Chinese YMCA 基督教青年会 (1931)
123 South Tibet Road / 123 Boulevard de Montigny / 西藏南路123号
The tall brick building with the traditional roof, at the edge of the former Racecourse, was built in 1931 as the headquarters of the Chinese branch of YMCA. Its eclectic appearance attempts to marry Western and Eastern aesthetics, and this led to a spat between Shanghai's leading architects.
The YMCA expanded its mission to China in 1900, funded by Western-educated tycoons, such as Charlie Soon, the father of the powerful Song sisters. In line with the organization's original agenda, the Chinese YMCA worked to help provincial youth moving to Shanghai adapt to the pace and price of city life. It was believed that the first 24 hours in the metropolis are crucial for a young man's career (always a man, back then), so the Chinese YMCA provided cheap lodgings to young people and a range of wholesome activities to spend their energy. Supposedly, anyone could use the facilities, but a new member had to bring a recommendation from a respected citizen.
The Chinese YMCA offered lectures in politics and popular science, music and painting classes, secondary school classes, but the biggest emphasis was on team sports; the YMCA was a veritable incubator of sports talent. The Protestant agenda was embedded in the curriculum as well: values like individual responsibility and entrepreneurship, served to prep the Chinese youth for Shanghai's white collar pool. By contrast, the Foreign YMCA, located on the northern edge of the Racecourse since 1932, served a different clientele: American tourists traveling on a shoestring, sailors and foreign clerks.
Chinese YMCA on Sichuan Road, built in 1910. Image: Kautz Family YMCA Archives.
Playing volleyball on the roof of the Boys' Building of YMCA, on Middle Jiangxi Road. Image: Kautz Family YMCA Archives.
Poy Gum Lee at his work desk in Shanghai in the 1930s. Image: Lee Family Archives via nytimes.com.
The first Chinese YMCA buildings, built in the 1910s in the northern part of the central business district, are still standing on Middle Sichuan Road 四川中路 and Middle Jiangxi Road 江西中路, but by the 1920s these facilities were too small, so it was decided to build a larger headquarters and make it more accessible for the growing French Concession and the Chinese City. Three architects were engaged with the project, led by Poy Gum Lee (Li Jinpei 李锦沛), who was born in New York's Chinatown and studied in New York, Boston and Detroit. His whole family moved to China in 1923 and Lee was invited to head the architectural division of the YMCA. Both Robert Fan (Fan Wenzhao 范文照) and Zhao Shen (赵深) were mainlanders educated in Pennsylvania.
In May 1930, several hundred onlookers watched the laying of the foundation stone on an empty lot near the Great World amusement center. The new YMCA building promised to become the finest youth center in the Far East. In return for bringing this important public venue to the French Concession, the FMC donated 20,000 silver dollars out of the tax proceeds from dog races at the Canidrome and hai-alai games at the Auditorium.
The YMCA philosophy has always recognized the edifying effect of the architecture. To convey the relevance of the Protestant worldview in the Chinese environment, the design combined Western and Chinese construction methods and visual expression. The shape of the edifice evokes the Qianmen Gate 前门 in Beijing. The second floor halls had Manchu-style coffered ceilings, and the interior of the top-floor cafe was in the Imperial palatial style. The ground floor of the building accommodated two banks and a swimming pool; above them there were offices, lecture rooms, billiards rooms, exhibition halls; then there was a dormitory for 230 persons on five floors; the top floor was occupied by club lounges and the said cafe.
Architect's drawing of the YMCA building. Image: The China Press (1931).
Bank of Shanghai in the Chinese YMCA building. Image: 民国图片.
Boulevard de Montigny (Tibet Road) in 1932, with the Chinese YMCA and the Great World in the distance. Image: J. Arnold, C.A., via Virtual Shanghai.
Martial arts training in the Chinese YMCA. Image: minguotupian.com.
The nine-story building opened toward the end of 1931 and became the first in a string of high-rises in the "Chinese Renaissance," or "Chinese deco" style. During the construction, however, at least one of the project's authors, Robert Fan, grew disenchanted with this hybrid style. The trio of architects had a fallout which exacerbated in the following years. Fan stopped flirting with the Chinese aesthetic and called to put "science first, decoration last." His move toward stylistic purity can be observed in such buildings as the Nanking Theatre (1930), the Cosmopolitan Apartments (1932) and the Majestic Theatre (1941).
Fan's colleague Poy Gum Lee was more adaptable. His was involved with almost all YMCA buildings all over China, eleven in total, one of which is the Shanghai YWCA 女青年会 on Yuanmingyuan Road 圆明园路. Lee's business was hurt by the Japanese occupation and in 1945 he resettled in New York. He wanted to leave "tall buildings with big hats" behind, but his Chinatown clients favored the traditional Imperial look – upturned eaves, glazed tiles, colorful Manchu patterns – and disliked modernism and minimalism, which they lumped together with the hateful Communist austerity. Poy worked in Chinatown until his death in 1968, creating scrores of "big-hatted" buildings, which define the appearance of the district today.
The Chinese YMCA in Shaghai hosted a variety of cultural and educational events and even some high-profile weddings. There is a little Russian trace within its walls as well. In November 1932, an exhibition of Camilla Benois's paintings opened here. She was the wife of General Dmitri Horvat, who was the leader of the Russian diaspora in China and the former head of the Chinese Eastern Railway. The Shanghai press praised her vivid landscapes and flattering portraits, but most of all her sketches of Beijing street life. In March 1936, an odd party gathered to celebrate the launch of the Sino-Soviet Cultural Association: among the guests there were the Soviet Consul Ivan Spilvanek, the opera star Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳 and the gangster-cum-banker Du Yuesheng 杜月笙.
In the 1950s, the YMCA fell out of favor with the Communist authorities, but its roots in China were already quite deep. In 1978, the building returned under the control of the Chinese YMCA, which still occupies some of the offices, while the rest functions as a hotel.
Today's interior. Image: shjwqy.com.
Facade of the building. Image: mafengwo.net.
See the original article in Russian for more images: https://magazeta.com/2019/03/arc-chinese-ymca/
The China Press.
The North-China Daily News.
Le Journal de Shanghai.
The New York Times.
Shanghai Art Deco, "Poy Gum Lee."
Anne Warr, "The YMCA and YWCA in Early Twentieth-century China" (2015).
Edward Denison and Guangyu Ren, Building Shanghai (2006).
Liu Pinghao and Zhu Wenyi, "A Study on the First Public Gymnasium in China – Shanghai YMCA Sichuan Rd Club" (2015).
Kimberly Ann Risedorph, "Reformers, athletes and students: The YMCA in China, 1895-1935" (1994).
Michelle Qiao, "Shanghai’s 1931 YMCA marked China’s architectural renaissance" (Shanghai Daily, 2018).
Top image: 民国图片.