China: Rong Zhai 荣宅 in Shanghai- from Flour to Fashion

Photo: Prada.
A meticulously restored European-style villa in Shanghai that's now owned by Italian fashion brand Prada.

Why visit? 
Known variously as the 'Pearl of the Orient' or 'The Whore of Asia' (take your pick), Shanghai in the early 20th century was a hotbed of capitalism, trade, and Occidental-Oriental intermingling. (Proving that Kipling was profoundly wrong.)

Shanghai was put on the map in these days, and although rapid development has wiped away much of its early history, pockets remain and subject to (much needed) new-found appreciation. 

Rong Zhai is a magnificent Western style villa that belonged to a Chinese tycoon, and only recently opened up to the product after it was acquired by Milanese fashion house Prada. 

In Shanghai's Jing'an district, right of Nanjing West Rd. Map

RONG ZHAI 荣宅 means 'Rong Residence' i.e. the Rong family used to call this place home. Although the house carries their name, they didn't build it. Who did? The internet doesn't know. Apparently Prada doesn't either. All we could find is that the house was built around the turn of the 20th century by a German, and only acquired by the Rong pater familias Rong Zongjing (aka Yung Tsoong-King) in 1918.
The house is built in an eclectic neo-classical style that was popular in Europe in the late 19th century. It's not surprising to find European architecture here: after all, Shanghai was run as a de facto colony by Western powers, and their influence extended beyond banking and trade in to architecture and art.
Our favourite feature: the loggia.

When Rong Zongjing purchased his new family home, he was making a statement: that he, born as a poor country bumpkin in Wuxi, who, barely literate, moved to Shanghai in his teens without a penny, had arrived. And arrived he had. Rong Zongjing was known as Shanghai's Flour King, a self-made man who had built a business empire of cotton and flour mills.
Conspicuous consumption being as prevalent then as it is in modern day Shanghai, the Flour King bought this ostentatious villa and turned it into a family home and an entertainment venue for Shanghai socialites. His parties were legendary. 

The good times didn't last: Flour King Rong left in 1938 when the Japanese took over the city. He died shortly afterwards in Hong Kong. 

The mansion, like practically everything else in China, became state property after the Communist takeover, and was rented out to various tenants, slowly losing its luster.
In 2011 Prada moved in. Being comfortably wealthy themselves, the brand's owners can afford to dabble in cultural preservation, and Rong Zhai is just one of several projects where Prada has renovated and preserved historical buildings. 

The fact that Mainland Chinese have become the world largest buyers of luxury goods (the Chinese Luxury market grew 20% last year) means that it also makes good business and marketing sense to have a high-profile presence in the city. It's not all about philanthropy- a high-profile flagship location with cultural cachet boosts the brand's credibility with its target market. 
You gotta give it to Prada though that they have made a remarkable effort to restore the mansion. Even more remarkable is that, in good communist fashion, Prada has the right to use, but it doesn't even own the place. In spite of that, they poured millions of yuan into Rong Zhai.

There are no hand bags for sale here: when Minor Sights visited, there was an exhibition of 20th century Italian art. Prada will be using it as 'a site for the brand's activities' in Shanghai. Expect fashion shows, cultural events, and erratic opening hours. 
Yes, it's art.

Getting there: 

Rong Zhai is just off central Shanghai's main drag, Nanjing Road, opposite of the large Prada store in the Plaza 66 mall. The nearest metro stop is Nanjing West Road on the green line. 
Old Shanghai meets New Shanghai. 
If you're in this area, there are a few other interesting Minor Sights. It's interesting to compare the Rong Residence with Pei Mansion, built one or two decades later in a completely different style (Art Deco). Both built by wealth local businessman, just a few years apart, they couldn't be more different in their architectural approach.  And nearby Jing'An Villa offers another fascinating glimpse into Golden Age Shanghai. 

Useful links:
You want to go inside? Try your luck on the official website, or use WeChat to scan the code below.