Conservationists are campaigning to save a former home of Soong Ching Ling -- the second daughter of China's famous 'Soong Dynasty' -- who lived there in the years after World War II.
Thick, greasy dirt stains the walls of the once lovely but now tattered villa at 45 Taojiang Road. It's hard to believe this was once the Shanghai home of graceful Soong Ching Ling, the former honorary chairperson of the People's Republic of China and the widow of Dr Sun Yat-sen. Today, local residents are trying to prevent it from falling into the hands of property developers and becoming another "old house" lost to the city forever.
The empty villa is hidden behind a red, iron gate on Taojiang Road and it's easy for passers-by to miss. Camphor-laurel trees, untrimmed lawns and several ugly, illegally built kitchens are in the desolate, small garden.
The air in the garden is scented with the appetizing, spicy aromas of food cooking in a neighboring Sichuan restaurant. Well, it does require a bit of imagination to see past the dust, rubbish and smells to imagine what the villa once looked like when it was the residence of one of the three famous Soong sisters.
Its red tiles match the tiny red, wooden windows set in the stained creamy outer walls. The house has impressive wooden doors in green and mustard-yellow hues, the staircase rails are like mooring ropes and the grounds are paved with red and black ceramic tiles. It's a small villa but it was big enough for Soong Ching Ling.
In 1945, when she moved in, she had been working alone for 20 years to continue her husband's revolutionary work. Dr Sun had died of liver cancer in 1925 and they had no children of their own. "After World War II, the Kuomintang government confiscated the house which had been built originally by a German merchant," says Wang Zhixian, an officer of the Shanghai Dr Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching Ling Relics Management Committee.
"When Soong returned to Shanghai from Chongqing after World War II, she found her house on Xiangshan Road, where she'd lived with Dr Sun, abandoned and damaged. Even the water pipes in the house had been stolen. So, the government assigned her this smaller house on Taojiang Road as her residence."
Yang Xiaofo, the son of one of Dr Sun's former secretaries, Yang Xingfo, has often visited the house. In 1933, when he was a little boy, Yang -- now 87 -- saw his father assassinated. Young Yang was wounded during the assassination and was later cared for by Soong.
"The house is similar in structure to her Xiangshan Road home but smaller," Yang says. "The former German owner had left some things behind and Soong Ching Ling also had a set of charcoal-hued furniture and a cane chair which had been sent over by her mother. The sitting room, dining room and kitchen were on the first floor and she lived on the second."
Soong returned to the house on Xiangshan Road in late 1947 and in the spring of 1949, her brother-in-law, the former Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, directed that she be allowed to live in the white villa, shaped like a ship, at 1843 Huaihai Road M. She resided there until she moved to Beijing in 1963.
After Soong died in 1981, the Huaihai Road residence became a museum commemorating her life. Her Xiangshan Road home had been turned into a museum for Dr Sun in the 1950s and the Taojiang Road residence had become living quarters for staff working at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Its connection with Soong Ching Ling was gradually forgotten -- until recently.
"We have found that people have been paying money to have families moved out of the house and we fear that there are plans to turn it into a restaurant," says Wang.
"But they cannot destroy it. Madame Soong may have lived here for only two years but her work while she lived in the house was tremendous. It was there that she established the China Welfare Institute to help Chinese children who had suffered in the war and where she arranged medical support to be sent to the liberated areas in the country."
In October last year, the Dr Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching Ling Relics Management Committee wrote to the Xuhui District Cultural Bureau asking that the villa be preserved.
"We paid attention to the letter and we are applying for the house to be declared a 'historical preserved building in Xuhui District'," says Song Haojie, deputy director of the bureau. "We want to renovate it into a mini-museum but we are still awaiting approval from the district government."
Soong's Ching Ling's life and destiny were closely tied to that of her hometown. She was born in Shanghai on January 27, 1893 and grew up in the Soong family home on Shaanxi Road. She lived in the city for most of her life and is buried in the family mausoleum in Hongqiao. She succeeded her elder sister, Soong Ai Ling, as Dr Sun's secretary and she married him in 1915 over the strong objections of her parents.
In her later years in Shanghai she had no husband, no childhood friends, her parents were both dead and her sisters were far removed from her, both geographically and politically. Her younger sister, Soong Mei Ling, fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek after Liberation in 1949 and she never returned to China, not even to attend Soong Ching Ling's funeral in 1981.
Her elder sister, Soong Ai Ling, had died in the United States. Soong Ching Ling's main companion was a loyal maid named Li Yan'e, whose tomb is the exact size and style as Soong Ching Ling's. She might have been thought in her later years to have been the loneliest woman in Shanghai but this was far from the truth.
"She had many friends, especially foreign friends, and she took part in lots of social activities," says Yang.
"But she didn't like seeing two different friends at the same time. So, if I wanted to dine at her home, I had to call beforehand. Her chef cooked Cantonese and Western food, which were her favorites. The chef also made delicious French cream cakes. Soong Ching Ling spoke Shanghai dialect with me and Cantonese dialect with her chef and maid."
Yang says that when he was a boy Soong never treated him as a child but always as an adult. "She used to take me to the Cathay Theater to watch foreign movies and to my father's tomb to pay homage. She would discuss novels and films with me over lunch. She was a beautiful, kind, easy-going and humorous woman," he says.
This beloved beauty and heroine of China has been gone for more than 20 years but she has bequeathed much to her country and to Shanghai -- such as the now run-down home on Taojiang Road.
(Shanghai Daily January 20, 2005)