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Chance Encounters, Shanghai

This is a warmhearted story of architecture, history, love and a chance encounter in a Shanghai stairwell.

I really hadn’t expected to be invited into Yang Mei Ying and her husband Ong Zen’s apartment at first meeting, but here I was already sitting stiffly on their sofa alongside my friend E, being fed sweet winter cumquats.

“Eat! Eat!” Yang Mei Ying urged.

There were small piles of pill packets all over the apartment, along with sheets of discount vouchers clipped from newspapers and bowls of fruit resting on the dresser and next to the television. The universal signature of the elderly – pills and fruit. 

“I’m not feeling so well today” Yang Mei Ying told us. “Some stiffness in my neck. I’m getting old!”

She was 79 years old and wore a hand-knitted vest in brightest orange over a red turtleneck and trousers. Her body was slight under her heavy woollens and she moved slowly. Her husband Ong Zen, 83, was still in his pyjamas, although it was hard to tell if they were sleeping pyjamas or Shanghai-style lounging pyjamas. They looked like sleeping pyjamas – faded striped flannel, worn with a fishing vest over the top, the kind with many pockets. 

My dear friend E had first met the couple two weeks before. E’s longstanding interest in Shanghai’s old buildings, combined with a refreshing boldness common to Americans, means she often wandered down one of Shanghai’s thousand lane ways, found an interesting old building and walked into the foyer. And sometimes, it must be said, up the stairs. And occasionally (it must also be said) into people’s homes, but only if asked. Yang Mei Ying and Ong Zen had invited her into their home after finding her exploring the stairwell of their building with her camera.

These old houses are masterpieces of architecture from the 1920s and 1930s, mansions of Shanghai’s wealthy elite. In the 1950s many were relinquished unwillingly by their owners, requisitioned by the Chinese government for mass housing. Their architectural magnificence was carved up into tiny one room apartments – single bedrooms became homes of entire families, with bedroom, living room and kitchen all in one space. Grand dining rooms suffered the addition of a privy and had their fireplaces used for cooking.

In most of these houses the original features and details have largely been lost – perhaps one or two doorways, an occasional old banister, a carved lintel, faint whispers of a grand past. Now the multiple apartments are concreted into the inside of the building, like barnacles inside a bottle, and renovated over and again, each renovation losing more and more of the original sense of the house. You have to look hard to re-imagine how they might once have looked.

When E found the house Yang Mei Ying and Ong Zen were living in she realised immediately it was that rare gem – a 1923 mansion house completely untouched since its original 1950s carve-up. Everything inside – from the ornate front doors to the inlaid mosaic tile floor, the moulded plaster ceilings, the carved wooden banisters, and the decorative wood paneling rising from the floor to head height – was completely original. It took her breath away.

The upstairs hallway floors are all original parquetry. Downstairs the carved wall panels have suffered the addition of nailed-on letterboxes.
The magnificent interior stairwell.

Not that E had apparently been the first to discover the house:

“People come here all the time. They pretend to be friendly but they just want to buy the whole building!” Yang Mei Ying said. “I don’t let them inside!”
E is incapable of pretence and thanks to her openness and big smile the couple had, in fact, led her right through their doorway. The photo portrait she took of them that day, and brought back later framed, had pride of place on top of the television. E thought I might like to meet them, so here I was, hearing their history for the first time.
They moved into the apartment after their marriage in the early 1950s. Yang Mei Ying waved to a photo of the two of them, high on a wall near the ceiling. Ong Zen was in military uniform.

“He was a soldier, yes.” Yang Mei Ying  looked over at her husband, smiling. Ong Zen was almost completely deaf so he smiled beatifically during the conversation no matter what was said, his hands resting in his lap.

Ah. The Beijing Lu Military Base was nearby, and perhaps explained why the young couple were assigned an apartment in such a grand old house, and on the top floor at that. I wondered if it made their lives easier during the troubled years, and I had to assume it had. But no one really escaped trouble in those times.

“I remember that photo,” Yang Mei Ying went on. “I didn’t have a chance to dress up for it! I was just wearing my outdoor clothes! The photographer needed someone to write for him and Ong Zen had beautiful handwriting, so he said we could have a portrait in exchange. No time to prepare!” She shook her head. “But he did have such beautiful handwriting” she said, and looked fondly over at Ong Zen.

Now they had been married more than sixty years, with two daughters and two grandchildren. They seemed so caring towards one another, and the daughters still took turn about every night after work to cook for their parents and spend the night sleeping in the apartment to keep watch over them, despite having their own families to worry about.
Yang Mei Ying’s and Ong Zen’s own bedroom had been renovated by adding a floor that divided the room into two levels. The high ceilings in these old houses meant it was possible to create a low-ceilinged upstairs and downstairs inside one room, the upstairs level usually accessed by a ladder. Their daughters – thankfully not tall – had spent their lives in twin beds directly above their parents’ double bed, and still slept there every alternating night. 

The kitchen, shared with three other apartments, was reclaimed from one of the original bathrooms, complete with original bath.

Yang Mei Ying told us their daughters had bought them a modern apartment, with an inside bathroom, a proper kitchen, and air-conditioning. Everything needed to make their lives easier, and safer. Most of the apartments in the house were now abandoned and in terrible disrepair, and the few that were inhabited seemed to have dubious occupants.
“So what makes you stay here?” I asked her, suspecting the answer would be proximity to her children and friends.

Yang Mei Ying didn’t pause for a second. “I stay for the floors” she said, sliding her slippered foot across the time-polished parquetry. “For the beautiful, beautiful floors.”

(A big, gigantic thanks to E, firstly for taking me along to meet Ong Zen and Yang Mei Ying, and also for lending me the use of her camera when I discovered I had left my battery in the battery charger at home….)