Y.M. Kuo 過養默
Architect and Civil Engineer
By York Lo
Yang-Mo KUO (1895-1975, Class of 1919) was born into a family of scholars in Wuxi in Jiangsu province in 1895. He completed his early education at the secondary school (now Nanyang Model Middle School) affiliated with Nanyang Public School (predecessor of Jiaotung) in Shanghai. He then moved north to Tangshan in Hebei province where he studied at the Tangshan (North China) Engineering College (now Southwest Jiaotong University) and graduated in 1917 with a BS in civil engineering, one year behind the famous bridge engineer MAO Yisheng. Upon graduation from Tangshan, he came to the United States for post-graduate studies at Cornell and Harvard before enrolling at MIT. He received the MIT BS in Sanitary Engineering and Public Health in 1919.
During his time at MIT, Kuo fell in love with Wai-Tsu New (牛惠珠, 1897-1936), a Radcliffe student who was the cousin of the famous Soong sisters and Kinmay Wen (wife of Kuo’s MIT schoolmate and fellow Wuxi native PY Tang). As reported in The Tech, “with a host of admirers, and one of them an American youth, it remained for Yang Mo Kuo to win the pretty Miss New for his bride” and “s(h)attering all Chinese traditions and not waiting for the customary family councils, Yang Mo Kuo and Wai Tsu New just went away and were married in real American style” in November 1918 in a ceremony organized by the Holbrooks, the host family of Wai-Tsu and descendants of Frederick Holbrook, governor of Vermont. In late 1919, Kuo graduated from the Institute with a MSc in civil engineering and around the same time, his eldest son Frederick Wai-Sung Kuo (1919-2008) was born and was voted “Class Baby” of the Radcliffe College Class of 1919 as reported in The Tech.
After graduation, Kuo started his career at Stone & Webster in Boston, a leading construction & engineering concern with strong ties to MIT, before returning to China in the spring of 1920.
At the time, the architectural and civil engineering fields in China were dominated by foreigners, and returned students like Kuo armed with education and professional experience from the West were eager to change that by starting their own practices. In the early 1920s (his biographical entry in the 1944 World Chinese Biographies claims 1924, but other sources point to 1921), Kuo formed Southeastern Construction & Engineering, one of the first Chinese owned architectural and civil engineering firms in China, with his Cornell classmate LU Yen-chi (吕彦直,1894-1929) and WONG Sik-lam (黃錫霖 nephew and son in law of Sir Robert Hotung), a UK-trained Eurasian architect from Hong Kong. Headquartered in Shanghai, Southeastern built many buildings for the private and public sectors across China, such as the Shanghai campus of Chinan Institute (now Jinan University) which was completed in 1923, the Science Building of Southeast University in Nanking, which was completed in 1927, the campus of Kwangsi University in Wuchow, the Bankers’ Association Building on Hongkong Road in Shanghai which was completed in 1925 and Kuo as partner and general manager himself was directly responsible for the Supreme Court Building in Nanking (completed in 1933), the residence of Wellington Koo in Shanghai and many others. Kuo was an advocate of infusing Western classicism into Chinese architecture, which became the most popular architectural style for new buildings in major cities across China in the 1920s and 30s, while his partner YC Lu was more interested in the traditional Chinese architectural style. In 1925, Lu’s traditional design won the design competition for the Sun Yat- sen Mausoleum in Nanking and Lu decided to take on the high profile project on his own, leaving Southeastern to Kuo and Wong. (Lu also designed the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Canton before his untimely death in 1929.)
Outside of his architectural practice, Kuo was also an educator, civil servant and businessman. He taught at Nanyang College in Shanghai (which became Chiao Tung University) as Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering from 1921 to 1923. He then worked for the Peking government as Chief Civil Engineer of its Aeronautical Administration from 1924-25, during which time he supervised the construction of airports in Shanghai, Nanking, Hsuchow and Tsinan. From 1928-1930, he served on the Technical Advisory Committee of the Yangtze River Commission under the Ministry of Communications alongside another MIT alumnus, Ziang-Yien Chow (周象賢), the three-times mayor of Hangchow. From 1937 to 1940, he served as professor and acting dean of civil engineering at St. John’s University in Shanghai. He stayed in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation (1941-45), during which he managed to save the American Club building and its library. After the War, he teamed up with his MIT classmate Kuang-Piao Hu and Yien Yieh Commercial Bank to acquire the plywood manufacturing operations of the foreign-controlled China Import & Export Lumber (祥泰木行) to establish China Plywood Co.
In October 1948, Kuo left Shanghai for the UK to attend a global conference for civil engineers. As he had contracted lung disease and the Civil War situation in China deteriorated, he decided to retire and stay in the UK and in 1954 became a UK citizen. Kuo enjoyed his retirement in the English countryside (Banstead, Surrey), where he married Fernanda Rodrigues (1921-1979), a Portuguese lady who was 26 years his junior. He maintained close contact with his friends from Shanghai (such as the shipping magnate CY Tung, whose son CH Tung, the future Chief Executive of Hong Kong stayed at his house while studying in the UK) and fellow alumni of Chiao Tung (he was the fourth oldest alumnus at the first Chiao Tung alumni reunion in America in 1964). In 1973, he managed to get his second son Robert Ping-Chung Kuo (1921-2009) out of China to pursue graduate studies at Cardiff University in Swansea. On February 10, 1975, he passed away in England at the age of 80 and survived by his second wife and many descendants across the globe.
Lee, William Yinson (ed) World Chinese Biographies, 1944, pp 117-118
Feng, Xiaocai, Bridge of Education: From Tsinghua to MIT, Tsinghua University Press, 2014, pp 112-113
Email Correspondence with Sheila Guo (YM Kuo’s granddaughter) and Veronica Haskell
過養默老學長仙逝; 交大友聲, Vol 247, 1975-03-08 頁36
黄元炤 “建筑史话 - 过养默：简化的过渡—一股时代的潮流与趋势”
世界建筑导报杂志, No 148
The Tech, Feb 1, 1919, p2
“Graduate’s son is Class Baby” The Tech, November 14, 1919, p2
Lo, York East and West: 7 Chinese Christian Families and their Roles in Two Centuries of East West relations. Joint Publishing, 2012, pp 158-159
Record of the First Annual Convention of Chiao Tung Alumni in America, 1964, p.