Wong Yook Yee

Wong Yook Yee (黃玉瑜, 1902-1942, Class of 1925, Architecture) was a native of Kaiping in Guangdong province, an area that had long sent emigrants to the US.[1] Wong attended the village school until age ten, when he moved to Hong Kong to attend the Ng Lee School, established by Presbyterian missionary Ida Greenlee. In 1913, Miss Greenlee brought Wong back to Seattle with her, and enrolled him at the Ng Lee School in Oakland, California, which later moved to San Francisco. In the spring of 1914, Wong went east to Boston, where he attended the Pierpoint and Quincy Schools. When Wong registered for the draft in September 1918: his draft card showing that he resided in Salem, Massachusetts, working as a draftsman for the United Shoe Machinery Company, and living with a kinsman in Essex.[2] Wong spent 1918-1919 working construction for the Army at Camp Eustis in Virginia. After a year, he returned to the Boston area and found employment at the architectural firm of Coolidge and Shattuck, where he worked from 1919 to 1920. In 1920, he enrolled as a student at Tufts for a year, studying structural engineering before returning to Coolidge and Shattuck until 1922. While working, Wong remained active in the community, volunteering with the Chinese Boy Scouts Troop 34 in Boston Chinatown. Wong matriculated at MIT in AY1923, winning a F. W. Chandler Prize and a Triglyph Fraternity Prize from the Department of Architecture in his first year.[3] Wong graduated with a degree in architecture in 1925, writing his thesis on "A Residence in the Greek Style." Setting a precedent for later figures such as I.M. Pei, Wong was one of the first Chinese overseas students (the second from MIT) to earn an American architecture degree. At MIT, Wong was a member of the Chinese Students’ Club, the Rifle Club, and the Architectural Society.[4]

Following graduation, Wong worked as a draftsman at the prestigious architectural firm of Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott until 1929. He was admitted as a junior member of the American Institute of Architects. In 1929, Wong accepted an invitation from the Harvard-trained engineer, Lin Yimin, to return to China to serve as principal architectural assistant for the Nanking City Planning Bureau, formed by the national government in November 1928, with Lin as administrative director. The Bureau was charged with the massive task of planning a new capital for Nationalist China's government in Nanjing (Nanking) to be made over as a "thoroughly modern city." Working with two American consultants, engineer Ernest Goodrich and architect Henry K Murphy, Wong was designated principal architectural assistant, and another MIT alumnus, CY Cho (Class of 1917, Civil Engineering), chief of the engineering staff. ,[5] Owing to the Chinese Exclusion laws that were in effect at the time, before returning to China with his young family, Wong obtained a "Return Certificate for a Lawfully Domiciled Chinese Laborer" from the US government in March 1929, which would allow him to return to the US after a temporary stay in China.[6] In Nanjing, Wong was also invited to join the Nanjing Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park Management Committe, established in 1929, and served as a technical specialist for the Ministry of Railways. When a design competition for the new capital and its central administrative zone was launched in 1929, Wong joined with Zhu Shenkang to produce a top-ranked entry, which combined features of Haussmann’s Paris, the National Mall in Washington DC, and traditional Chinese architectural elements. Regrettably, the Nationalist Party’s ambitious plans for the new capital were abandoned, and Wong’s vision was never implemented.[7] Returning to his home province of Canton (Guangdong) in 1930, Wong took a position as the architect for the Canton Trust Company. While there, Wong designed several famous buildings, including a women's dormitory for Lingnan University (1933), the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital (1935), and the art deco style Hua An Towers (1936), built for the Hua An Insurance Company. He was also a contributing architect to the Chit Sang Hall at Lingnan University, designed by Henry K. Murphy from 1929-1931 and built with funds provided through Ministry of Railways to support engineering education. Wong's oeuvre demonstrates his facility with both an international modernist idiom and the hybrid Sino-Western style that Henry K. Murphy once called the "adaptive architecture" of the "Chinese architectural renaissance," this latter style being favored by the Nationalist government of the time. (The style is also known as the "[Chinese] revival style.")

One of Wong's representative works is the "New Women's Dormitory" for Lingnan University (merged with Sun Yat-sen University in 1952), designed and built in 1933. Lingnan University was the first coeducational university in China, thus necessitating the construction of two women's dormitories in the early 20th century. Also known as "Moon Palace," the "new women's dormitory" was built with funds raised in the US as well as from women in Guangdong province. Built in red brick with a green tile Chinese-style roof, the building combined Western and Chinese architectural features, as was characteristic of the new public architecture of the era. Wong's interest in classical Greek style, the subject of his undergraduate thesis, can be seen in the design. The building is historically significant because it is one of the few buildings on Sun Yat-sen University's "Red Brick Campus" or "South Campus" (the former location of the Lingnan campus) designed by a Chinese architect. Most of the other buildings were designed by American architects with offices in New York or China. In 2000, the building was designated on the “Guangzhou Outstanding Modern and Contemporary Architecture Protection List,” and it was declared a Guangdong Province cultural relic in 2002.

In sharp contrast, the Hua An Towers was built in an Art Deco style consonant with global trends of the era. The massive building had commercial space on the first floor, offices and meeting rooms on the second floor, six units of modern apartment-style housing on the third and fourth floors, 30 units of single-occupancy (male) apartments on the fifth floor, a banquet hall on the sixth floor, and a Sino-European garden on the roof-top terrace.

Wong also taught at several universities, including Lingnan University and Sun Yat-sen University. Thus Wong became one of the leading Chinese architects of his time, making major contributions to urban planning, architecture, and architectural education during a critical moment in modern Chinese history. Following the Japanese invasion of China, Wong sent his family to Hong Kong for safety and went to work for the CAMCO (Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company) facility in Loiwing, Yunnan (see also entry on Wong Tsoo), supporting the war effort (photo). Tragically, Wong was killed in a Japanese bombing raid on Yunnan’s Baoshan in 1942. An exhibition in honor of Wong, “A Patriot on His Way Home: Exhibition for the Overseas Chinese Architect Y. Y. Wong,” was held at the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Museum in Guangzhou, China in September 2015.

Photos of Wong from World Journal, 2015.

[1] A detailed biography of Wong can be found in 不断迁徒的爱国者 ——华侨建筑师黄玉瑜生平事迹展/A Patriot on His Way Home: Exhibition for the Overseas Chinese Architect Y. Y. Wong, exhibition brochure from the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Museum, Guangzhou, China, 2015. See also the Chinese American Eyes blog, http://chimericaneyes.blogspot.com/search/label/Yook%20Yee%20Wong, and the World Journal, January 4, 2015 (which identifies YY Wong in a famous CAMCO photo, identified elsewhere as Wong Tsoo). Other information about Wong is contained in the MIT Chinese Students Directory.

[2] United States, Selective Service System. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. M1509, Registration State: Massachusetts; Roll: 1674430, Yook Yee Wong, Sept. 12, 1918, serial number 96, order number 1530.

[3] See https://libraries.mit.edu/archives/mithistory/presidents-reports/1923.pdf, p 65.

[4] Chinese Students Directory, p. 26. MIT Technique, 1923, 268, 283, Technique, 1924, 286, 307.

[5] Tyau, MTZ, Two Years of Nationalist China, Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1930, 379-380, Tsui, Carmen C.M. "State Capacity in City Planning: The Reconstruction of Nanjing, 1927-1937." Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 1, no. 1 (May 2012): 12-46, Peter G. Rowe and Seng Kuan, Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China, MIT Press, 2004, pp 73-74, 不断迁徒的爱国者 ——华侨建筑师黄玉瑜生平事迹展/A Patriot on His Way Home: Exhibition for the Overseas Chinese Architect Y. Y. Wong, exhibition brochure from the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Museum, Guangzhou, China, 2015.

[6] http://chimericaneyes.blogspot.com/2013/05/yook-yee-wong-in-boston-and-at-mit.html

[7] Charles Musgrove, "Monumentality in Nanjing's Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park," 2007. Tsui, Carmen C.M. "State Capacity in City Planning: The Reconstruction of Nanjing, 1927-1937." Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 1, no. 1 (May 2012): 12-46. Peter G. Rowe and Seng Kuan, Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China, MIT Press, 2004, pp 73-74.