Private garden houses ancient wooden architecture

Songjiang collector Zhao Wenlong’s Huizhen Wu houses about 10,000 pieces of wooden furniture from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, including 15 ancient houses.
Ti Gong

Local antiques collector Zhao Wenlong’s Huizhen Wu houses about 10,000 pieces of wooden furniture from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, including 15 ancient houses.

PEOPLE are generally amazed by the beauty of traditional Chinese garden — and an antique collector is going back in time and constructing one of his own in Songjiang.

The 9,000-square-meter private garden in Jiuting Town features about 10,000 pieces of wooden furniture from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. But most interesting is the reconstruction of 15 houses, including Huizhou-style architecture from Ming and Qing dynasties, with original materials.

There are also some residences of celebrities from old Shanghai.

The garden’s owner, Zhao Wenlong, 62, has been collecting antiques for more than 40 years. About 20 years ago, Zhao started work on his pet project, Huizhen Wu, in Songjiang.

Huizhen Wu, which literally means “treasure collection house” in Chinese, is Zhao’s “Treasure” house. He enjoys mortise-and-tenon structures -— the basis of Chinese wooden architecture and furniture -— the most.

“Chinese culture covers every aspect of our daily life, including clothing, food and residence,” said Zhao. “Mortise and tenon structure is an important part of Chinese art, but the public usually focuse on chinaware, painting and calligraphy and miss out on the beauty of our wooden structures.”

Zhao said he wanted to build Huizhen Wu as a place to preserve the mortise-and-tenon culture. The experienced collector said his passion for antique products was largely due to his upbringing.

Ti Gong

Zhao Wenlong, 62, has been collecting antiques for more than 40 years.

Zhao’s grandfather and father were landscape architects and contributed to the design and construction of Guilin Park, which was once the home of Shanghai’s mob boss Huang Jinrong in the 1930s.

Deeply influenced by his family, Zhao developed an interest in wooden structures and garden design.

As a youngster, Zhao worked in the countryside and noticed that many well-designed ancient chairs and tables were broken and lying forgotten. That made him sad.

“Even today, you can see people using broken furniture as firewood,” Zhao said. “Many people still don’t realize the value of ancient structures and the importance of preserving them.”

One of Zhao’s biggest collections is Huizhou-style architecture that was built by ancient Huizhou merchants, usually found in Anhui, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces. Huizhou-style architecture is famous for elements, including the exterior “horse head” walls, well-carved post and beam, and courtyard that would collect rainwater from tile roofs. But with owners leaving their hometowns due to wars and worsening social conditions in the mountainous regions, many of these structures began to rot or were damaged.

Most of Zhao’s collections come from these ancient houses. When he heard that some of the structures may be demolished, Zhao would go to the place and assess whether the structure needed to be preserved. If the home was bought, his team of carpenters would mark pieces on the structure and bring them back to Huizhen Wu. There, the workers could clean and restore the damaged pieces in the workshop.

“While repairing those ancient wooden structures, we would repair them just like old,” said Zhao, pointing at a column. “Time has washed the original paint on the column, but we did not repaint or polish the column. It would ruin the beauty if one tries to repair old things into brand new. Time has left its mark on the structure.”

Zhang NIngning / SHINE

A member of Zhao's repair team repairs wooden structures of ancient houses in Huizhen Wu.

Zhao admits that the best way to protect and preserve ancient buildings are at their original places and in the original environment, but he insists that there were also many buildings that were damaged, or simply disappeared, due to lack of preservation.

Despite Zhao’s expertise, and his team’s skills, the restoration work proved to be an expensive affair. To sustain his passion and the costs of building Huizhen Wu, Zhao sustained himself with his antique business.

“What I do is an individual effort. I want to promote the preservation of Chinese wooden structures so that society can value them at some point of time.”

Zhao has been instrumental in helping with the restoration work of many of Shanghai’s historic wooden buildings, including a building in Guangfulin relics, also in Songjiang.

Huizhen Wu serves as an art education base of Shanghai Jiao Tong University and East China Normal University. The garden has hosted many cultural events.

Recently, Jiuting authorities organized a blind-date event for local singles on Chinese Valentine’s Day and Huizhen Wu was chosen as the venue. In July, it staged an event for fans of qipao in the garden.

However, the increasing number of visitors also put pressure on the private garden as some of the ancient wooden structures were found to be damaged.

Zhao said he was considering transforming Huizhen Wu into a hotel in the future.

“We collectors are just keepers of these wooden structures of our generation,” said Zhao. “The aim is to ensure that the future generation can enjoy the beauty and culture of the past.”

Ti Gong
Ti Gong
Ti Gong
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