Advanced Search
Business | Metro | Nation | World | Sports | Features | Specials | Delta Stories
The taipan's retreat
17/3/2005 9:55

Shanghai Daily news


The mansion built by the Butterfield & Swire is now the Xingguo Guesthouse.


A look inside the house.

The stately Butterfield & Swire taipan's mansion -- ``the only gentleman's house in Shanghai'' -- was designed from afar by an architect who never set foot here. Tina Kanagaratnam traces the story of the family who built it, and finds out why locals call it the ice-cream house.

``It is known all over Shanghai as the Palace,'' reported Warren Swire when he arrived from England in 1934 to inaugurate Hazelwood, the newly-built Butterfield & Swire taipan's mansion in the former French Concession, ``and is the only gentleman's house in the place.''
Perhaps that was true, or perhaps it was just a jab at his arch-rival Henry Keswick, the Jardine Matheson taipan, whose sumptuous Hongqiao home was said to be the catalyst for Hazelwood -- because the fierce competition between these two powerful "hongs" (trading houses) in the lucrative China coast trade extended all the way to the top.
Seventy-one years later, the Swires have won: the Jardines' home is gone (only the stone gatepost bearing the name remains, in photographer Deke Erh's fishpond) but Hazelwood, now Building No. 1 of the Xingguo Guesthouse, is still one of the city's most palatial residences.
Today, the approach, from Xingguo Road, reveals a modest entrance with a covered driveway, but the first sight of Hazelwood was meant to be from the south: the garden. The combination of vast lawn and the wide facade, with its two-storey, columned verandah, gives architect Clough Williams-Ellis' stately British Imperial classic building the look and feel of an antebellum mansion.
The ground floor verandah is now enclosed, but the large patio, just made for dancing in the moonlight, remains in front of the French windows. Five dormer windows pop out (``too prominent,'' complained Swire) of the copper roof, lime green with the patina of age, flanked by a pair of chimneys that rise like the funnels of a ship. In his autobiography, Architect Errant, Williams-Ellis describes himself as having ``a judgment of proportions -- that is unerring,'' and the balance and harmony of this house bears this out.
There is an utter peacefulness here, a rare quiet that envelopes a visitor. Inside the house, a hushed silence fills rooms that have long been emptied of visitors, but remains heavy with their memories. Which makes it especially ironic that Hazelwood came to be here as a result of not one, but two, wars.
The American Civil War, which began in 1861, dried up the cotton trade for the British trading firm John Swire & Sons. Two decades earlier, in 1842, the Treaty of Nanjing had opened the China coast to trade, and John Samuel Swire (who, with his brother, William Hudson Swire, had inherited the firm from his father) began looking at the ``new'' China trade with increasing interest.
A small item in December 4, 1866 edition of Shanghai's popular North-China Daily News noted the formation of Butterfield & Swire in the city. Although the name lasted until 1974, the alliance with Richard Butterfield, a British wool and worsted manufacturer who was one of Swire's clients, only survived for two years.
The Swire empire, known in China as Taikoo (``great and ancient'') burgeoned in the East, expanding into Yangtze River steamships, a monopoly on the China coast bean-cake (fertilizer) trade, acting as agents for banks and insurance companies -- even issuing their own notes at one point in 1880s -- and sugar refinery. Taikoo sugar is still a popular brand in Shanghai.
As befitted a hong of its stature, Butterfield & Swire had a building on the Bund -- it still stands, on the former Quai de France -- and by 1892, John Swires and Sons had bought a house on Bubbling Well Road (today's Nanjing Road W.), and filled it with Chinese furniture. They called the house Hazelwood, and when they sold the property in the 1930s (``for a super top price''), the name, and the furniture, was transferred to the new property, located in a compound that made up an entire city block on the western edge of the former French Concession.
Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis, known for Portmeirion village, a labor of love that he undertook for half a century on the Welsh coast, was commissioned to design the house, and did so -- by remote control. Tess Johnston quotes him in her book on the Western architecture of the former French Concession, ``Frenchtown Shanghai'': ``Plaster casts were sent out for all moldings, capitals, cornices, bases, panels and architectural details of every kind and were faithfully reproduced ...''
Williams-Ellis never came to Shanghai. He designed the entire house remotely, and never saw his creation in person. Still, he retained a strong opinion on the Chinese flavor that he felt should be incorporated into the design: ``I wanted to introduce some Chinese motifs in polite acknowledgment of its location,'' he writes in his autobiography, Architect Errant. ``(I was told that would be impolitic) so all I was able to get away with were some of the interior fittings, stair rails, chandeliers and lamp-brackets -- to which I did manage to give a somewhat Chinoiserie flavor.''
Indeed, the spectacular lamp that hangs in the entrance lobby looks like a Chinese lantern, and perhaps the ironwork ``doughnuts'' on the stair railing, crafted by Williams-Ellis himself, are meant to evoke the Chinese copper cash, which were in use until the monetary reforms of the 1930s.
Otherwise it is entirely the house of a British colonial taipan, built to suit the lavish lifestyle of men like Neilage Sharp Brown, the first Butterfield & Swire taipan to occupy the house. When parties were held, the doors to the grey drawing room (now subdivided into bedrooms) just opposite the front door, were thrown open, and guests would wander out onto the patio.
Dinner would be served in the smoky green dining room, furnished with local reproductions of Louis XVIII pieces and what Swire describes as ``the old Chinese stuff from the old house;'' after dinner drinks were probably served in the primrose saloon. Upstairs, past the plush orange curtains on the hall window, the taipans' bedroom suite stood at one end of the hall and the nursery suite on the other end, with a suite of spare rooms and a linen closet between them. These, too, are now bedrooms, as are the lovely attic rooms with the dormer windows.
There are also five other mansions on the property, each in a different style, from Art Deco to Tudor-esque, which were for other senior managers of Swire.
It is said that Hazelwood was known to locals as the ``ice-cream house,'' a puzzling reference, since Swire was not in the ice cream business. Could it have been the ice cream colors of the house? Pistachio green, lemon yellow, mango sherbet? The ice cream mystery was finally solved by Duncan Black, a former head of Swire in Hong Kong who was raised in Shanghai. Hazelwood ice cream, he remembered, was a very popular brand in the 1930s, known by all the expat community -- and the coincidence of name might have led to its being known as the ice-cream house.
Hazelwood remained the home of the Butterfield & Swire taipan until 1952, when it was rented to the Shanghai Medical College. It later became a government guesthouse, and according to the staff at No. 1, was a favorite of late Chairman Mao Zedong.
The house is closed to visitors these days, and there is talk of renovation. Perhaps, after more than 70 years, Hazelwood needs to be refreshed -- but it is hard to imagine improving on the taipan's retreat.

A special thanks to two excellent historians, Tess Johnston and Charlotte Bleasdale, for their help with this article. When Sir Adrian Swire discovered inaccuracies in Tess' text on Hazelwood in her book ``Frenchtown Shanghai,'' he asked Swire Group archivist Charlotte Bleasdale to help set the record straight. And when Johnston learnt that I was writing an article on the house, she not only gave me her usual generous help, but put me in touch with Bleasdale, who provided rich original source material and plenty of answers.