Beilei Gu (SPS '06, STEINHARDT '08) Uncovers NYU's Long History in Shanghai
November 15, 2023
Amidst the intertwined streets of Yuyuan Road and Wukang Road, where history clings to every brick and tile, Beilei Gu—an NYU alum with a knack for unearthing the past—stumbled upon a fascinating revelation. Delving into the sepia-toned pages of a 1940s newspaper, she was taken aback to find mentions of a grand reunion orchestrated by the NYU Alumni Club right in the heart of Shanghai.
The very notion that NYU had such a sprawling alumni presence in Shanghai in those early days left Gu, who earned her BA from NYU’s School of Professional Studies in 2006 and her MA from NYU’s Steinhardt School in 2008, both astounded and intrigued. The more she sifted through history, the clearer the pattern became: NYU had left footprints across the grand tapestry of Shanghai's cultural and architectural narrative. It began as early as 1923, marking Shanghai as the inaugural venue for NYU alumni gatherings in East China—a tradition that soon spread to neighboring cities like Nanjing and Hangzhou.
“Back then, events of such magnitude were commemorated in print,” mused Gu.
Gu was born in a century-old western-style house on Yuyuan Road in Shanghai, where red bricks, phoenix trees, oleanders, and pavilions filled her memories and painted her childhood and adolescence. Although she lived and studied abroad for many years after high school, her innate love of Shanghai never diminished. In 2014, the siren call of home, coupled with the allure of her alma mater, drew her back. She stepped into the role of Language Lecturer in Chinese at NYU's nascent Shanghai campus, intertwining her love for the city and the institution.
Gu's teaching philosophy intertwines her deep reverence for Shanghai's architectural heritage with an immersive pedagogical approach. She seamlessly integrates Shanghai's rich tapestry of history, culture, and geography into her language instruction. This confluence aims not merely at linguistic proficiency but seeks to instill in her international students an appreciation for the city's soul. From organizing field trips to ancient lanes and exposing students to millennia-old ginkgo trees to encouraging self-expressive essays about Shanghai's essence, her methods transcend traditional classroom boundaries. Underpinning it all is a heartfelt desire: to bring her students closer to the city and its cultural heritage, forging connections that go beyond language to embrace the ebb and flow of Shanghai's vast human geography.
Beilei (fourth from the right) led a group of students on a visit to Shanghai’s historic Yuyuan Road.
Beilei (first from the left) attended the alumni club hosted thanksgiving gala in Shanghai.
In 2020, guided only by the addresses found in old newspapers, articles, and photos, Gu embarked on a quest, threading through the cityscape. While many structures on Yuyuan Road had been lost to the inexorable march of urbanization, the remnants that still stood revealed Shanghai's old architecture.
Inspired by her discoveries, Gu curated a selection of 10 preserved old buildings that had once played host to illustrious NYU alumni events. Her findings culminated in an evocative piece titled NYU and Shanghai: A Century-Old Romance. Published on her WeChat account “A Straw of Life,” the tale was soon shared with NYU’s Alumni Association, where it resonated with old souls and recent grads alike.
The outpour was overwhelming. “After the article was published, many Chinese alumni from all over the world contacted us and joined the NYU Alumni Club,” Gu remarked.
Now, after nearly a century-long hiatus, the NYU Alumni Club in Shanghai is experiencing a renaissance. At its heart is Gu, bridging the shimmering present with a gilded past. In the pulsating metropolis of Shanghai, the narrative of the NYU Alumni Club unfolds like a sonnet—a welcome dialogue between then and now.
“The NYU Alumni Club in Shanghai had been interrupted for nearly a hundred years, but now it is flourishing again. In this magical city of Shanghai, the history of the NYU Alumni Club is like a dialogue between the past and the present.”
Passionately drawn to this centennial relationship between NYU and Shanghai, Gu began an even deeper exploration. Creating a meticulous chronological table, she traced back the ebbs and flows of their connection to the 1920s—mapping venues, attendees, and historical references of each alumni gathering.
Gu recounts, “The journey began with an old photo adorned with the NYU logo. Following this lead, I found buildings echoing with alumni laughter from yesteryears… As I delved deeper, the once unfamiliar tales turned vividly real. Approaching them, exploring them, and talking about them, I witnessed the indispensable colors of the city's past and present.”
The post-Lunar New Year of 1927 brought one distinct emblem into view. A rectangular sign, bordered thinly in white and awash in a regal purple, announcing ‘NEW YORK UNIVERSITY.’ “It was this eye-catching sign that magically led me into various old buildings in Shanghai. Across time and space, I met NYU members from all over the world.”
Now, more than a century later, Gu observes a fresh tradition taking root five miles east of Yuyuan Road. In 2017, NYU Shanghai welcomed its first alumni; now each year, as May's finale approaches, the Oriental Pearl Tower bathes in a rich purple hue. More than just a light display, it’s a symbolic nod to NYU Shanghai's graduates, embodying both the city's blessings for their futures and the age-old bond between NYU and Shanghai.