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History Condemned:
The I. M. Pei House

by Lisa Movius, Shanghai City Editor

Emerging from the Huangpi Nan Lu Subway Station, it's impossible to miss: Amid the rubble of a modern day war zone stands a stately red brick mansion, unscathed despite the passage of time, its beauty accentuated by the stark ruins surrounding it. Sixteen blocks of century-old Shikumen Longtang homes, between Jinling Lu (a street running parallel to Huaihai Lu, one block north of Huaihai) and Yan'an Lu, have been razed to make room for a new city park. For now, this elegant three-story home is all that remains. And it remains only for now: Despite its connection to an important part of the city's history, and despite its designation as a state-protected historical landmark, the Bei Mansion at Huangpi Nan Lu, Lane 25, No. 5, is slated for destruction in a few short weeks.

Shanghai boasts a number of renowned native sons (and daughters), but few have reached such levels of international acclaim as master architect I. M. Pei. Known in Chinese as Bei Yuming, I. M. Pei was born in 1917 in Guangzhou to the famous Bei family of Suzhou. He grew up in Shanghai, living in this house and studying at the St. John's College Middle School before heading to the U.S. in 1935 to study architecture at MIT. The outbreak of war with Japan prevented his return, and he continued his studies, receiving his Masters from Harvard in 1946. He would go on to become one of the most important and influential architects of the twentieth century, if not of all time, sharing his pedestal only with other greats such as Frank Lloyd Wright. His striking designs include the Pyramid at the Louvre, the Bank of China building in Hong Kong, Boston's JFK Library, and the Fragrant Hills Hotel in Beijing.

The roots of Pei's success, however, lay firmly in Shanghai. His family was established as leading merchants and bankers in East China as early as the mid-Qing Dynasty, as the grandeur of their ancestral home in Suzhou attests. Of Suzhou's dozens of elegant gardens, designated as World Heritage sights, the Bei's Lion Forest (Shizi Lin) is among the most spectacular and most touristed. The Bei family also had a firm foot in Shanghai, China's hotbed of economic activity, starting from the turn of the Twentieth Century. In 1912, I. M. Pei's grandfather Bei Ruisheng bought a large, late 19th century mansion on what is now Huangpi Nan Lu. He revamped the Western-style, three-story mansion to add a more Chinese flair, with everything from minute details to the grand structure drawing elements from the Lion Forest, turning the house into a genuine Shanghai-style hybrid in the grand tradition

The Bei family donated Lion Forest to the state in the 1950s, and it's been a state park ever since. They have, however, kept their Shanghai home. Until now. Although much of the family ended up in Hong Kong and America, I. M. Pei's niece, Bei Huizheng, chose to remain in Shanghai, staying in the house along with her husband Fu Jianming, their young son, and various cousins and in-laws of the family. While most of Shanghai's old families have long since left China for greener pastures, members of the Bei family have lived continuously in this house for the past 90 years, the boy representing the fifth generation in the house, but their loyalty to the Motherland is hardly being generously rewarded. Due to their continued presence, the house interior of the house has remained in startlingly pristine condition, and it is one of Shanghai's better-preserved architectural specimens.

In the 1940s, Kuomintang troupes forcibly seized the first floor of the house, and in 1949, the Communists claimed it as their own because it had previously "belonged" to the Nationalists. During the Cultural Revolution, the entire family lived in the cramped service quarters behind the house, while the rest of the building was used for a school. The beautiful, ornate tile-work on the floors of the bathroom, kitchen, and balconies were systematically destroyed via shovel, Mr. Fu explains, because they were deemed "ugly" by the school's Red Guards. The remaining tiles on the first floor, despite being covered in a thick sludge of mud, attest to the original charm. All the stained glass windows were likewise smashed into oblivion. Ironically, the government now refuses to let the mansion be a part of its planned park because the officials in charge consider it "ugly".

"During the Cultural Revolution, they hacked down all the trees in our garden and then paved the whole thing over," Mr. Fu exclaimed. "Now they're razing everything to put in a park!"

Misguided aesthetics appear to be only a part of the government's refusal to grant a stay of execution to the mansion. In an article in Shanghai Morning Daily (Shanghai Chen Bao) on 11 November 2000, Mr. Yin, the official in charge of executing the demolition, was quoted as saying, "With a big park, and only one house, these people will be too comfortable. It's like asking the government to take care of them like exotic birds!" He's remained adamant in this position despite the family's offer to donate the house to the state for use as a community center, museum, or other public place within the new park. (Museum of Chinese Architecture and Design, anyone?) Those who think that the vendetta against old capitalist families ended with the Cultural Revolution should think again. The family has made a full-hearted effort to save the house, and I. M. Pei himself has hand-written a number of letters to the government requesting that his childhood home be spared the wrecking ball. Ms. Bei showed us a copy of one of the letters, with graceful but precise calligraphy attesting to a cultured background.

Shanghai's municipal legal code states that Shanghai's important buildings from the "Golden Era" must be meticulously protected and preserved. "1. Whether subject to private or public ownership and use, the buildings must be preserved. 2. Those responsible for the building are required to restore the building regularly, fixing any deterioration, while preserving the building's original appearance and not changing or destroying any aspect. 3. Any intended alterations to the building's interior or exterior must be submitted to and approved by the Shanghai Historical Preservation Bureau." Unfortunately, the case is being decided by those with little understanding of these laws. Mr. Yin commented, "They say this house is over a hundred years old. That would make it from the Qing Dynasty. How can that possibly be? It looks so new and so Western! They must be lying."

The Bei house was designated a protected historical landmark by the municipal government, receiving the official baohu danwei (protected unit) status in March 1999. The brown and gold plaques that accompany this status can be seen many of Shanghai's historic buildings, including those on Bund, the Garden Hotel, and countless of lesser fame but equal import. Protected status, however, has proved utterly to be of little real worth for the Bei house. The absence of support and enforcement for Shanghai's historic protection laws in this case raises a much larger question: What's to stop recalcitrant city planners from similarly rolling over protected monuments in the future? Is anything safe?

The Bei family's dilemma presents a troubling example to anyone who owns or has contemplated buying a house in Shanghai. The house is privately owned, with the deed belonging to older members of the family who hold foreign passports and live overseas. The family sought to launch a lawsuit to prevent the house's destruction, but the courts refused to hear the case. Legal recourses for protecting private property are apparently as flimsy as the laws protecting historic monuments.

The Bei mansion is scheduled for demolition shortly after Chinese New Year, although the family is fighting for a reprieve. A bulldozer literally waits at their door, as backhoes crash into the ground just a few feet away from the front door. The migrant laborers who will be charged with its demolition now sleep in what were the school's classrooms on the first floor. I see it everyday as I walk along Huaihai Lu, and double check that it's still there, check for the lights in the second floor window indicating that the Beis are still there, fighting to keep Shanghai from throwing the baby out with the bath water.

To voice your support for preserving the Bei House, please send a letter to:
Huanjin he Chengshi Jianshe Weiyuan Hui (City Planning Department)
860 Beijing Xi Lu, Shanghai, 200014

you can also CC to

Wenhua Weiyuan Hui (Cultural Bureau)
860 Beijing Xi Lu, Shanghai, 200014
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