Roots - Part 1

It is common for the Chinese to ask each other, "Where are you from?"  This is not a question of where I am living now (=Hong Kong).  This is not a question about where I was born (=Shanghai).  It is about my family origins.  Now I know that my father would reply "Wuxing, Zhejiang (浙江吴兴)" because that was where his father (=my grandfather) was born.

Why should anyone care about my grandfather T.F. Soong (宋春舫) (1892-1938)?  I will provide a quote here from Tung Ch'iao (董橋) (via

[in translation]  We only know who played what role at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, or perhaps we know who edited which magazine, but we should know what Mr. T.F. Soong did in his life. 

This quotation is somewhat obscure, because the first two references are about my father (who played various roles at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and founded/edited the translation journal Renditions).  But the point is made that my grandfather was a person of interest (at least to Tung Ch'iao).

I knew that while my grandfather was born in Wuxing, the main locations in which he was tied to were Shanghai (where his father (=my great-grandfather) resided), Beijing (where he taught at Yenching University), Hangzhou (where he had a house) and Qingdao (where he was the director of the oceanographic research center at the Weather Observatory (joke: he was not responsible for calling typhoon warning signals because the system did not exist back then)).  But which of these cities was his reputation tied to?

My impression was that Qingdao would be the least important city in his life.  I understood that my grandfather went to Qingdao for health reasons.  He lived the life of a dilettante and he did not really have to work.  Thus, he went there without any obligations or committments.  However, Qingdao was a German protectorate at the time, and the Chinese government had a great need for a German-speaking Chinese.  As my grandfather had been in Europe for several years and can speak English, French, German, Italian and Spanish fluently, he was asked to serve his country.  For the lack of a proper position, he was given a job at the Weather Observatory.  But in the governmental hierarchy, he was the fourth most important official after the Mayor, Vice Mayor and Treasurer.  For his job, my grandfather was required to communicate with and entertain the foreigners.  He had his own house in which he employed a Chinese cook for himself and a German cook to entertain guests.  The homesick Germans loved to go there because this was the only place in Qingdao where they could get a taste of authentic Sauerbrauten!

The above was the family myth.  However, the Internet tells otherwise!

I am not going to get into what my grandfather really did at the Qingdao Weather Observatory or other the interesting business about the Qingdao Aquarium.  You can Google all that for yourself.  More interesting is his own private residence/study in Qingdao.

Here is a report from Qing Dao News:

[in translation]

In the long history of libraries in Qing Dao, a person named T.F. Soong deserved to be respected and admired.  In July 1930, he founded the Cormora Library in Qingdao.  At that time and for a long time afterwards, this specialized theatre library was famous all over the world.  More than 70 years have passed, but on this ordinary autumn day, I have to state my regret in not being able to personally visit the legendary Cormora Library that had been so important in the cultural history of Qing Dao.

From the word "Cormora," one can see how the proprietor loved the theater.  According to history, "Cormora" was formed from the names of three famous French playwrights: Corneille, Molière and Racine.  According to reports, the Cormora Library contained more than 9,000 books on Chinese and foreign plays and was named as one of the top three specialized theater libraries in the world.  Even foreigners wrote from Europe to ask to borrow books.

Shanghai-based playwright Li Jianwu (李健吾) once said: "I dream that I can fly to Qing Dao one day into his library and glide among his book shelves."

But where is the address of that unsurpassed Cormora Library?  Nobody can provide a definitive answer.  Is the Cormora Library extinct?  Nobody can tell for sure.  This is so sad.

Actually, the address of the Cormora Library is well known.  In this list of cultural sites in Qingdao (, number 5 is 宋春舫故居福山支路6 (The former residence of T.F. Soong, Fushan Branch Road Number 6).  Living across the street at Number 5 was the former residence of 康有為 (Kang Youwei), a famous historical figure in the failed reform movement of the Qing dynasty.

What was the location like?  Here is a travelogue from the website of the Ocean University of China:

[in translation]

The first snow of the year fell several days ago.  When we went to Fushan Road, it was sunny but the air carried a chill and the roof tiles were still covered with a thin layer of wet snow underneath which the bright red tiles showed.  The ground in the courtyards was moist from the snow and was therefore full of life.

Fushan Road is on the side of a hill with mostly well-preserved single dwelling units.  Number 1 is the former residence of Hong Shen (洪深) and it is the most pretty building on the street.  The rusted iron gate and the withered vines suited the old house.  As we were ready to enter, we saw another person looking around.  We asked him and we found out that he was foreigner seeking the residences of famous people.  So we volunteered to be his guide.  The young man is a student of the Chinese language.  He was on assignment in Qingdao and he was following the indicators on the map.  We went up one flight, but there were several more flights and we can only see the building from below.  The doors were locked tight with no trace of human life.  We only felt a sense of intimidation here.  

Number 3 next door is the former residence of the writer Shen Congwen (沈从文).  The courtyard had just been dug up and there were new pits for trees.  The tired red and yellow chrysanthemum leaves clung on to the branches and looked especially lovely.  An old woman was sweeping leaves in the courtyard.  We wanted to approach her and ask, but she turned around and entered the house.

The Fushan Branch Road is steep and winds around the hill from the bottom to the top.  Number 6 is at the bottom of the hill and it was the address of T.F. Soong's Cormora Library.  The small courtyard was filled with sunlight.  A pine tree stood out in splendid isolation as some of the branches point up and then bend downwards again, seemingly unable to hold up the weight.  The wooden door was opened and a young woman was cleaning the floor.  She was earnest in responding to our questions: "Cormora Library?  I know.  This house is in good shape.  Counting the basement, four families live here."  Then she invited us to enter.  As soon as we stepped across the threshold, the floor began to squeak and vibrate.  She pointed to the southern building: "This used to be the study.  There is no one home right now."  The house was maintained better inside than outside, as the kettle was emitting steam on the stove.  She pointed to the water stains on the wall: "But it is a bit old.  When it gets really cold, we cannot get the heater to work.  But it would be a pity to have to move away."

Here is a photo of Fushan Road from that website.  
This building is not necessarily Number 6.

What was the library like?  According to Liang Shiqiu (梁实秋) (in

"Among all the exquisite libraries that I have seen, Mr. T.F. Soong's Cormora Library was number one.  On a little hilltop in Qingdao, this library was not attached to his residence.  It was a standalone building.  The environment was quiet and beautiful.  There was only the sound of birds and the fragrance of flowers, without the noise and dirt of the city ... Over here, all the books are placed inside cases behind glass.  The cases are taller than people, but they do not reach the ceiling.  I recall that the collected books were mostly French plays.  All the books were hard-cover books.  They were not all made from cloth and glue, for some them were leather-bound with glimmering gold-lettered titles on the spines ..."

The books collected at the Cormora Library all had the following book collector's stamp:

According to my father, the collected books of the Cormora Library had been donated to Yenching University (and hence to Peking University as a result of the merger of 1951).  During the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, those books were dispersed and some may even be found at the used bookstores in Beijing today.  At my current Hong Kong residence, there are no books from the Cormora Library.  My closest contact with the Cormora Library was when I was studying at Harvard University and I came across the Cormora Library catalog at the Harvard-Yenching Institute.  The introduction to the catalog was written by my grandfather and here is my rough translation (note: he wrote in the classical Chinese style, so my English-language cannot do justice).

[in translation]

Ever since I traveled west, I have visited famous capitals and looked for books.  My interest is mostly in the theatre.  At this time, my entire personal collection consists of almost 10,000 books.  In 1915, I visited Paris for the first time and I spent months at the Bibliothèque de l'Opéra.  In 1917, I spent all my money to buy my favorite books and brought them back to Shanghai.  In 1921, I went to Europe again and I visited Germany and Austria.  At the time, World War I had just ended and the value of the Germany currency was low.  So I spent all my money to buy books and brought them home.  When I came back, I fell ill and I just stored the books away.  In the last five or six years, I moved around Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing and Tianjin and I had no steady residence.  Last year, I spent 4,000 yuan to establish the Cormora Library by the seashore in Qingdao and brought all my books here.  This spring, I resigned from my job at the Qingdao municipal government and I spent all my time compiling this catalogue.  After twenty years of collecting books, I only have just more than 3,000 books on western theater.  My financial resources are inadequate.  Fortunately, I collected only books in a specific field and what I have is rare enough.  In the area of western theater, I may have the best collection in China.  But this is obviously nothing compared to Paris.  As for a complete collecton, it is beyond any private means.  Although I have accumulated these books patiently, I know that they may not be preserved together forever.  Today, the cries of war are sounding.  As I compile this catalog, I am deeply worried and I therefore write this introduction with these feelings.  T.F. Soong of Wuxing, 1932.