Magical Hungarian past in Shanghai
Celebrity architects and revue dancers, great painters and shady characters reminiscent of the world of Jenő Rejtő. And of course business people. They formed the Hungarian community of nearly 150 people in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, who built their lives and livelihoods thousands of kilometres away from their homeland.
Magical Hungarian past in Shanghai
Culture and Innovation

Magical Hungarian past in Shanghai

Wukang Mansion (Photo: Wikipedia)
Boglárka Barta 16/05/2023 06:00

Celebrity architects and revue dancers, great painters and shady characters reminiscent of the world of Jenő Rejtő. And of course business people. They formed the Hungarian community of nearly 150 people in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, who built their lives and livelihoods thousands of kilometres away from their homeland. But how and why did they get there, and how did the small fishing village become a metropolis of millions, the “Paris of the East”? The book “Mi, sanghaji magyarok...” (“We, Hungarians in Shanghai...”), soon to be published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai, will reveal all this.

Shanghai used to be a peaceful fishing village at the confluence of the Yangtze and Huangpu rivers, where people lived exactly as they would in any coastal town in China. However, after the country was defeated in the first so-called Opium War, Shanghai became a British concession in 1842, effectively a semi-colony. The British were then followed by the French, the Americans and then the Japanese, and the small fishing village, now with a port and docks for large-scale international trade, began to develop rapidly.

Western capital flowed into the settlement, and with it various commercial companies and banks. By the late 1800s, the streets were lit by gas lamps, homes had electricity, telephones and running water. Then, in the early 1900s, the first automobile appeared, owned by a Mr Leinz, who is recorded in Chinese chronicles as a Hungarian.

By the early 20th century, Shanghai had grown into a global city of over a million people, with its port accounting for nearly half of China’s foreign trade. The bustling metropolis was a magnet for foreign artists, craftsmen, traders and, of course, adventurers. But to expand, infrastructure had to be improved, which meant the start of the first big wave of urban development. Two Hungarian architects, László Hudec and Károly Gonda, had an unparalleled role to play in Shanghai’s rapid transformation into the “Paris of the East”. In 2017 and 2019, the Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai published an unparalleled album about the two renowned Hungarians and their built heritage, illustrated with photographs by photographer Nicky Almasy.

The star architect in demand

Born in Besztercebánya, László Ede Hugyecz, or as he is known in Shanghai and international literature, L. E. Hudec, was a well-known “star architect” of his time, who came to China from Russia as a prisoner of war. He arrived in Shanghai on 26 October 1918 with the help of the Danish mission, as he recalls, with the determination that “if I don’t get a job as a draughtsman, I’ll get a job as a bricklayer, a street sweeper or a driver. And I was very close to it. I spent three days visiting architects’ and engineers’ offices. They just threw me out everywhere. But I never gave up my will to work and my hope”. Hudec, who studied at the University of Budapest under such distinguished masters as Frigyes Schulek, Alajos Hauszmann, Samu Petz and Jenő Lechner, was eventually hired by the American architect R. A. Curry, first as an architectural draftsman, then, after a few months, as office manager and later as associate architect. As Shanghai developed, their architectural firm soon became one of the most sought-after, and Hudec established a secure existence as a well-known and respected architect. On this basis, he opened his own architect’s office in January 1925, whose clients included not only the colony, but also members of the Chinese national government that came to power in 1927, as well as many wealthy Chinese citizens.

Hudec’s prestige is well illustrated by his appointment as Honorary Hungarian Consul in Shanghai in 1940. Despite increasing German pressure, he maintained his independence and, as president of the Hungarian (Aid) Association, helped the Hungarians, even at the risk of his own safety. He and his family were forced to flee the Chinese Communist takeover in January 1948. He left Shanghai and settled first in Europe and then in the United States. He died there in 1958, but was laid to rest in his homeland, Banská Bystrica (Besztercebánya).

László Hudec was the only foreigner to be selected as one of Shanghai’s 99 classic symbols. He designed more than a hundred buildings in the city, of which more than 30 have now been awarded the title of “significant listed building”. He worked in a wide variety of architectural styles, building classicist, eclectic, expressionist, art deco and modernist buildings, all of which have a unique harmony of art and functionality. He worked exclusively with quality materials, and his meticulousness and thoroughness is shown by the fact that he often designed the furnishings of his houses himself. He is credited with the city’s first air-conditioned hospital, its first brewery, its largest theatre, among others, but as an architect he rose to prominence with Shanghai’s iconic hotel, the art deco Park Hotel. A commemorative year was also declared in 2018 in honour of László Hudec.

An ultramodern son of our country

Until recently, even for the architectural profession, László Hudec was the “Hungarian architect of Shanghai”. In 2019, however, the name of a previously unknown Hungarian architect from Shanghai, Károly Gonda, hit the world press: This year, the Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai, in cooperation with the Association of Hungarian Architects, published an exclusive album entitled Gonda – Sanghaj ultramodern magyar építésze (Gonda - Shanghai’s Ultramodern Hungarian Architect). Károly Gonda is associated with iconic buildings in the city, such as the Capitol, the largest movie theatre of the 1920s, the Sun, the most successful department store of the era, and the Cathay Cinema, but the architect also designed a building on the city’s elite riverside promenade, the Bund.

Born in Gyöngyös on 22 June 1889, Karol Goldstein, also known as Károly Gonda, arrived in Shanghai on 15 September 1920, also from Russia as a prisoner of war, where he immediately started working as an architect for the British-owned Probst, Hanbury & Co. Within a few years, however, he established his own firm and was appointed honorary architect of Xiamen University. His career was steadily on the up, and by the 1930s he had a house with a garden, his own tennis court and a car. His art deco houses still look ultra-modern today, and his work was regularly covered in the Chinese press and even in national newspapers. In 1929, he himself published an impassioned manifesto in defence of modern architecture in The Shanghai Sunday Times under the pseudonym ADNOG, entitled Modern and Ancient Forms in Local Architecture. “We live in the age of the machine. We have aircrafts, ready to take us to the air. We also use cars for ground transport, we cook on electric stoves, so we use machines, and we also live in a mechanised apartment, and it has never happened that someone has ordered an Italian Renaissance-style car from the car dealer...”

Although he left China with his family in 1949 and moved to America, Gonda’s ten buildings can still be seen in Shanghai.

The eastern „Raoul Wallenberg”

Although in the 1930s only 200 of the 62,000 or so foreigners living in Shanghai were Hungarians, there were more Hungarians working in the construction industry than just Hudec and Gonda. Béla Mátrai, for example, took part in the construction of the Park Hotel as Hudec’s assistant, and later designed mainly Bauhaus-style apartment buildings with his own office. As an assistant to Károly Gonda, Rudolf Sömjén was actively involved in the design of many great buildings, such as the Cathay Film Theatre. As a decorative sculptor, György Koppány contributed to the interior design of Károly Gonda’s Capitol Film Theatre, among others, and the sculptures of the building were based on his designs. János Komor, son of Marcell Komor, one of the great figures of the national Art Nouveau movement, was also active as an architect in the city. Undoubtedly the most prominent member of the Komor family, the de facto leader of the Hungarian community in Shanghai, Pál Komor, also known as “Shanghai’s Raoul Wallenberg”, helped the Hungarians as the president of the Hungarian Aid Fund, and as honorary secretary general of the International Committee, later known simply as the Komor Committee, he organised aid for thousands of European Jewish refugees.

Popular photo albums

- The names of László Hudec, Pál Komor and Károly Gonda are already household names in Shanghai, but I am convinced that the names of other Hungarians will soon sound as familiar names too. Of course, our Consulate General’s active promotion work in this area contributes greatly to this. For example, we often organise city tours to see the works of our Hungarian architects together - says Lívia Szentmártoni, a sinologist and diplomat for education and culture at the Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai, who in 2014, together with the then Shanghai-based photographer Nicky Almasy, photographed and documented Hudec’s still standing buildings, some of which are not open to the public. (We have also published some of the images as illustrations for our article.) Their cooperation resulted in a unique album in 2017, supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has been very popular not only among Chinese and Hungarians, but also among the international community in Shanghai. After creating the Hudec and then the Gonda albums, Lívia Szentmártoni began to consciously research the former Hungarians of Shanghai, whose names and stories appeared one after the other in her readings. Thanks to the partnership between the Consulate General and the National Archives of Hungary, they have managed to locate nearly 800 Hungarians from the period between 1890 and 1949.

We, Hungarians in Shanghai

We can read about them too in the book entitled “Mi, sanghaji magyarok...” (We, Hungarians in Shanghai...) (see picture), which is based on Lívia Szentmártoni’s research, published by the Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai with the support of the National Cultural Fund of Hungary. It will be available in the major libraries in China and Hungary by the time of publication of our magazine.

- Colleagues from the National Archives of Hungary, diplomats from the diplomatic mission and private individuals also participated in the research and in the writing of the articles. Among others, Levente Horváth, Director of the Eurasia Centre and former Consul General in Shanghai (editor-in-chief of our magazine). “Our new book, which was written selflessly, purely out of passion for the subject, will serve primarily diplomatic purposes, and will not be published commercially,” says Lívia, who immediately highlights two of her favourites in the book: architect Rudolf Sömjén, whose son Giora she also managed to find; and painter Dénes Holesch, whose story has already been brilliantly summarised by journalist Klári Fekete with the family’s support.

The cultural diplomat, who has been living in Shanghai since 2014, says China is a wonderful country full of exciting challenges. This is because the Chinese people are very kind and helpful, which became especially tangible for Livia during the virus situation in Shanghai. But adapting and adjusting is not easy, she says, but it is worth it.

The author is a cultural journalist

This article has originally been published in our Hungarian-language magazine, Eurázsia in 2022.

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