Building for young foreigners became a cradle of world champions

The former Foreign YMCA building opened in the summer of 1928 opposite Shanghai Race Course, today's People Square.

The former Foreign YMCA building opened in the summer of 1928 opposite Shanghai Race Course, today’s People Square. Since then the building has always been linked with sporting activities and later became “a cradle of world champions.”

Zhang Xuefei

The former YMCA building now serves as the Shanghai Sports Club.

“The building was constructed to provide accommodation and recreation for foreign young men in Shanghai,” says Zhang Yaojun, a Shanghai Archives Bureau researcher.

“The spacious edifice boasted one of the city’s earliest swimming pools with warm water. Even Chairman Mao enjoyed swimming here twice during the 1950s. In addition, its well-equipped basketball yard was a center of Shanghai basketball games. Many important matches were hosted here,” Zhang adds.

The idea of building this magnificent building originated in 1920 when a group of leading men in the city discussed the formation of a Foreign Young Men’s Christian Association in Shanghai.

The history of the YMCA dates back to 1844 when Englishman George Williams founded the international organization. In 1900 a Chinese YMCA was found in Shanghai and a modern building with Chinese elements was also built on the People’s Square, which is today’s Jinjiang Metropolo Hotel Classiq.

In an article in The China Weekly Review on March 24, 1928, the then Foreign YMCA general secretary George Fitch recalled it was to provide “a home for men away from home” and “a place where young men of various Western nations could meet and mingle in wholesome fellowship and where they could live comfortably in attractive surroundings at a cost of what would be within the reach of all.”

With generous contributions from both New York and Shanghai, the idea turned into reality — a fire-proof building designed by American architect Elliott Hazzard.

Heading an influential architectural office in Shanghai in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hazzard designed three other buildings along Nanjing Road, including the Wing On Tower, Shanghai Power Company and the adjacent China United Assurance Building. The latter and the Foreign YMCA building had dominated the skyline of the former Race Course before the erection of the Park Hotel in 1934.


Ti Gong

American architect Elliott Hazzard’s two signature works, the former Foreign YMCA building (middle) and the adjacent China United Assurance Building (right) which once dominated the skyline of the Race Course, were later surpassed by the Park Hotel (left) designed by L. E. Hudec. 

The 10-floor Foreign YMCA Building in Italian Renaissance style was described by local media as a wonder building “as modern as science and money can make it.”

“The rusticated walls of the lower story on the southern facade were in a diaper pattern of brown and rich buff and cream brick set to an effective and pleasing design. These three lower stories blend well with the buffs and the browns and form a pleasing contrast to buildings of drab coloring. The walls have been broken up by bringing out piers between windows and at the corners which carried right up to the red-tile caps. The piers at the corners are buttressed slightly and the effect secured adds greatly to the charm of the building,” the China Press reported on June 30, 1928.

In the eyes of this reporter from the American newspaper, it was the triple entrance on Bubbling Well Road (today’s Nanjing Road W.) with its three tall and deeply recessed windows above separated by two pairs of slender and graceful columns that gave significance to the architecture of the building among the many details.

Ellen Johnston Laing, a researcher from Michigan State University, noted the drape pattern was a treatment formerly used on the famous Palazzo Ducale di Venezia. In a study about architect Elliott Hazzard, she wrote that this decorative, very special treatment on the facade was rarely seen in Shanghai. Hazzard used it again in the Xinguang Theater on Ningbo Road two years later.


Zhang Xuefei

The walls of facade were in a diaper pattern of brown and rich buff and cream bricks. 

And the interior of the building was in keeping with its exterior which was not only attractive but also rather functional. Although an institution with a religious background, both the Chinese YMCA and the Foreign YMCA carried out various activities focusing on young people including sports activities and informative lectures.

The building provided centrally heated, fully furnished rooms with plenty of light and air, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, running track, bowling alley, good meals, club rooms, dressing rooms, special courses of study, facilities for research work, extension lectures and the like.

In all rooms, filtered water from the faucet was available. During the heat of summer the water was first sent through a large cooling coil. Fountains in the corners of the gymnasium provided refreshment for athletes.

During World War II, the building was occupied by the Japanese army and in 1950 it was taken over by the Shanghai government. The then mayor, Chen Yi, assigned the building to Shanghai Sports Bureau, which opened the Shanghai Sports Club here in 1957 to organize start-up sports classes to select and train future athletes from local children and youngsters.


zhang xuefei

The building opened in the summer of 1928 boasted one of the city’s earliest swimming pools with warm water. 

Ti Gong

Many Chinese world champion swimmers started their training in this swimming pool. С Courtesy of Shanghai Sports Club

“Since then it became ‘a cradle of world champions.’ A galaxy of Chinese stars, including swimmer Yang Wenyi and the go player Chang Hao, started their careers as amateurs at the Shanghai Sports Club. We celebrated the 60 years’ anniversary last year,” says Liang Ligang, club director.

Today, much of the original exterior and interior has remained as on the opening day 90 years ago, such as the diaper patterns on the facade, the triple entrance, the beautiful arches, the dark-wood library and the swimming pool still with warm water in winter and largely graced by delicate old mosaics.

“The building was well preserved because it has always been used by Shanghai Sports Bureau since 1950. From the bureau leaders to every staff member, we have deep feelings for this well-designed historical building. Some old staff recalled the ventilation was so good that air conditioners were not necessary in hot days. There was constantly the sound of wind blowing doors to close,” says Liang.

Today, part of the second floor is open to the public as an exhibition room of Shanghai Sports Museum. The history of the Olympic Games and Chinese participation is showcased. Olympic gold medals and huge pictures of smiling Chinese champions who had their first training here glisten under the gorgeous ceiling of this wonder building.


Zhang Xuefei

Part of the second floor houses an exhibition room of Shanghai Sports Museum. 

Yesterday: Foreign YMCA Building

Today: Shanghai Sports Club

Architect: Elliott Hazzard

Architectural style: Italian Renaissance style

Built in 1928.

Tips: The exhibition room of Shanghai Sports Museum on the second floor is open to the public at 9:30am to 11am, 2pm to 5pm from Tuesdays to Sundays. The exhibition hall as well as the lobby feature abundant original architectural details.

Colonel G. R. Rice’s speech at the opening ceremony

“May I remind you, that the triangle is three-sided and it represents the trinity of the human personality — spirit, soul and body. This building has been put up with the express purpose of ministering to the threefold needs of the young men of Shanghai. There is the fine hall which is available for lectures and the like, and it is here that provision is made for meeting the spiritual and intellectual needs of Shanghai’s youth; and not only the youth, for it is the fervent hope of some of the older ones among us that we shall be invited to attend such addresses, and that the lecture hall of this building may be a center for the dissemination of all that is best for young and old…

Then what fine facilities are afforded for social intercourse! There is this side for which provision is required as well as the spiritual and intellectual side and I am sure that no place is better fitted for ministering in a healthy atmosphere to those necessities of a full-orbed existence than the building in which we now find ourselves.

Need I refer to the third side of the triangle? The comfort of the body has not been overlooked. Inspect the gymnasium, the swimming pool, the dining hall, the lounge, the living apartments, and see how admirably the needs of the body have been catered for.

There is one more point to which Gen. Wardrop wished to draw attention and that is the international character of the work of the YMCA. Although this particular building is specially for foreigners, I suppose we are aware that the YMCA carries on its work among all races and does all in its power to emphasize the brotherhood of man. There is a large work among the young men of China and the Chinese YMCA has done much to form a rallying point for those who have the real good of China at heart.

In this building, too, there will be given a common ground for foreign young men, not all of the same race, to meet and discuss questions which affect them. It will be possible during the social hour, over a cup of tea, for men of different nationalities to ventilate, in a friendly way, the problems that occupy their minds, and, as the different points of view are brought to light, and a man is enabled to see matters through the other man’s spectacles, definite progress will be made in the interest of humanity, for the more we know one another, the more we understand one another, the better able are we to see that there are two sides to every question and that all the right is not on our own side. International friendships, brought about through the agency of the YMCA and such institutions, have a real value, and it is our duty to do all in our power to assist in the carrying out of the command of the Mater—‘Love one another’.”

(Excerpt by Michelle Qiao from The North-China Herald, July 7, 1928)


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