The Normandie Apartments (today’s Wukang Mansion, 武康大楼, 1836–1858 Middle Huaihai Road) is located at a rare six-way intersection in the center of Shanghai, the junction of Shanghai Tianping Road (天平路), Yuqing Road (余庆路), Xingguo Road (兴国路), Wukang Road (武康路), and Huaihai Middle Road (淮海中路). It is in the western part of the former French Concession area of the city. The angle between Wukang Road and Huaihai Road is less than 30 degrees, and the building is perfectly shaped into the narrow-angle.
The unique shape attracts the attention of many tourists. It is one of the iconic building in the former French Concession. But, first of all, why did Wukang Road have such a strange angle with Huaihai Road?
The brief history of the Normandie Apartments
In 1896, the Nanyang Public School (南洋公學) was founded in Shanghai by the imperial edict of the Guangxu Emperor. Sheng Xuanhuai (盛宣怀), the mandarin who proposed the idea to the Guangxu Emperor, hired the missionary educator John Calvin Ferguson to set up the school.
In the year 1907, he used his own salary to build another small road between Avenue Joffre (Huaihai Road) and Route Legendre (Xingguo Road) to facilitate the travel of teachers and students. However, in the beginning, this path did not have a name. Later, because the nearby French Concession wanted to expand its scope, it had a conflict with a local Ningbo Association, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia. Ferguson mediated the dispute and reached a solution that satisfied everyone. The local people named this road Route Ferguson to honor him. In 1914, the road belonged to French Concession.
In 1924, there were many high-end shopping malls and business venues near Route Ferguson and Avenue Joffre. The French International Savings Society took the opportunity and initiated the construction of this apartment building at the location. They gave the building the name Normandie Apartments. It has nothing to do with the Battle of Normandy. But it is related to the French habit of naming buildings. It housed mainly senior business people from Western employees of companies based in the old Xujiahui district.
So, who was the architect and what is the architectural style of the building?
The architect of the Normandie Apartments
While the unique shape of the Normandie Apartments is related to the angle between the roads where the building is located, it also highlights the designer’s clever ideas. The Normandie Apartments was designed by Hungarian-Slovak architect László Hudec, who designed many landmarks in Shanghai. It is a masterpiece as a residential building. So, what are the features of this building then?
The architectural style of the Normandie Apartments
The eight-story building is in the French Renaissance style and is the oldest veranda-style apartment building in Shanghai. The concrete building is 30 metres tall, occupies a ground area of 1,580 square metres, and has a floor area of 9,275 square metres. There were originally 63 apartments, 30 servants’ quarters, and three elevators. The unusual wedge-shape of the building is reminiscent of the Flatiron Building in New York.
The first, second floors formed a semi-circular vault, with a stone-like cement wall. The third to seventh floors of the building have yellow-brown tiled walls. The exterior of the eighth floor is still a stone-like cement wall. Next to the spiral staircases, there is also passenger and cargo elevators. And the elevators use a half-clock to indicate the floor where the elevator arrives, which is a very chic design.
The historical stories associated to the Normandie Apartments
There used to have two movie companies not far from this building. Therefore, it became a popular residence for people from the film industry in the 1940s. They gathered in the cafes and restaurants on the ground floor to talk about the manuscript and interview potential actors and actresses.
Soon, it became the centre of China’s film industry during the Republic of China era. Residents included famous actors and actresses Wu Yin, Wang Renmei, Qin Yi, Zhao Dan, Sun Daolin, Wang Wenjuan, Shangguan Yunzhu, and actor/director Zheng Junli.
Wang Renmei was the main actress in the movie “Children of Troubled Times” (风云儿女). Its lyric, the March of the Volunteers, was composed by Nie Er and its context was written by Tian Han. After the movie was screened and released on 24th of May in 1935, the title song was known by nearly every Chinese. Later, it has become the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China.
Kung Ling-Wei(孔令 伟), the daughter of the wealthy banker H. H. Kung, bought the building in 1945 and moved into the building. In 1953, Shanghai government took over the building.
The dramas of the Normandie Apartments
During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the building became the target of the Red Guards. They called the building an anti-revisionist tower. Dozens of intellectuals committed suicide, while others were persecuted as “state enemies”. Some jumped from the building. Among them, the Chinese film star Shangguan Yunzhu jumped out of her seventh-floor window in November 1968 after being badly beaten. The building has a local reputation for being haunted by the ghosts of people who committed suicide there. That’s why the local residents referred to it as The Diving Board.
The present status of the Normandie Apartment
The former Normandie Apartments was renamed in 1953 to Wukang Mansion. In 2008 it was restored by the government of Xuhui District. It is one of Shanghai’s historic buildings under the municipal protection.
In 2019, the surrounding of the building is also renovated. There is no web-like wires and cables around the building. It is possible for visitors to take pictures of the building without having any cables or wires in the scene. Some of the poles and pillars in the surrounding are also moved away.
The Normandie Apartments, or Wukang Mansion, is undoubtedly still the famous building in the former French Concession. Besides, there are many things to do on the premise as well.
Things to do around Normandie Apartments (Wukang Mansion)
On the ground floor of the building is an arcaded passage. There are a few stores there. The
is quite popular among the locals. It has a nostalgic interior and offers tasty coffees. However, what attracts me more is the bookstore 大隐书局, which is only a few steps further from the Cottage Cafe & Bar.
The small door is easy to be missed by passers-by. And the facade of the bookstore looks unremarkable. The interior design of the bookstore is simple. There are only a few types of books, and most are only in the Chinese language. But visitors can sit in any of the six rooms at the back of the bookstore, reading books, drinking a cup of tea, and meeting friends. The wooden tables and chairs, the warm colors and the background music make this venue a comfortable place for a relax. This is also one of the epic bookstores in Shanghai.