China always remained busy and developed in a good way,” Zhou adds.
In 1930, the committee bought the site and commissioned Chinese-American architect Poy Gum Lee to design the building.
Born into a Chinese family in New York in 1900, Lee graduated from Pratt Institute and came to China as a YMCA architect in 1923. Besides a rainbow of YMCA buildings across China, this prolific architect also took over the work of constructing Dr Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum in Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province, after chief architect Lu Yanzhi suddenly died in 1929.
Lee preferred to apply Chinese elements to modern buildings, which he did extensively with this edifice.
“He simplified architectural ornaments from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, such as stone-carved lotus petals, patterns of clouds and sea waves, and ornamental perforated windows, to name just a few,” says architect Lin Yun from the Shanghai Zhang Ming Architectural Design Firm, who surveyed Waitanyuan and compiled a book.
“Moreover, it’s also an Art Deco building that recedes story by story from the fifth floor upward. The H-shaped layout had maximized sunlight usage of this building, which had great depth. I still remember the original ceiling revealed an elegant tone of dark red with subtle green, very beautiful,” Lin adds.
The dark red well-mouth or caisson ceiling in traditional Chinese style echoes the colorful, patterned terrazzo. The wooden doors and their metal locks are both graced by simplified cloud patterns.
Today it has been renovated into a commercial building combining offices, restaurants and retail shops for the Rockbund Project.
In 1933, the building was introduced in an admiring article in the journal Chinese Architecture, which featured masterpieces of modern Chinese architects. “The structure is purely Western while the decoration is adapted from Oriental architecture. The result is a beautiful mixture, unprecedentedly splendid.”
The article defined this kind of buildings as “Neo-Chinese architecture,” which was created by Chinese architects to combine “grandness and elegance” in Oriental architecture with advantageous functions of Western architecture. It was thus a “new way of modern architecture” and “an ultimate honor for the circle of Chinese architecture.”
The style of a building largely relies on the choice of its owners. Although the YWCA in China was founded by Westerners, leadership was later taken over by elite Chinese women.
It’s very likely that these bob-haired, social and sportive new Chinese women decided their dream office would be designed in a style called “Neo-Chinese.”
Yesterday: National YWCA Building
Today: National YWCA Building for Rockbund
Architectural Style: Neo-Chinese
Architect: Poy Gum Lee
Completed: In 1932
Address: 133 Yuanmingyuan Rd
Tips: Try the French restaurant with stunning traditional well mouth or caisson ceiling overhead on the first floor or have a free sample of pineapple cake on the second. If you are interested in this Chinese-American architect, visit Lee’s other masterpieces, the YMCA Building (today’s Marvel Hotel at 123 Xizang Rd S.), or the Cosmopolitan Apartment (Hua Mao Gong Yu) tucked into a lane at 1213 Nanjing Rd W., and shaped like a Spanish castle.