Wukang Mansion: Shanghai’s ‘Pearl’ Before Its Online Fame
On a clear afternoon in central Shanghai, crowds of people jostle for position across a busy intersection. Selfie sticks are extended, poses are struck, cameras click. Everyone is after that perfect shot of Wukang Mansion to share on social media.
It’s like this most days, ever since images of this landmark in the city’s Hengshan-Fuxing Roads (Hengfu) Historic Protection Zone went viral a few years ago. The building attracts so many visitors that the media have even raised concern over how to protect local residents’ privacy.
Although appreciated today largely for its aesthetic qualities, Wukang Mansion actually holds a special place in Shanghai’s history, boasting a storied past and many glamorous former tenants.
Wukang Mansion was designed almost 100 years ago by the Hungarian-Slovak architect László Hudec, whose life experience only adds to the building’s legendary status.
Born in what was then Austria-Hungary, Hudec joined the army after the outbreak of World War I and was captured by the Russian army in 1916. He spent two years in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp before escaping while being transferred close to the Chinese border. He made his way to Shanghai, a rare safe haven from the turmoil of the conflict.
Hudec’s arrival coincided with a period of rapid development in the city, and it was here that he established his reputation as an architect, designing several landmark buildings including the China Baptist Publication Society and Christian Literature Society Building, the Grand Cinema, and the 22-floor art deco Park Hotel Shanghai, which on completion in 1934 was the tallest building in Asia, a record it held for almost 30 years. His best-known work today, of course, is Wukang Mansion.
Strangely, before 2004, Hudec was relatively unknown in the city of his birth, Banská Bystrica, now part of Slovakia. However, this changed when researchers began to dig deeper into his life and career, attracting greater attention.
In April, writer Chen Danyan and retired media executive Chen Baoping published “Clamshell and Pearl,” a book that records the history of Wukang Mansion and the local neighborhood through interviews with the building’s tenants, past and present, including artists, university professors, writers, doctors, and office workers. According to the authors, the book’s title refers to the landmark’s photogenic exterior — the “clamshell” — and its rich history before achieving fame online — the “pearl.”
Beauty, inside and out
Built in 1924 using reinforced concrete, Wukang Mansion covers 1,580 square meters, with a total floor space of 9,275 square meters over eight floors. Hudec, an employee of the American architectural firm R.A. Curry at the time, drew up the plans while French company Remond & Collet undertook construction.
Originally, the property was named the International Savings Society Normandie Apartments. Construction was funded by the China Jianye Real Estate Company, which was affiliated with the wealthy International Savings Society. Today, the mark “ISS” can still be spotted on many Western-style structures across Shanghai. The city government renamed the apartment building as Wukang Mansion in 1953.
In “Clamshell and Pearl,” the authors say that Hudec “seemed to favor middle-of-the-road classical European-style architecture, perhaps due to his Eastern European origins,” but with this project he needed to carefully consider the geography, environment, and cultural traditions of the Hengfu Historic Protection Zone.
The street layout around Wukang Mansion brings to mind the cities of France. The book explains that, unlike the crossroad junctions commonly seen in Chinese cities, intersections in Paris are mostly around public squares from which several roads radiate outward. One example is the square on which the Arc de Triomphe stands, a center point connecting 12 avenues. This means that the intersection of two roads can form an acute angle.
In the early 20th century, road construction in Shanghai also featured some Parisian style. Wukang Mansion was built by the junction of Huaihai Middle Road (formerly Avenue Joffre), Wukang Road (formerly Route Ferguson), Xingguo Road, Tianping Road, and Yuqing Road. According to “Clamshell and Pearl,” the junction between Wukang Road and Huaihai Middle Road forms an angle of just 30 degrees. “In order to fully utilize the land, the designers consulted the plans of similar buildings in Paris, making the sides of the building facing south and west the main facades. If you stand to the building’s west, the whole structure resembles a large ship slicing through the waves.”
When Wukang Mansion was under construction, the then French Concession in Shanghai had already existed for more than 70 years. The area enforced the strict division of foreign and Chinese residents, and all housing was segregated — even in the prisons. The apartments in Wukang Mansion were designed to meet the needs of Western senior company employees, and as such were fitted with kitchens, bathrooms, and radiators.
One typical feature of the apartments was a fold-down ironing board behind the front door, allowing suit-wearing managers to have freshly ironed clothes every day. The building also incorporated the kind of personal space valued in Western society, with the initial design including separate elevators for residents and their nannies. The corridors were also made to be spacious and light, allowing for greater distance between each household.
Wukang Mansion did not welcome its first Chinese tenant until 1942, when it was purchased by Kung Ling-wei, the daughter of a wealthy Shanghai banker.
The neighborhood’s vibrant cafe culture had long attracted artists, socialites, and political figures, and at the end of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45), two dominant domestic film companies, Xinhua and Lianhua, established offices there, bringing a fresh influx of celebrities. Over the years, Wukang Mansion was home to well-known thespians including Wu Yin, Wang Renmei, Zheng Junli, Sun Daolin, and Wang Wenjuan.
To many people in Shanghai, Wukang Mansion, which has been owned by the city government since 1949, is more than simply an apartment building — it’s a cultural treasure. Some current tenants even see themselves as conservators, tasked with protecting the building for future generations.
Zhou Bingkui, one of the residents interviewed in “Clamshell and Pearl,” has lived at Wukang Mansion since 1956. During his time there, he has gone through kindergarten, elementary school, and middle school, worked in a factory, attended university, been a civil servant, studied abroad, and worked at a foreign-funded enterprise until his retirement. His attitude toward life is typical for someone among the older generation of the upper-middle class in Shanghai — he is accustomed to instability and doesn’t believe in yielding to whatever the times throw at you.
He said his father, an engineer who designed waterworks, placed high importance on building conservation and taught his children by example. As such, his family has never altered the apartment’s internal layout, as many other tenants have, and has rejected the “fashionable” suggestions given by interior decorators in order to maintain the original appearance.
The aesthetic might appear outdated, but for Zhou it confirms the short-sightedness of modern trends while demonstrating the original quality of Wukang Mansion. “The building was designed in the 1920s, but I think the concept is very advanced,” he says. “It has everything you need in life — a nanny’s room, a kitchen, and two small storage spaces ... Now I’m the only person in the whole building still using a window-mounted air conditioner unit. I do so because it doesn’t damage the apartment and it means there’s no need to drill holes in the walls. Also, someone was throwing away their blinds, so I took them in case mine break. I think that decoration nowadays isn’t very advanced.”
Zhou’s perspective reflects the “pearl” emphasized in the book’s title. As a large ship moored at the intersection of architecture, humankind, and history, Wukang Mansion is not only significant as a protected building and a city landmark but also for its cultural role in the past 100 years of Shanghai and China.
Reported by Ye Kefei.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Ni and Craig McIntosh.
(Header image: Tourists visit the Wukang Building in Shanghai, March 2, 2023. Wang Gang/VCG)