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Royal Asiatic Society building packs lots of history
2014-05-26
By Michelle Qiao

The Natural History Gallery was filled with nostalgic parents and their kids during the last few days before it was moved away last Monday from an old building on Yan’an Road E, where it had been since the 1950s.

Few of them knew that the bird specimens that enlivened their childhood memories used to be housed on the Bund, in the RAS Building that is now the Rockbund Museum.

The 5-story edifice opened in 1933 as the new office for the north China branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

The old society

The society dates to 1857, when a small group of British and Americans founded the Shanghai Literary and Scientific Society to learn about China.

According to Wang Yi’s 2005 book, “Research on North China Branch of RAS,” Marco Polo’s journals written in the 13th century were regarded as the earliest comprehensive Western study of China. The next researchers to follow would not come until the 16th century, when missionaries spread Christianity in the Chinese language and thus were called “the first generation of sinologists in modern history.”

However, under a “closing policy” during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China became largely secluded from the Western world. The Opium War forced China to open its gates again, after which foreigners were allowed to live, work and practice missionary work in Chinese port cities.

The north China branch of RAS was founded under this circumstance to help expatriates get acquainted with Chinese customs, adapt to “cultural shocks” and make life easier in the oriental kingdom.

Founding member J. Edkins made it clear in his opening speech for the establishment of the society at the Shanghai Library on September 24, 1857, according to the North China Daily News.

“We were living on the borders of a great country, which had for many centuries excited the curiosity of the West. Marco Polo and our own Sir John Mandeville had awakened this spirit by their narratives, so widely read in the Middle Ages. The West was now moving to the East, and it was consequently becoming more necessary than ever to study the literature and civilization of China.”

He noted that the society would also furnish Chinese contributions to the knowledge of natural history, geography and other sciences, in addition to literature.

As the settlement was founded and Shanghai grew more like a European city, more “Shanghailanders” treated the city as a second hometown instead of a temporary place to make quick money. Realizing the importance of cultural life, they founded the race club, the rowing club, the book club, newspapers and the literary society.

According to F.L. Hawks Pott’s 1928 book, “A Short History of Shanghai,” “a large part of the community was not deeply interested in the society and regarded it as a dry-as-dust institution.”

Nevertheless, it went on, the society “has had a long and honorable history and has carried on valuable research in the language, custom, ethics, history, etc, of China.”

In addition to issuing valuable journals, the society hosted numerous informative lectures from 1857 to 1951, with topics ranging from Chinese silkworms to mysteries of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC).

But for a long time the society had no regular home until Sir Rutherford Alcock, the second British consul general to Shanghai, helped grant a site on the Museum Road (today’s Huqiu Road) to build the old RAS office in 1871.

This unpretentious building featured a reading room, a voluminous library of books on the Orient and a lecture hall. In 1874, the second floor was opened as a museum, with its prime exhibits being those of stuffed birds mostly shot and donated by local Shanghai sportsmen. (They were later relocated to the Natural History Gallery and still amazed parents and children two weeks ago.)

In honor of the institution, the road where the building was located was renamed Museum Road in 1886.

The new building

In 1928, architects advised the society that the aged building had reached the end of its functional life.

“Not only have many defects appeared through age, but termites have attacked the building and done considerable damage. Live termites were discovered in some of our bookcases and destroyed a certain number of pamphlets. They also attacked two of the wood columns in our lecture hall, rendering it necessary to renew them immediately. Termites have also attacked the roof and are still active there,” reported the North China Daily News in April 1928.

The new building was erected in 1932 and officially opened on November 15, 1933.

It was designed by George Wilson (1880-1967) of Palmer & Turner, who was nicknamed “father of the Bund” for his masterpieces that included signature waterfront buildings such as HSBC Building at No. 12 and the Sassoon House at No. 20. A longtime RAS member, Wilson had also spearheaded the campaign to raise funds for the construction.

For this cultural icon venue, he chose Art Deco, the style in vogue in the city and the world at that time. Chinese elements were also artfully adapted for this building that housed a society to study China.

“It’s my favorite architecture on Huqiu Road, and I assumed the style that mingles Art-Deco with Chinese elements later influenced the design of another similar Palmer & Turner work, the Bank of China building at No. 23,” says Chinese architect Lin Yun, who authored “Shanghai Waitanyuan Historical Buildings” and proclaimed the red-brick Ampire & Co Building his favorite on Yuanmingyuan Road in last column.

“The architect had used the patterns of beasts, dragons and birds from antique China bronze wares, especially a pair of granite lions sitting on the top. Compared with the Chinese-Renaissance YWCA building on Yuanmingyuan Road, Chinese elements were used in a more straightforward way on RAS Building,” he says.

Lin also found interesting, noteworthy details, such as the marks for men’s and women’s rooms in the form of Chinese seal characters — something unique — and the design of the staircase differing on each floor.

“As an architect, I know it’s hard to design staircases like this,” Lin chuckles. “The layout is clean and clear, with a big space in the middle. The elevation is also simple-cut, with the middle part rising up while the two sides are falling — very Art Deco.”

The building had been renovated to a contemporary museum — Rockbund Museum — today a popular venue regularly hosting cultural activities.

When renovating it, UK-based David Chipperfield Architects maintained the well-mouth or caisson ceiling, the simply-cut dimensional proportion and the steel-framed windows.

“It was a sunny afternoon when we first visited this building. Lights and shadows cast through a neat line of old windows, which created such a dramatic effect. From that moment we decided to keep them all,” recalls Chen Libin, Shanghai office manager of the firm.

RAS returned to Shanghai in 2007, continuing its activities and missions of over a century ago. Exploring different cultures — a natural human curiosity — shaped the slim and simply cut RAS Building that remains as a cultural icon on the Bund.

Yesterday: RAS Building

Today: Rockbund Museum

Architectural style: Art Deco with Chinese elements

Architect: Palmer & Turner

Built: In 1932

Address: 20 Huqiu Rd

Tips: Try to visit the museum on a sunny day to appreciate the light and shadows cast through the original steel-framed windows. Also notice the Chinese patterns that grace the building. It would also fun to see the century-old bird specimen after the National History Gallery reopens at Jing’an Sculpture Park later this year, knowing the history behind the exhibits.

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