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The Chinese-American architect I.M. (Ieoh Ming) Pei is widely regarded as the most important living modern architect; we have all seen his genius in the most recognized landmarks around the world including the East Building of the National Art Gallery in D.C., the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, and the iconic Bank of China tower in Hong Kong. However, many do not know that Mr. Pei immigrated to the United States through Angel Island as a young student from Shanghai in 1935. He was admitted on August 28, 1935, when he was just 18 years old, on his way to the University of Pennsylvania where he had been accepted to study architecture. AIISF discovered a file dedicated to Mr. Pei’s immigration records at the National Archives at San Francisco (“NARA”), and is excited to be able to share this lesser-known story, in collaboration with Mr. Pei and his family.
Mr. Pei was born in Canton (Guangzhou) in southern China on April 26, 1917. He graduated from St. John’s Middle School in 1934 and then attended high school at St. John’s University until coming to America. Established by American missionaries in the late 1800’s, St. John’s University was one of the most prestigious universities in China at the time and boasts many Chinese luminaries among its graduates.
The Peis were a wealthy landowning family from Suzhou. His father, Tsuyee Pei, was a prominent banker at the Bank of China and was the manager of its head office in Shanghai when Pei left for the U.S. and eventually rose to become the Bank’s General Manager in 1941. The elder Pei was also a well-known expert in China’s monetary policies and served in numerous official positions including as one of three Chinese members of the Sino-British Stabilization Board which was created in 1939 to support the Chinese currency, member of the Chinese delegation that participated in the U.N. Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Wood in 1944, and as governor of the Chinese Nationalists’ Central Bank of China from 1946-47. His mother, Lien Kwun, came from a very educated family from Canton.
While growing up, I.M. Pei spent a great deal of time in Suzhou for holidays and vacations, visiting extended relatives, their ancestral shrine and a 2-acre family garden called the “Garden of the Lion Forest.” Pei’s frequent visits and study of this classic garden are known to have had an early influence on Pei’s sensibilities to aesthetics and design. Given his ancestral ties to Suzhou, it is not surprising that Pei placed great personal significance on his work on the Suzhou Museum in the early 2000s. In an American Masters video documenting Pei’s work on the Suzhou Museum and the garden there, Pei, well in his eighties at the time, describes the project as “a biography for myself. My return home.”
In contrast to many Angel Island immigrant stories of isolation and despair, Pei’s memory of his arrival at Angel Island is one of joy and excitement. He recalled with great fondness the day he arrived in San Francisco Bay in a 2006 speech he gave at the Naturalization ceremony held at Monticello. Explaining that it took eighteen days to cross the Pacific on the steamship President Coolidge, he said “on the last night, I didn’t sleep. I was on the deck watching, watching for the San Francisco Bay. And when it appeared, it’s a moment, I tell you, I have never experienced again, a moment of great joy, expectation and excitement. I was alone in some ways because my family was not with me but I felt very much a part of something already. Now the island, if I remember correctly, was called ‘Angels Island’ where I landed. Not Ellis Island where many of you probably came. But it could have been the ‘Devil’s Island’ and my reaction would have been the same. A sense of joy was unbelievable and difficult to describe.” His youthful outlook and excitement of that moment are palpable. See the full video of his speech here.
The fact that the young Pei was carrying an official student visa issued by the American Consulate-General in Shanghai probably explains this happier memory as he was unlikely to have had problems with immigration when he landed. Students with a visa were amongst the few exceptions to the exclusion of most Asians under the Immigration Act of 1924. He also had the advantage of having the financial means to overcome any suspicion by immigration officials that he might be “likely to become a public charge” or LPC, which was a common basis for deportation. Pei’s visa expressly states, “full [financial] support is to be provided by applicant’s father, Tsuyee Pei, manager of the Bank of China, who is very well fixed financially.” As expected, Pei was admitted on the same day as his arrival, on August 28, 1935, under Section 4(e) of the Immigration Act of 1924, under Class 1, for “any students whose parents or relatives are financially able to support him, or who otherwise has sufficient income to cover expenses . . .” Students admitted under Class 1 were not permitted to “work either for wages or for board or lodging.”
Upon landing in San Francisco, Pei continued his travel to the University of Pennsylvania where he planned to study architecture. However, he spent just a few weeks at Penn, transferring shortly thereafter to M.I.T. which had a program that more closely matched his interests. He graduated from M.I.T. with a degree in architecture in 1940.
A few letters in his NARA file reveal that Pei overstayed his visa after graduating from M.I.T. The second Sino-Japanese war broke out in the summer of 1937 with the Japanese capturing Shanghai by August of that same year. So the geopolitical situation may well have made it practically impossible for young Pei to return to China in 1940. In fact, Pei states himself in the Monticello speech, “I couldn’t return to my native country because there too was a war going on.” According to his daughter Liane Pei (named after I.M. Pei’s mother, Lien Kwun), he believes most of his family, including his father, did not remain in Shanghai or Suzhou during the war but likely left for Hong Kong.
Fortunately, Pei’s talents were recognized even in those early years as he had enthusiastic supporters who would help him extend his visa. In January of 1942, the Dean of the School of Architecture and the registrar at M.I.T. each wrote to the Immigration and Naturalization Service confirming Pei’s graduation from M.I.T. in 1940 and vouching for Pei’s full occupation with numerous paid positions as well as the M.I.T. Travelling Fellowship since his graduation. The M.I.T. registrar writes: “In my conversation with Dean MacCornack he has expressed a high regard for the work of Mr. Pe[i] and the worthwhileness of his activities.” Eventually, Pei’s visa was extended to 1946, then again to August of 1947, to be a teaching fellow in the School of Design at the request of Harvard University.
His student days at M.I.T. and Harvard were an exciting period in his life, but he has distinct memories of discrimination to this day. While traveling in the U.S. with his Chinese friends during World War II, he recalls being turned away from lodging because they were mistaken for being Japanese. This was during the time of Japanese American incarceration. Acts of kindness left a deep impression as well; he still remembers a certain “Mrs. Davis” who ran a “tourist home” who welcomed them.
It was during his years at M.I.T. that he met his wife Eileen Loo, a student of art and botany at the nearby Wellesley College. Eileen was a name she had Anglicized from her Chinese name, Ai-ling. Aside from their obvious interest in art and design, they had a lot in common. Loo was born in Tientsin, China and came to the U.S. as a student in 1938. Like Pei, she was from a distinguished Chinese family. Loo’s maternal grandfather was Yin Tan Chang, the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. from 1909 and her granduncle was T’ang Shao-Yi, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of China from 1911-1912. According to their daughter Liane, her mother “grew up in a cosmopolitan household with wide exposure to the west.” And Loo’s father, like Pei, attended M.I.T., graduating with an engineering degree in 1916.
Pei and Eileen Loo were married immediately after she graduated from Wellesley in 1942. According to Liane, her mother decided to continue her studies in landscape architecture at the Harvard School of Design and her father “followed her there” and received his Masters in architecture from the School of Design in 1946. They raised four children: three sons, T’ing Chung (T’ing), Chien Chung (Didi), and Li Chung (Sandi), and one daughter, Liane. Over their 72 years of their marriage, they befriended many influential individuals, artists and dealers in the New York area, and loved participating in cultural life together. Eileen Loo Pei passed away in 2014.
Pei became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1954. Although it took almost twenty years after he landed at Angel Island to become a citizen, he considers himself “very, very lucky” because, in his words, “in those days, to be an American citizen was very, very difficult.” Asian immigrants were not eligible to become naturalized citizens until the law changed in 1943 for the Chinese and even later for other Asians. On that day in 1954, he was one of some 5,000 who had gathered at Polo Grounds stadium in New York to become a new citizen. After the swearing in and the singing of the national anthem that concluded the official ceremony, he recalls that there were a few minutes of “absolute silence” as the people were overcome by the indescribable significance of the moment. “That was a moment of great emotion for all. Applause came after that. It was thundering because Polo Grounds is a big place and there were many of us and many were refugees from Europe.”
Pei returned to China for the first time in 1974 (by then the People’s Republic of China) as part of the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.) cultural exchange program which was organized after President Nixon established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic in 1972. According to one biography, Pei was surprised that he was welcomed by the Communist Chinese government given that his father was a “capitalist” banker for the Chinese Nationalist Government.
On his second trip to China in 1978, the Chinese government, eager to modernize China, invited Pei to design the Xiangshan (meaning “Fragrant Hill”) Hotel. According to a 1983 New York Times article about the origin of the Fragrant Hill Hotel, there was “virtually no serious architecture” since the founding of the People’s Republic. Until that time, “. . . the Government chose to spend neither time nor money exploring the notion of architecture as an expression of cultural values; it regarded buildings primarily as shelter.” The commissioning of Pei to design the Fragrant Hill Hotel was “modern China’s first attempt to see a building as something more than that – as something symbolic of a culture’s aspirations.” And for Pei, it was an opportunity to lead China to a “modern architectural vernacular” – a new common language for building that could be used to define modern China. To this end, he chose a quiet hillside outside Beijing, and not the city center, and sought to design a hotel “that would ‘feel’ Chinese and yet modern at the same time.”
In 1982, Pei was again surprised when the Chinese Communist leaders commissioned him to design the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong. At the time a British colony, Hong Kong was to be turned over to China in 1997. Ironically, this was the same Bank of China branch that his father had managed in 1918.
Pei is a monumental figure in his field and is one of the last living modern architects in direct lineage to such great architects as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn. He has received the highest honors including the 1983 Pritzker Architecture Prize, often called the Nobel Prize in architecture, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 from President George H.W. Bush, the highest civilian award of the United States. Of his numerous awards, one award that is known to be the most significant and meaningful to Pei is the Medal of Liberty that he received from President Ronald Reagan in 1986 as it was an award presented to just twelve naturalized U.S. citizens for their outstanding contributions to American life.
His stunning body of work over the course of his career is a great tribute to his passion, intellect and talent. Perhaps the greatest of his contributions is his exquisite interpretation of Western modernity but with sensibilities to Eastern traditions. And that is something that I.M. Pei was able to attain over the course of his long immigrant’s journey that started on Angel Island on August 28, 1935.
AIISF is honored to present the 2017 Immigrant Heritage Award for Lifetime Achievement to Mr. I.M. Pei at our gala on April 6, 2017. In addition to his four children, Pei has seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His daughter Liane notes “while we have all followed a variety of paths in terms of our careers and interests, we are universally bound to our parents, grandparents and great grandparents, and always come together as a family.” Mr. Pei turns 100 on April 26, 2017.
Special thanks to the Pei family for their insights and memories and the Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Foundation for use of the video of Mr. Pei’s speech at the naturalization ceremony at Monticello on July 4, 2006.
Note: Mr. Pei passed away May 18, 2019 at the age of 102. His New York Times obituary can be read here.
Rosemarie Nahm is an attorney and board member of AIISF.
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