Poy Gum Lee
Chinese-American architect Poy Gum Lee designed several landmark Shanghai Art Deco buildings, including a number of Chinese Deco masterpieces – like him, a mix of East and West.
The Art Deco era brought a new Western architectural style to Shanghai – and to China – but unlike preceding western styles, Art Deco in China included sub-genres that incorporated design elements from different cultures, including Chinese culture. Lee became one of the most important, and versatile, practitioners of Art Deco in Shanghai, with styles ranging from classic mid-period Art Deco to Chinese Deco to Mediterranean.
Born in New York City in 1900, Lee studied at the Pratt Institute, earning his diploma of architecture in 1920. A hotbed for Art Deco architects, Pratt served Lee well as he began his career, working for several American architectural firms, where he refined his Modernist design ideas. Notably, Lee also worked for Henry K. Murphy, the American architect who was a firm advocate of adapting traditional Chinese styles to modern uses. This style can be see in much of Lee’s work, as well as in the work of other Chinese architects who worked for Murphy: Robert Fan, Dong Dayou and Zhao Shen. In 1923, Lee was hired by the YMCA Building Bureau for China, beginning a long and fruitful career in building China’s skylines.
Lee designed YMCAs and YWCAs in 11 cities throughout China, including several in Shanghai: the International YMCA, the Navy Y, the Chinese YMCA, the National YMCA Headquarters and the YWCA, the latter two wonderful showcases of Chinese Deco. The YWCA, erected in 1932, features the geometric design and streamlined facade of a modern building, but Lee adds Ming and Qing-style ornamentation, either elements in keeping with the Art Deco aesthetic, or modernized to fit.
The Chinese YMCA, designed in 1934 with Robert Fan, is another Chinese Deco showpiece. The exterior features a streamlined Western building, topped with a classical Chinese roof, traditional ceramic tiles and all. Like the YWCA, traditional design elements that mesh with the Art Deco aesthetic – geometric, or modernized versions of traditional patterns – are included in the interior.
Lauded for his YMCA work, Lee began his own architectural firm in 1927. In the following years, he soon became known as a greatly prolific architect as he designed building after building in Shanghai’s growing architectural landscape.
Lee’s most famous work, however, is not in Shanghai: it’s the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing. He was the associate architect to Y.C. Lu, the architect commissioned to built the Mausoleum. When Lu became ill, and after his death, Lee was entrusted with finishing both the Mausoleum and the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou.
Not all of Lee’s work incorporated Chinese elements. The Bank of Canton, in the Bund financial district, and the New Asia Hotel in Hongkou are classic Art Deco beauties that would not be out of place in his native New York.
And not all of it was Art Deco: one of his most iconic buildings is the Cosmopolitan Apartments, a Spanish Mediterranean designed edifice that was, in its day, one of the most luxurious apartments in the city. Owned by Cantonese tycoon Tan Jing, it housed Shanghai high society, and its story, through Chinese history was the subject of a 2009 documentary, Building 173.
It’s a little surreal, but wonderful, to see some of Lee’s buildings still standing against the backdrop of skyscrapers and shiny new designer clad buildings in this growing metropolis. It’s well worth touring some of his buildings before Shanghai’s architectural landscape rapidly changes once again.
Poy Gum Lee Buildings:
YMCAs in China, 1923-1927
Nanjing (see Nanjing section)
Shanghai (see Shanghai section)
Shanghai International YMCA
Shanghai Navy Y
Frenchtown Shanghai Chinese YMCA
National YMCA Headquarters, Shanghai
Shanghai National Committee Building
Nantao Christian Institute
Mary Farnham Girls School
Cantonese Guild Girls School
Shanghai Quarantine Station
Cantonese Baptist Church
New Asia Hotel
Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum
New Capital Cinema
Elsewhere in China
Hangzhou Power Plant, Hangzhou
Central University College of Commerce, Jiangwan
Quarantine Station, Xiamen
Zhengzhou General Hospital, Zhengzhou