Craftsmen from China and Italy bring an old villa to life

Tucked away around the street corner of Nanjing Road W. and Shaanxi Road N., the historic villa has been given a new lease on life by craftsmen from China and Italy.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The exterior of the restored Rong Villa

A historic villa, associated with the renowned Rong family, will open tomorrow to the public for the first time.

There will be a free exhibition explaining the extensive restoration work over the past six years. 

Called Rong Zhai or Rong Villa now, the three-floor villa at 186 Shaanxi Road N. in Jing’an District was the former residence of Rong Zongjing, a pioneer of one of China’s most renowned tycoon families. 

He and his younger brother Rong Desheng were known as both flour and cotton yarn magnates.

His nephew, Rong Yiren, who was vice president of China from 1993 to 1998, set up the China International Trust and Investment Corp, or CITIC, in 1979.

The grand garden villa was bought by Rong Zongjing from a German in 1918. 

The classic Beaux Arts-style facade was maintained, while the interior design was furnished in Eclectic and Art Deco styles, and traditional Chinese elements.

Rong left Shanghai in January 1938 after refusing to work for the Japanese occupation forces. However, within a month after he arrived in Hong Kong, he died of illness.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The grand stained-glass skylight

Over the years, the villa has been rented as an office by the China Economic Research Institute as well as by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. In 2011, the luxury Italian brand Prada became the new tenant.

The district government sought help from the business sector to preserve the historic building, and Prada, which has a big store in Plaza 66 just across the street, stepped in. 

Patrizio Bertelli, Prada’s chief executive, said: “we will promote our own products here, like fashion shows. Also, we will hold public activities and exhibitions.”

Designer Michael Rock, and also a member of the restoration team, said: “Restoration doesn’t mean copying the past. We should add some new meaning into it. We have to understand it in a deep way and make it a global hybrid.”

Renowned history and architecture expert Zheng Shiling spoke highly of the project. “It’s rare that a historic building is used by one single company. Usually, it is divided into many units for different companies, which are bad for historical preservation.”

Zheng estimated that the project cost the Italian fashion house hundreds of millions of yuan. Prada, however, hasn’t released figures for the project.

Ti Gong

The secret family safety box

Revived due to two-country cooperation

The restoration involved three years of research, including ideas of how to combine Prada culture with the history of the villa and the Rong family.

During the work, a secret family safety box was found under paneling. “These are elements of life as it was, and we want them preserved,” cultural official Qian Wei said.

Craftsmen from China and Italy together have given the historic villa a new lease on life. “Generally, the interior decoration, like glass, light and wall embellishment, is preserved. But it doesn’t mean it’s an easy job to repair,” said Zheng, who is also a Tongji University professor. “The villa is given the top protection status by the city, which requires no change in decoration at all.”

Architect Robert Baciocchi, responsible for the restoration, said: “It took much time to find the original materials.” So, we asked skilled Italian craftsman to repair some of the broken pieces and make new ones in the old way.”

The highlight of the ballroom is a 45-square-meter stained-glass skylight, comprising 69 glass panels. It features Art Deco styling lines and typical Greek ornamental laurel wreaths. However, the skylight was severely damaged over the years. The broken and missing pieces were replaced with vintage glass, made in Germany in 1940.

When restoring a bedroom, unusually using enamel tiles on the walls instead of wooden panels, Italian craftsmen followed the old skills, by which the tiles were originally made, to make new ones in the same pattern.

Ti Gong

The walls in a bedroom that uses enamel tiles instead of the more normal paneling.

Ti Gong

An Italian craftsman makes the enamel tiles in the traditional way.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The elaborately patterned staircase

The restoration has won the heart of the Rong Family. John Yung, great grandson of Rong, said: “I’ve heard that there were many big names and celebrities gathered at our house, and they often attended parties held in the ballroom. I can feel those old glory days now.”

The restored Rong Villa will open to the public from Tuesday to November 12, six days a week from Tuesday to Sunday. An exhibition of the restoration work is held inside. Reservation is required in advance via Prada’s official WeChat (

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

An exhibition about the restoration work will be held until November 12.

Special Reports