Sue Anne Tay

Over the last century, old English villas became de facto apartment buildings, with pasts full of secrets and stories.

Hidden behind one of Shanghai’s key shopping arteries is a beautiful and century-old four-story villa. It is designed in the Queen Anne style with warm orange bricks, an imposing turret and flower motifs running alongside the arcs on the bay windows. A first-time visitor to the city might think he or she wandered accidentally into a private estate in the English countryside.

That is until you see a group of middle-aged to ancient residents sitting on the porch dressed in pajamas, the loungewear of choice for many Shanghainese, chattering loudly as they set up for another game of mahjong. In the hallway, a young mother fires up her wok on a portable stove.

Photo credit: Sue Anne Tay

Shanghai’s historical architecture is a wonderful blend of Eastern and Western design and sensibilities. Such influences are attributable to the city’s semi-colonial history as a bustling and open port. After the Opium War in 1842, the British, Americans, and French forced China to sign treaties ceding control of the city, turning it into settlements under foreign rule. Over time, Shanghai became a veritable melting pot of wealthy European merchants and Russian refugees, local Shanghainese, small-time traders and peasants from neighboring provinces.

Steadily, the city grew into an eclectic mix of villas and apartments designed in Art Deco, Bauhaus, and French Renaissance styles, interwoven with the ubiquitous classic Shanghai shikumen (or stone gate door) or the more rustic Jiangnan style of public housing.

With shifting political winds and tumultuous conflicts, it’s not unusual for historical homes in Shanghai to have had many lives and hidden secrets. Like the arc of modern Chinese history, past residents of the statuesque villa tucked behind Nanjing West Road ranged from Mandarin royalty, British boarder to a Chinese flashlight factory worker.

Wu Tingfang. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

First built in 1910, the villa was believed to have served as the residence of Wu Tingfang, a learned official of China’s last dynasty who studied law in England and acted as an Envoy for the Qing Government in the United States, Spain and Peru. Wu was also an advisor to Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, serving as foreign minister to the Republic of China and even as acting president in Sun's absence. Wu passed away in 1922 in Guangdong.

What most locals don’t know is that since the villa was located in the International Settlement, administered by the British and later Americans, it once served as a dormitory called the Henley Home. Run by a certain Mrs. Beresford, only foreigners boarded at the villa, with Chinese servants living in the back.

The last owner of the villa, before it was finally expropriated by the government, was Boss Ding Xiongzhao of the Shanghai Huiming Flashlight Company.

Ding was known as the "King of Batteries" and amassed significant wealth and businesses in America and Europe. He left after the Communists came to power in 1949. Records show him settling and later passing away in Hong Kong in 1976.

The villa continued to serve as a dormitory for workers of the former Shanghai Huiming, whose descendants still live in the house to this day and speak proudly of its heritage. Under communism, rooms were further partitioned and more families were added to the already crowded villa.

Photo credit: Sue Anne Tay

Presently, over 50 families live in the house and the stress of communal living is visible in the cramped quarters, backward sewage and toilet systems, and facades in need of repair and a fresh coat of paint. This is still a common sight in Shanghai’s many old neighborhoods, so much so that the villa was deemed perfectly authentic to serve as a location set for a 2009 television series called Dwelling Narrowness (or "humble abode," for a less awkward translation).

The series revolved around two sisters who struggled with life in a fictional city that strongly resembled present-day Shanghai. The plot focused on the sacrifices the sisters undertook to afford a home in the city - the younger sister becoming a mistress to a married politician while the other lived in a small room in the very villa with her husband as they scrimped to save money for a future together.

Photo credit: Sue Anne Tay

Like many young city dwellers, history meant little and they were eager to trade the old for the new.

The television show highlighted the conflicts arising from the widening gap between rich and poor, political corruption and an erosion of traditional Chinese family values. Against the background of a real estate bubble in China and rising inflation, Dwelling Narrowness struck a chord with many viewers, especially in Shanghai, who saw themselves ball-chained for decades to burdensome mortgages like “house slaves.”

Several residents of the villa served as extras on the TV series. Wheeling his bicycle down the hallway, an elderly resident speaks about how proud he was that the villa was receiving some well-deserved, albeit fleeting, attention.

"Everything [in the house] remains very much in its original form, which is so rare in Shanghai." He traces his finger over the aged banister. The TV crew "clearly appreciate the house, and I hope that the government does too. I certainly don't want to leave."

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