The Secluded Library — Shanghai’s Secret Mansion, and the Woman Who Keeps It Alive

Madame Guo at the entrance to her bedroom.

Among Shanghai’s oldest and least known buildings is the Qing dynasty 书隐楼 (Shu Yin Lou — ‘The Secluded Library’ or ‘Hidden Book Building’.) Built in 1763, today the building houses only one resident: Madame Guo.

To visit Shu Yin Lou is to visit Madame Guo. And to get there is to navigate the narrow alleyways of 天灯浓(Tiandeng Nong — ‘Sky Lantern Lane’) through childhood fantasies of Narnia, Great Expectations, Studio Ghibli films. The lane is barely able to fit a moped but somehow, at no. 77 the path widens to accommodate a wide, imposing gate.

Behind it is a humorous and lively woman, 64 years of age, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. She talks with a mixture of pragmatism and warmth, is cautious, but decisive in who she chooses to trust, and very open-spirited.

She has to be. All of her family moved abroad including her mother who until relatively recently lived there with her. Now only Madame Guo remains. She stays because her son has autism and lives in a hospital in Shanghai, and she has been divorced for some time. She doesn’t trust the volunteers at the hospital, so she remains his primary guardian and visits him often.

“He was autistic from a very young age. And his father didn’t understand so used to hit him on the head. So now my son hits himself. The nurses say that if he hits himself anymore they will have to tie up his hands. That’s the thing — if you were hit before, you think it’s the thing to do when you have a mental illness.”

Madame Guo’s bedroom where she stores her father’s work, her son’s clothes, and various artworks of the building made by visiting artists.

It’s not an easy life. The mansion compound is dilapidated and has no heating, no lights apart from in the bedroom, which gets damp in the winter and aggravates Madame Guo’s joints. Robbers have raided the property of most of its valuable paintings over the years (heirlooms collected by Madame Guo’s father), and Shanghai’s fiercely cold winters and blazing summers make for a hostile environment for an old building full of holes and decaying timber.

“I moved this fish from the back to this pot in the courtyard. But it will probably die in June when the sun gets very strong,” she tells us. “The sun makes the water green,” she gestures to the algae growing within it, “You used to be able to see all the way to the bottom.”

Visitors frequently tell Madame Guo that she has a hard job maintaining the 2000 square metre property single-handedly. It’s Shanghai’s only protected property that is privately owned, and so its maintenance has remained with its mostly absent owners rather than the government. But Madame Guo remains insistent that it was her father who had the hardest job.

A bicycle rusts in the second courtyard where plants have grown through the cracks in the stone paving.

Madame Guo’s father was Guo Jun Lun, who studied Civil Engineering at Shanghai Jiaotong University and specialised in garden/landscape design. He worked at the Shanghai Civil Design Institute and published a notable article about the landscape design of the famous Yuyuan Garden — the most complete documentation of the garden’s design. He belonged to the 5th generation of the Guo family to have lived in Shu Yin Lou. (6 generations ago, the Guo family merchants from Fujian bought the property from the scholar who originally lived there.)

Madame Guo speaks reverently of her father. The house was temporarily occupied by a factory with some 400 workers during the Cultural Revolution, and they tore apart much of the building to accommodate machinery; you can still see some of the original machinery in the stable courtyard, and the non-smoking signs in the factory workshop, which Madame Guo now uses as a fridge (in the absence of a kitchen) and where she hangs up little plastic bags of chocolate and other perishable snacks.

Leftover toys and machinery from the toy factory.

When the revolution was over, her father returned to kick out the factory occupiers, and reclaimed the building. He then set about trying to restore it, and pursued this tirelessly into his old age, publishing articles to try and prove the building’s worth to others. But by this point the building was already well into its decline.

Nowadays, a portrait of Madame Guo’s deceased father sits on the desk at the far end of her bedroom. “My father keeps me company,” she says. “I’m not scared, why would you be scared of your own father?” She keeps his old drawings, which she shows us, and the photographs he took of her and her brothers, one of whom also suffered from a mental illness and was supported by Madame Guo during his lifetime.

While we are talking, a mother cat runs out carrying its kitten, and Madame Guo goes to chase them back into the tiled conservatory where she keeps them. She has had to rescue the little kittens before when they have gotten lost in the stable courtyard amongst the old timber beams.

She seems to feel mildly threatened by her neighbours, people from outside Shanghai who she finds nosey and aggressive, and they in turn complain that because of Shu Yin Lou they can’t make money because they can’t commercialise the street. “I can sympathise,” she says, “They’re not wrong.”

When I show her the photographs I had taken of her house the last time I had visited, she is very concerned that people will think she’s messy. She says it doesn’t look good, and then she says that it is just so, and that she thinks it’s okay. And then she gives us a tour of the room — there is a wardrobe gifted from someone because she had nowhere to store her clothes. She kept all of her son’s clothes, and her own clothes hang around her bed. “But there’s no dust!” she insists, as she shows us her favourite patterns.

“I like buying clothes, but I don’t wear them — I always end up choosing the uglier ones. I bought some recently — look! My figure is not bad.”

Two paintings of flowers hang on her wall — these are Madame Guo’s own works. Not professional, but confident, assured. She clearly has a good eye.

“I studied bird-drawing in Wenmiao,” she explains, “And portraits with pencil. I didn’t go for long, and then I got pregnant. I wish I’d never got married. If I hadn’t got married, I’d be a famous artist by now. If your father is an artist, usually one of the children will be an artist. It would have been me.” She doesn’t seem bitter as she says this, just nostalgic.

“I used to invite people to come over and play, but they told me that it’s too dirty here — they don’t understand art. Artists tend to have messy homes! And messy hair.”

I ask if I can take her portrait, noticing that so far she has been camera-shy. “I’m too old,” she says, “Who in England wants to look at me? Foreigners often want to take a photo with me in it, and they’re very young. I’m 64! I look too old next to them. But they say I look about 50-something.” — It’s true, she does. — “Someone yesterday said I look about 40 — I told him he was talking rubbish.”

She invites us to sit, to roam, and she talks to us, a constant but light patter of her thoughts and feelings about a wide range of topics.

She doesn’t like arrogant people who think they’re smarter than everyone else. “Everyone has their own lives — you shouldn’t try to tell other people how to live,” she says, “You can tell from a person’s face how kind they are.”

And her visitors have been diverse and intriguing — a drawn out salon of sorts for various artistic figures.

“A few years ago, a photojournalist wrote something in a magazine, and took some photos of me that made me look about 40. I was already in my 60s then!”

“Last year a bunch of models came for a photo shoot. But there’s loads of mosquitoes here, you have to wear a long skirt.”

In the bedroom hangs a painting of the inner courtyard painted by an artist, who came every day for a year. “My mother used to let him in every day at 7am,” she says. She misses him and calls from time to time, but he’s ‘very polite’, which in Chinese has explicit connotations of wanting to maintain distance and not get too close. “He said he was going to have an exhibition, but I never heard about it.”

Detail from stone carving (left) in the inner courtyard (right).

“I once knew a northerner who invited me to go to Russia to sell fruit, but I couldn’t leave here. My husband wouldn’t let me go. The northerner was really good looking! Very tall! I think he liked me, but I was married, so I didn’t go. I used to be very pretty — I was tall then too. Now I’m shrunk.”

As she talks of the various people who have visited Shu Yin Lou over the years, it’s clear that while she enjoys their respect and appreciation of the property, she is also an ageing widow desirous of company, and to be thought of. Documentary-makers have not sent footage that they have promised, painters have never come back, and photographers and tourists visit only once. In spite of the 2 cats and the litter of kittens that live with her, and the fact that she eats out twice a day (a meal can be bought for the equivalent of £1), life in the old mansion gets lonely.

“But I can get to sleep at night,” she says, reverting easily to her naturally cheerful disposition, “I just keep an open personality. All that’s wrong with me is that my joints are not so good. So come and visit me often, okay?”

The 福 (fu — ‘good luck’) sign, uniquely carved to resemble a face.

If you are interested in paying a respectful visit to Madame Guo and Shu Yin Lou, the address is 77 Tiandeng Nong, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai, 200010. A number can be provided on request. She is fond of chocolate, so long as it isn’t too sweet.