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His Works, My History

Robert Fan Designed Magnificent Buildings. Then Mao Came Along.

The Washington Post's Maureen Fan went to homes designed by her grandfather, architect Fan Wenzhao, or Robert Fan, who left Shanghai when the Communists took over in 1949. Video by and photos by Maureen Fan/The Washington Post, Edited by Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SHANGHAI -- I am standing at a desk in the Xuhui District Housing Bureau with a photograph of an old document, in search of my past. Two middle-aged bureaucrats sit behind desks, one scowling and the other eating a takeout lunch with chopsticks.

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"We'd like to know what the procedure is for getting back the house that belonged to her grandfather," my interpreter tells them. I look just like them, and for a moment they can't understand why someone else is speaking for me. But the Chinese my mother taught me was Cantonese, which turns out to be the wrong Chinese.

After some prodding, the scowling man pulls out a weathered ledger that says a real estate agent named Zhang controlled the property after 1958, authorizing the government to rent it out.

When I insist that my father and uncle know no such person, and that the family couldn't have rented out the house in the 1950s, the bureaucrat grows irritated, telling me there was "no corruption" back then.

"What do you know?" he says coolly. "You're only the third generation."

* * *

The history of a country changes, but often the buildings do not. They continue to stand, mute witnesses to the narrative around them. Those who control them, manage them or live in them fill them with meaning, and that's what they stand for, until history changes again and they represent something else.

I come from a family of architects, and so the buildings matter to us. My grandfather was one of the most prominent architects in Shanghai, and designed the Nanking Theater, now the Shanghai Concert Hall; the Rialto, Astor and Majestic movie theaters; the YMCA building on Xizhang Road South; numerous university buildings and private residences; and the Railway and Health ministries in the southern city of Nanjing. But the buildings that drew me most were the ones my family once lived in.

In particular, I kept returning to the house at 1292 Huaihai Rd., the last house my grandfather Robert Fan (or Fan Wenzhao) owned before he left China in 1949, just as the Communists took power. He and my grandmother lived here with their four children, including my father, and a handful of servants.

I first visited this house in 1986, just after college, and again in 2002. I stand before it now, trying to read the history of my family in its sprawl.

My father and mother are also architects, retired from their San Francisco practice since the 1990s. I'm a journalist, raised in suburbia with only an academic understanding of China until I came back in 2005 to study Mandarin and work as a correspondent for The Washington Post.

Fifty years after he left, my father came back to the house he lived in on Huaihai Road, but he refused to go inside. He stood on the sidewalk staring at the house, his eyes red. He didn't want to change the meaning it held from his childhood.

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