Celebrated author's harmonious relationship with Art Deco building

Qiao Zhengyue
Changde Apartments, a striking Art Deco building, will always be associated with celebrated author Eileen Chang (1920-95).
Qiao Zhengyue

Changde Apartments, a striking Art Deco building, will always be associated with celebrated author Eileen Chang (1920-95).

Archives from Jing’an District Housing Management Bureau reveal the building was called the Eddington House when Chang lived there. And the days spent at Eddington House saw Chang at the zenith of her writing power.

Decades later, even on the other side of the globe, she kept writing about this part of her life.

“Eileen Chang first lived in this apartment building with her mother and aunt in 1939 but later went to study in Hong Kong. When she returned to Shanghai in 1942, she moved into Room 60 with her aunt, and became a freelance writer until September 1947. Here, Chang completed the most important several novels of her life,” the archive record shows.

Celebrated author's harmonious relationship with Art Deco building
Wang Zhendong

The Eddington House on Changde Road is perhaps the most well-known of the apartment buildings where Chang lived during her days in Shanghai, where her fans can pay their tribute and read her books in the cafe downstairs. 

The eight-story Eddington House building was erected in 1936 during the golden era (1920s-40s) of modern Shanghai apartment buildings. Listed among the second batch of historical buildings, the construction features vertical lines as the centerpiece, which is flanked by long, horizontal balconies as a contrast. In addition, the canopy to the entrance and the walls on two sides are also adorned by horizontal lines. The top two floors are set back and showcase a strong Art Deco feature.

The research of Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao revealed the city’s early residential buildings were mostly shikumen (stone-gate) houses, which were built after refugees from neighboring provinces flooded into the foreign settlements of Shanghai following the upheavals of the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s.

The new-style three-story “lane apartments” emerged in the 1920s. Every flat in a lane apartment had an en suite, and was equipped with a kitchen, steel-framed windows and a wax wooden floor.

“As Shanghai’s land price continued to soar in the 1920s, taller apartment buildings were built with up to six and nine floors. Though every flat in the taller buildings was smaller than before, the living quality of flat dwellers improved due to modern design and facilities. Tall apartment buildings were in either Art Deco or modern style,” Qian says.

Celebrated author's harmonious relationship with Art Deco building
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The staircase inside the Changde Apartments is well preserved inside and out today. 

After researching dozens of the city’s modern apartment buildings, another Tongji University professor, Zuo Yan, discovered apartment dwellers appeared to be more independent and behaved in a more ‘privacy-sensitive way’ compared with those living in local lane houses.

Most of the apartments’ residents were medium-level capitalists, senior executives, lawyers, professors, doctors or artists, who either worked for foreign companies or had the experience of studying overseas. Some residents were expatriates who came to Shanghai for work for a period of two to three months.

Apartments under Chang’s pens were ideal places to be secluded from the world. Perched at the crossroad of Changde Road and Nanjing Road W., Changde Apartments, where she lived for six years, was an upper-class residence close to the garden of tycoon Silas Hardoon. Nanjing Road, nicknamed “Shi Li Yang Chang,” or “10-mile-long foreign metropolis,” was a prosperous, bustling area in downtown Shanghai. But passing Xizang Road, the western stretch of Nanjing Road appears to have a more elegant and quieter environment.

Celebrated author's harmonious relationship with Art Deco building
Shanghai Library

A file photo of Eileen Chang in Room 60 of the Eddington House

“The apartment buildings were formerly fronted with gardens planted with gingko trees. It was a tranquil place at a prominent location pairing sophistication and eccentricity, great for a writer to live in,” professor Zuo wrote in her thesis “A study on the changes of apartment-living culture and historical features in modern Shanghai.”

According to the book “Old Shanghai Classic Apartments,” Shanghai’s apartment buildings were mostly located in commercial areas in the former International Settlement or the French Concession areas, covering today’s Huangpu, Jing’an, Xuhui, Changning and Hongkou districts.

Early apartment buildings were in classic or Renaissance style, whose facades were embellished with architraves and carved brick decorations. Most apartment buildings changed toward a more modern style and simple-cut form since the late 1920s. In the 1930s taller apartment buildings, such as the Eddington House at 195 Changde Road and the Carlton Apartments at 65 Huanghe Road were prevailing in Shanghai.

A China Press report in 1931 noted “Shanghai has finally rapidly become a city of apartment buildings.” Another article in a 1940 Chinese magazine “The Grand View,” noted the popularity of apartments in Shanghai was because “they were more convenient and cheaper than hotels.”

The Jing’an District Housing Management Bureau archives say an Italian developer invested heavily in the Eddington House.

The building features three apartments on each level from the second to fifth floor. The upper two floors contain two apartments each. The eighth floor is used for facilities and equipment. The apartments differ in sizes from two to three bedrooms, with or without a sitting room. Each floor is designed with a back balcony and servants’ bathroom. The rooms are all paved with wooden floors and equipped with fireplaces and a heating system. The bedroom has a cloakroom and bathroom inside while the kitchen is arranged along the western veranda. Double balconies connect the sitting room and bedroom.

“Owing to the set-back structure, the upper and lower parts of the building have different layouts. The top floors are two-bedroom, two-bathroom flats. Inside the gate, the corridor features two kitchen rooms, both on one side. The outer kitchen room has a four-burner gas stove while the inner kitchen room is a pantry. On the other side, there are two bedrooms. The master’s bedroom has a balcony facing the east,” professor Zuo recalled on her visit to Changde Apartments.

Celebrated author's harmonious relationship with Art Deco building
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

Known as Changde Apartments today, the Art Deco building is flanked by long, horizontal balconies.

She said that compared to the garden houses, these tall apartment buildings not only embraced new life style, but also showed a more avant-garde concept.

Professor Qian added that the construction of the apartment buildings in Shanghai started from the 1920s and continued until the 1940s.

“After 1949 the government built many residential compounds for local workers, the style of which were based on Shanghai apartment buildings, yet featuring characteristics of those residential compounds in the former Soviet Union,” Qian said.

Today, Changde Apartments is well preserved inside and out. The Art Deco facade is still eye-catching and a nameplate saying it’s Eileen Chang’s former residence on average attracts dozens of visitors a day. However, it is not open to people without an invitation. There’s a bed and breakfast in the building themed on the famous writer, while many of Chang’s books are on display in the cafe on the ground floor.

Celebrated author's harmonious relationship with Art Deco building
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The ground-floor cafe themed on Eileen Chang

Yesterday: Eddington House

Today: Changde Apartments

Built in: 1936

Address: 195 Changde Road

Architects: Cumine & Co Ltd

Architectural style: Art Deco

Tips: The building is not open to the public without an invitation. There’s a bed and breakfast in the building themed on the famous writer, while many of Chang’s books are on display in the cafe on the ground floor.

Eileen Chang’s fun notes on apartment life

If we are to count the cultural celebrities of modern Shanghai, Eileen Chang must rank at the top. Her footprints spread across the former International Settlement and the French Concession areas, while her literary and living spaces were closely tied to the modern architecture of Shanghai.

It seems that Chang enjoyed living in the apartments along Nanjing Road. The several complexes where she lived include the Kinnear Apartments, Chonghua Apartments, Carlton Apartments and the Eddington House.

“An apartment is an ideal retreat from the world outside. Often, people who are weary of metropolitan life yearn for the quiet harmony of the countryside, longing for the day when they might retire to their old country home, keep bees, plant a few crops and enjoy a well-earned rest. Little do they know that in the countryside the mere purchase of half a pound of smoked meat elicit storms of idle gossip, whereas in an apartment on the top floor, you can change clothes right in front of the window without anyone knowing the difference,” Chang wrote in her 1943 article “Notes on Apartment Life.”

From the balcony of the Eddington House, Chang could see the trams come and go from the terminal station. Every moment of the tram could be heard inside the apartment. People who lived nearby complained that the noise affected their quality of life, but Chang would often watch it pass by with great interest.

“I like to listen to city sounds. People, who are more poetic than I am, listen from their pillows to the sound of rusting pines or the roar of ocean waves, while I can’t falling asleep until I hear the sound of streetcars,” Chang writes.

Excerpt from “Eileen Chang’s Shanghai,” Tongji University Press

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