Unique passion for myriad collections
Lu Huangao is a diehard and eclectic collector. So much so that the 64-year-old self-made billionaire has opened 170 private museums in China — 28 of them on a site he owns near the airport in Pudong.
The Shanghai Oriental Dragon Museum Cluster in Pudong has collections that include dinosaur fossils, ancient bronze mirrors, Korean War history and the foreign footprint in Shanghai. There are traditional Chinese beds from the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and early period of the Republic of China (1912-1949).
Lu’s collections also include old tools that were used in more than 300 traditional industries, among them knives used by bodyguards, buckets used to wash pigs before slaughtering them and mobile stalls to sell wontons, a local delicacy.
Nearly 220,000 visitors a year visit the Cluster, including many from overseas.
The museums sometimes share a single building.
The most recent to open is the Museum of Foreigners in Shanghai, which chronicles the lives of foreigners in Shanghai from 1843 to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
“My father opened museums based on his personal interests,” said Lu’s daughter Lu Zhenxin, who is now curator of the family-run museums. “For example, he opened a geology museum because geology was an interest of his since childhood. In more recent years, he has become dedicated to local history and culture.”
The newest museum traces the cultural footprint of foreigners in Shanghai’s development.
The story starts in 1843, when Shanghai first opened its port to the world. Foreign concessions were built, and large numbers of people from abroad came to live here. The foreign population grew from about 26 in 1843 to 150,931 in 1942, according to local historian Xiong Yuezhi, who co-edited the book “Foreigners in Shanghai (1842-1949)” and was an advisor to the Lu family in the creation of the museum.
The foreigners came from 58 countries — mostly Japan, Russia, the US, Britain and France — and they engaged in a variety of occupations, including trade, banking, journalism and medicine.
Over time, foreign culture, products and ideas infused with local life, creating a cosmopolitan environment that earned Shanghai the title “Paris of the East.”
“Foreigners who visit Shanghai are interested to learn how their ancestors influenced the city,” said Xiong. “This museum is where they can make the connection.”
The collection inside contains old English publications, including the renowned weekly “Millard’s Review of the Far East,” which was later renamed “The China Weekly Review.” The weekly reported on China through the lens of foreign eyes and was popular among the Chinese elite and overseas readers.
Exhibits also include a bill of lading in English, university diploma certificates in French, antique furniture from foreign homes in Shanghai a century ago, and a historical confessional relocated from a local church.
“From these exhibits, we can see that foreigners shipped in modern products, introduced Western concepts and spread their religions,” daughter Lu said.
Her father’s collections are so vast and varied that they suggest a curious mind with no boundaries. He simply loves collecting everything old. He used to visit antique markets seven days a week, driving home in his Mercedes-Benz with sacks of old things that many would consider worthless.
For example, he collected an estimated 54 kilograms of train tickets and boarding cards. His wife joked that he was a “man driving luxury car to transport rubbish.”
“In recent years, my father became very interested in collecting old papers and historical archives,” his daughter said.
In 2013, he suffered from cerebral hemorrhage and survived only after emergency treatment. Though he is now confined to a wheelchair, his collecting ardor hasn’t dimmed.
“My father sometimes hires a driver to take him to antique markets and another driver to bring him home,” Lu said. “He often gets up before dawn and doesn’t return home until late at night. He is happy when buying old things, and he never hesitates because of price.”
Lu Huangao made his fortune in the early 1990s by selling vegetables from his own farms to countries like Japan. He traveled frequently to expand his business, and the overseas trips broadened his vision.
Instead of going tourist shopping when overseas, he visited museums. He was inspired to open his own museums after a visit to Tucson, Arizona, in 1998, where he found an extensive geology museum in a nearby small town.
In 1999, he closed down his company and spent about 8 million yuan (US$1.26 million) to buy 67 hectares of land in Pudong for his museums.
In 2004, the Shanghai Oriental Geological Museum opened there, becoming the first of its kind in the city. It contains more than 10,000 stones and gems, and two dinosaur fossil skeletons — one standing in the hall, the other mounted on a wall.
The fossils date back to the Triassic Period about 200 million years ago.
Many of the exhibits come from Lu’s extensive travels across China. He visited more than 1,000 mines — some 4,000 meters above sea level, some 2,000 meters deep underground.
“Once, I accompanied him to collect stone samples,” his daughter said. “We were on a remote island, and strong winds and big waves stranded us there for four days. We had to survive by eating wild plants,” she said.
Of all the museums on the Pudong site, Lu said many American visitors are quite keen to visit the one that pays tribute to Chinese soldiers of the Korean War. There is a memorial to the US soldiers in Washington, she said, so the Shanghai museum rounds out the history of that conflict in the early 1950s.
In a square at the site are three rusty Russian tanks used during the war. The museum has collected information from nearly 5,000 veterans, creating a profile for each of them.
Lu Huangao befriended many of the veterans, including Zhu Junxian, 83, who served as an army doctor in 1952. Zhu was so taken in with the museum that he relocated to a nearby house and now is a volunteer guide at the museum.
The Chinese People’s Volunteers fought alongside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea army in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. More than 200,000 Chinese soldiers were killed in the war.
Maintaining the museums involves huge costs that a modest admission fee doesn’t cover. “We have held a variety of activities to raise money,” Lu’s daughter said, “but we still basically rely on my father’s fortune to support the operations.”
She took over as a curator in 2013.
“It’s a heavy burden,” she said. “It’s so hard to run private museums because there is so little government support.”
What worries her most is urban renewal. “In recent years, nearly half of our lands have been zoned for urban redevelopment,” she said. “Some of our buildings have had to be pulled down.”
In 2010, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage ruled that regional authorities should distribute subsidies to privately run museums that meet certain criteria. But the standards are set very high and the allowances don’t begin to cover costs, Lu said.
Address: 100 Jiangzhen Road, Zhuqiao Town, the Pudong New Area
Admission: 80 yuan (for all museums)
Reservations are required for visit to Museum of Foreigners in Shanghai.
Tel: 3393-4565, 3393-5084
Admission to Shanghai Oriental Geological Museum is free today and this weekend for International Museum Day. But visitors can pay 30 yuan and visit all the other museums.