Sung Sing KWAN 關頌聲

Architect and Athlete


By Emma Teng and York Lo

"He is a credit indeed to Andover and to M.I.T. In the field of architecture, I doubt if there are many Tech men who have as interesting a record. I should say he is easily the outstanding Chinese architect in his own country."

                                                                                                                             The Rev. Arthur G Robinson (1884-1964), 1927 

SS Kwan,  Technique  1920. Courtesy MIT Archives and Special Collections.

SS Kwan, Technique 1920. Courtesy MIT Archives and Special Collections.

Sung Sing KWAN 關頌聲 (1892-1960, Class of 1919, Architecture) 

Mandarin pinyin Guan Sungsheng, was born in Weihaiwei, the eldest son of an eminent physician, Guan Jingxian 關景賢, Imperial Doctor to the Guangxu Emperor and Director of the Peiyang Naval Hospital. The family was of Cantonese origin, and prominent Christians as well as supporters of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Kwan was a student at the Imperial Medical College in Tianjin. Under the influence of revolutionaries, the young Kwan cut off his queue in defiance of Qing rule and his father was thus compelled to send him abroad to escape punishment and possible execution. With the aid of family friend Wu Tingfang (1842-1922), who served as Minister to the United States, Spain, and Peru from 1896 to 1902 and from 1907 to 1909, Kwan was taken to the US in 1907. Studying first at Dummer Academy in South Byfield, Massachusetts, Kwan matriculated at Phillips Academy Andover (Class of 1912) in Sept. 1908, in the Scientific Department, with Headmaster Al Stearns serving as his guardian. At Andover, Kwan excelled both in his studies and in athletics, becoming a noted soccer player and track runner. Unfortunately, before Kwan finished at Andover, in the summer of 1911 he was called home by his mother's illness. Nonetheless, Kwan maintained a lifelong relationship with the school and his guardian Dr. Stearns. Stearns even hosted an engagement-announcement party for Kwan while he was a student at MIT.

Back in China, Kwan studied at St. John's University in Shanghai before gaining entry to Tsinghua Preparatory School, where he continued to be an athletic star. Earning one of the prestigious Boxer Indemnity Fellowships, Kwan returned to the United States in August 1914, sailing together with other Indemnity Scholars. Kwan was not only an Indemnity Scholar, he also helped facilitate the attendance of five junior scholars on the Indemnity Program at Phillips Academy Andover, personally escorting them to his alma mater.

Kwan was the first Chinese student to receive a degree in architecture at MIT. He was a member of the Class of 1919, but received his BS in Architecture in 1918. Kwan then took some time to study municipal administration at Harvard. As a student, Kwan engaged in numerous extracurricular activities and took several leadership roles. He was a member of the Chinese Students’ Club, the Architectural Society, the Architectural Engineering Society, the Cosmopolitan Club, and the Institute Committee. Kwan served as Secretary of the Cosmopolitan Club in his sophomore year (1916), and as President his junior year. He was also a member of the Frieze and Cornice Fraternity, and a charter member of the FF Fraternity, the oldest Chinese fraternity in the US. Kwan was furthermore active in athletics and drama, making a name for himself especially in the former. Kwan was renowned as a runner, joining both his Class Track and Relay Teams, and the intercollegiate MIT Track and Relay Teams, and winning various races over the year. He also won races representing “Technology” at meets held at the Chinese Students’ Alliance conferences. In 1917, Kwan had the honor of being among the "Wearers of the Numerals" in track, and also a "Wearer of the Institute Insignia." In 1919, Kwan was Captain of the Chinese Soccer Team, which gained fame at MIT for its stellar record. Kwan was also a star in the theater, taking the lead role in a student-written play, "The New Order Cometh." With a plot revolving around the theme of marriage reform in China, the play was performed at Stone Chapel at Phillips Academy Andover during the 12th annual conference of the Eastern Section of the Chinese Students’ Alliance in August 1916, and again at the 13th annual conference at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1917.

SS Kwan as Captain of the MIT Chinese Soccer Team, Technique 1920.  Courtesy MIT Archives and Special Collections.

SS Kwan as Captain of the MIT Chinese Soccer Team, Technique 1920. Courtesy MIT Archives and Special Collections.

Class of 1918 Relay Team, Technique 1919.   Courtesy MIT Archives and Special Collections.

Class of 1918 Relay Team, Technique 1919. Courtesy MIT Archives and Special Collections.

After receiving his degree, Kwan held various internships at engineering firms in the US, then returned to China in 1920 to start the architectural design firm of Kwan, Chu & Yang (基泰工程司) with University of Pennsylvania architectural graduates Pin CHU (朱彬,1896-1971, who later married Kwan’s younger sister May the same year) and Ting-Pao YANG (1901-1982) in his hometown of Tientsin. He was later joined by two other partners - his fifth brother, Western Reserve graduate Sung-Kin KWAN (關頌堅, 1900-1973) and University of Michigan civil engineering graduate Qua-ling YOUNG (楊寬麟, 1891-1971, nephew of Francis Hawks Pott, the longtime president of St John’s University in Shanghai). Starting in Tientsin, the firm completed the landmark Continental Bank building and the main factory of Pacific Alkali (leading chemical firm with MIT connection) in 1921, the Chung Yuan department store building (the tallest building in Northern China before the War) in 1927, and the Nankai University Library in 1928. Kwan, Chu & Yang quickly expanded to other cities in northern China such as Peking, where they designed the Peking Union Medical College Hospital, buildings on the Tsinghua campus, and the True Light Theatre, and Shenyang, where they were responsible for the city railway station and a Northeastern University dormitory. By 1928, the firm was prosperous enough to erect its own office building in Tientsin (which still stands) and was ranked as the top Chinese-owned architectural design firm in China.  

In the late 1920s, Kwan returned to the US to promote a new scheme in the service of Architect to the Princess Der Ling, a former Court Lady under the Empress Dowager. Along with her American husband, Thaddeus C White, Der Ling proposed to build a large-scale replica of the Forbidden City in the US (preferably Los Angeles), sited on 20 acres of land and surrounded by a replica of the Great Wall. As Architect, Kwan personally supervised the construction of elaborate models and drawings of the Forbidden City and other famous examples of Chinese architecture for a touring exhibit aimed at promoting the project in the US – 13 crates in all. In this undertaking, Kwan again sought the help of Phillips Academy Headmaster Al Stearns, writing him from the Los Angeles Biltmore on December 20, 1927 to announce his arrival in the US and explain his undertaking. Kwan noted his hope that the development would also contain a theater, hotel, auditorium, restaurant, museum, and library in order to promote American understanding of Chinese culture as well as produce revenue. Inviting Stearns to view the exhibit at the Los Angeles Biltmore, Kwan further promised to visit him in Andover in January. In response, Stearns duly connected him with other Andover Old Boys around the country. The principals connected with this project were the Princess Der Ling, Thaddeus C White, SS Kwan, and Arthur J  Burks. Unfortunately, the project never came to fruition.

In September 1931, the Japanese occupied Manchuria, which caused a significant drop in property development in northern China. In response, 4 of the 5 partners decided to move south, with SS Kwan and Yang heading to Nanking and Chu and Young heading to Shanghai, while Sung-Kin Kwan stayed in Tienstin. In Shanghai, business was booming in the 1930s, and the firm designed the Sun department store building, the Shanghai Commercial & Savings Bank building, and the Sun Yat-sen Hospital. In Nanking, Kwan leveraged his government connections to secure projects such as the Central Stadium (1933) and the Central Hospital (1934) and also built the library of the University of Nanking (1937). When the Japanese occupied Nanking in 1938, Kwan moved with the Nationalist regime to Chungking where he was responsible for the design of the Central Bank building (1940).   

In 1949, the partners of Kwan Chu & Yang split up, with Kwan heading to Taiwan, Chu to Hong Kong and Yang and Young staying in the mainland. In total, Kwan, Chu & Yang designed 110 structures on the mainland between 1920 and 1949, many of them still stand and are considered landmarks of the Republican era (1912-1949). In Taiwan, Kwan served as president of the Architects’ Association and was responsible for projects such as the Taipei City Stadium, the Taiwan Adventist Hospital, the Hu Shih Residence and a number of buildings at the Academia Sinica. However, it was his involvement in the athletic field during his Taiwan years which left a mark. As the founding president of the Republic of China Track and Field Association (now Chinese Taipei Athletics Association) in Taiwan, Kwan personally nurtured and financed many track athletes, including the decathlete Chuan-Kwang YANG (楊傳,1933-2007) whom he encouraged and financed to enroll at UCLA to train under the renowned coach, Ducky Drake, and ultimately won the silver medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 – the first Olympic medal won by a Chinese athlete. He also helped to launch the career of track star Cheng CHI () in 1958, who went on to win a bronze medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Sadly, not long after the good news of his protégé Yang winning the Olympic medal, Kwan died of a stroke in Taipei on November 27, 1960. His funeral was attended by over 2000 dignitaries and he received a commendation from Chiang Kai-shek in 1961 for his contributions to architecture and athletics.  

Kwan was predeceased by his first wife Vong-ling LEE, a graduate of Mt Holyoke College, and survived by 6 children. 

SOURCES: MIT Technique yearbooks,  MIT Chinese Students Directory: For the Past Fifty Years, 1931, Phillips Academy Andover Archives and Special Collections. "The New Order Cometh," Stone Chapel, Phillips Academy, 8:15 P.M., August 30 1916, 12th Annual Conference, Eastern Section, C.S.A., 1916, "Princess der Ling's Exhibit of Models, Drawings, and Samples of the Forbidden City, Peking, China." S.S. Kwan, Architect, Los Angeles, California. 1928. S.S. Kwan to A. Stearns, December 20, 1927. Box 28, Correspondence with Chinese Students, Office of the Head of School (Stearns), Phillips Academy Archives & Special Collections. Assistant to the Headmaster to S.S. Kwan, December 28, 1927. Box 28, Correspondence with Chinese Students, Office of the Head of School (Stearns), Phillips Academy Archives & Special Collections. A. Stearns to Samuel Morse, January 9, 1928. Box 28, Correspondence with Chinese Students, Office of the Head of School (Stearns), Phillips Academy Archives & Special Collections. A. Stearns to William H. Crocker, January 9, 1928. Box 28, Correspondence with Chinese Students, Office of the Head of School (Stearns), Phillips Academy Archives & Special Collections. Arthur G. Robinson to A. Stearns, December 14, 1927. Box 28, Correspondence with Chinese Students, Office of the Head of School (Stearns), Phillips Academy Archives & Special Collections. Chinese Students' Monthly.  Wan, Edward I. 2003. History of F.F. Fraternity: Evolution of the First Chinese Fraternity in the United States (1910-2002) = [Ji lan]. U.S.A.: s.n.],

DESCENDANTS OF YUEN-CHEONG KWAN (1832-1912) & AMUI LAI (1840-1902) - Kwan Family Tree provided by Professor Yvonne Ying-yue Yung

香港開埠與關家》. 作者, 關肇碩, 容應萸. 編者, 關肇碩,容應萸. 出版社, 廣角鏡1996

《中国第一代建筑结构工程设计大师—杨宽麟》,杨伟成主编,天津大学出版社, 2011

建聞築蹟: 香港第一代華人建築師的故事, 吳啓聰, ‎朱卓雄 – 2007, ET Press

Creamer, Robert “The Cobra and CK Yang” Sports Illustrated, Dec 23, 1963