“Eat! Eat!” Yang Mei Ying urged.
“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.
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.
Not that E had apparently been the first to discover the house:
“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.
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….)