Antiques collector sets up museum to show traditional houses and furniture

An antiques dealer has set up a museum in Shanghai to display his collection of traditional buildings and furniture, writes Lim Hui Sin

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 5:24pm

Zhao Wenlong sees himself as a man with a mission, a guardian of cultural heritage. Which is how he came to convert a one-hectare site outside Shanghai into a showcase of antique furniture and traditional buildings that he has acquired over the years.

"The money spent here could be used to buy a fleet of expensive cars, but what would be the point?" he says, pointing at the wood and stone structures at his Museum of Art and Urbanity Shanghai (Maus) Hui Zhen Wu.

Having been in the antiques trade for nearly three decades, Zhao has assembled a formidable furniture collection of his own. About 15 years ago, he began buying houses, too - many of them former homes of Ming and Qing dynasty officials or wealthy merchants from Jiangnan, as the area south of the Yangtze River was often called. Entire buildings, he decided, were better than pieces of furniture in reflecting the culture of the times.

As his collection grew (he has some 10,000 pieces of antique furniture along with 60 houses, some of marble but mainly wood and stone), Zhao bought a piece of farmland in Songjiang, west of Shanghai, to house his sprawling collection. The 2001 purchase stretched the limits of his finances at the time, with no clear prospects of returns.

But he now reckons it was worth the risk.

Ten of the houses have been transported to the site and reassembled to form the complex, which now serves as an official "learning base" for the East China Normal University in Shanghai, where he regularly gives seminars. Maus is still a work in progress with construction expected to take three years

"These are buildings that you don't see in China anymore - they are of the finest quality," he says, patting a sturdy silkwood column. "During the Qianlong era [18th century] silkwood was for imperial use only, so officials needed approval from the court to use these in their homes."

It was a tour of Europe in 2009 that sparked his museum initiative. "I was in Italy and, while visiting museums there, I realised antiques should not just be bought and sold, they should also be for keeps - because of the material, craftsmanship and the stories behind them.

I felt I had better pieces in my possession than those in the museums, so this was something I could do.

"I felt I had better pieces in my possession than those in the museums, so this was something I could do."

He is now recognised by the Ministry of Culture as having the biggest collection of Suzhou-style furniture - one of the three main schools of traditional Chinese furniture - in the country.

Zhao reckons he developed an eye for antiques because so much of his childhood was spent in Guilin Park, where his father worked as a horticulturalist. Converted from the private residence of Huang Jinrong, a powerful gangster in the 1930s, the park as an immersion in classical Suzhou decor.

Ironically, the Cultural Revolution gave Zhao the chance to acquire some of his earliest pieces. His 6½-year stint in the countryside in the late '70s brought him into many village homes, and whenever he spotted items he liked, he would make the owners an offer.

"I got the furniture cheaply: people in the villages did not care about these old pieces and were happy to sell them."

His passion for antiquities grew over the next decade as his procurement job in a state oil company often took him to the northern provinces. During this time, he visited the Forbidden City in Beijing more than 20 times, enthralled by what he saw. "It was quite empty then, especially in winter, and I would inspect everything and learn all I could," he recalls. "I went so often the security guards started getting suspicious!"

His workplace in Shanghai offered other learning opportunities: the premises was next to an antiques emporium then restricted to foreigners, but he made use of neighbourly ties to glean knowledge from its staff. "I am completely self-taught."

Zhao set up his antique dealership in 1996 and later began acquiring entire homes, many from auction or rescued from demolition crews. Others from remote mountain sites were found through his network of contacts as a dealer.

Many buildings are timber-framed structures held together without the use of nails. Typically, the joints are photographed and documented before they are dismantled and transported to Songjiang for restoration. The work is carried out by craftsmen, several of whom have worked with Zhao since he initiated his museum project. It takes 30 workers a year to assemble the frame of a building.

His crew is currently restoring the former mansion of a wealthy family. Featuring three successive courtyards, each one a step higher than the last - "the Chinese believe in rising higher with each step, so as you advance through the residence, you go up three steps," Zhao explains. It will be the grandest building in the Maus when completed next year.

"When this is completed, we will turn it into a venue with traditional Chinese music performances [and art demonstrations] - I want to build a cultural base showcasing the best of Jiangnan culture," he says.

Zhao, 57, has long lost track of how much he has spent developing Maus; the purchases and operating costs come primarily from his antiques business, although he now mainly sells reproductions.

"The government doesn't always have the resources to preserve all these historical and cultural elements, so I thought what can I do?" he says.

But as culture and heritage have gained greater prominence on the mainland in recent years, he has started to garner more support from government organisations for his work. "The government has helped provide space to reassemble the other structures," Zhao says.

One such project is a heritage park taking shape about 20 kilometres away in Guangfulin. It is believed to be the original site of Shanghai, with relics discovered there dating back 4,500 years, and Zhao has been allocated 800 square metres of land for his buildings.

Giving a tour of the project, he waves at a warehouse full of antique furniture, some of which will be displayed in the reassembled homes. Zhao aims to show them as items used in daily life: "I feel that the traces of time such as the worn away legs should be left intact," he says. "People now want flawless objects but these are marks left by usage and by the passage of time; they are a part of the story."

The complex includes a 1,500 square metre art space that has shown contemporary collections curated by Croatian art historian Ante Glibota. Says gallerist Huang Wei, who helped designed the space: "It adds something different to the mix and gives people more reason to visit Maus."

While his wife and daughter live in their house in central Shanghai, Zhao prefers the space at Songjiang and now resides at the Maus complex with his elderly mother. Their residence: an oak-framed building that was once the home of former Chinese vice-president Rong Yiren. It was reassembled at the entrance of the complex after being relocated from the original site in Shanghai's Jingan district.

As generous as he is with his heritage project, Zhao is more frugal in his private life. He dresses simply and employs neither driver nor personal assistant, devoting his attention to every aspect of Maus' operation, poring over blueprints, procurement of materials, deliveries and supervising the restoration.

"I save money by doing a lot of this myself. Besides, when I make deliveries to clients they like having a personal touch," he says.

"I want to do something in my life not just for myself or my family, but also for others. I hope that through my efforts, people will learn more about Chinese culture and history and learn to be proud of it - these are truly beautiful things."

Nevertheless, Zhao says he's growing weary and hopes to slow down when construction on the Maus site is completed. "As I get older, I find that time is flying too quickly. I would like to live to 300 years old because there is so much to do. But I'm running out of time."

Museum of Art and Urbanity; 120 Mao Lian Rd (near Jiu Yi Rd), Songjiang, Shanghai. Nearest metro stop: Line 9, Jiu Ting station. The Royal Asiatic Society in Shanghai organises regular weekend tours to Maus. For details, go to