Madame Wellington-Koo – Voted best dressed Chinese Woman of 1920s by Vogue

Madame Wellington-Koo was voted best- dressed Chinese Woman of 1920 – 40s by Vogue. She was the wife of a sometime president of China, ambassador and founder signatory of the United Nations, she was widely revered as a representative of Chinese fashion, and in the portrait by Beltran-Masses wears the Manchu style of dress, that she adapted and made stylish in the Paris of her day.

Born to great wealth, and doubly gifted with intelligence and extraordinary good looks, Hui-lan was married to one of the leading figures in Chinese and indeed world politics during much of the first half of the twentieth century. It was perhaps appropriate that on the night of her birth in 1899 she should have been given the name Hui, or meteor, to commemorate the shooting star that her father observed during her mother’s labour. Her second name, Lan, means orchid, the most exotic and sought after of flowers.

Hui-lan was the second and favourite daughter of Oie Tiong Ham, who had built a vast fortune in developing the sugar business in Java whence his father, Hui-lan’s grandfather, had fled following the failed T’aip’ing rebellion against the Manchu empire. Hui-lan was actually born in China near Amoy, where the family had originated (and to which they were permitted to return for visits, though only after paying the considerable fine demanded by the imperial government for a pardon), but grew up in her father’s palatial residence in Semarang, Java. Indulged and pampered, and with every possible luxury given to her, by the time she married her father’s business-empire included not only the largest sugar producing and refining company in Asia but a shipping line and several banks, and was more than twice of the size of its nearest Dutch competitor.


Despite this great wealth, however, as a Chinese – albeit with Dutch nationality – Hui-lan and her family were treated as second-class citizens by the Dutch administration, and had to carefully navigate their way past the difficulties they often faced in their dealings with government officials. Her observant nature and quick mind made much use of this experience when, following her marriage, she found herself in the forefront of world diplomacy. Her education also prepared her well for her future role. Her parents had taken her on trips to Europe as a child, while a much-despised Belgian tutor taught her French after she had already mastered Dutch and Malay. After the departure of the Belgian, her parents employed an English governess whom she adored, and who not only taught her excellent English but also gave her a solid classical education. She was taught piano and traditional Chinese music and dance as well as classical ballet, becoming at the same time an excellent horsewoman as she rode almost every morning. Her father’s business profited considerably from the First World War, and in 1919 Hui-lan and her mother took a house in Berkeley Square which they used as a base to travel to France and Italy. It was after returning to Paris from Italy that Hui-lan met the young Chinese diplomat who was to become her husband.

Dr Koo Vi Kyuin or Ku Wei-chün Wellington Koo (the name he had assumed when a student in America) was born to a prosperous upper middle class family in 1887; his father was appointed president of the Bank of Communications following a successful business career. After attending St John’s college in Shanghai, he was sent by his father to an American private school before entering Columbia University, where he completed an undergraduate and a master’s degree, with a PhD in international law and diplomacy awarded after just four years there in 1912. He was an accomplished athlete as well as being editor-in-chief of the Columbia Spectator, an exceptional attainment for a Chinese student at the time. Upon his return to China he was appointed President Yuan Shikai’s English secretary, and just three years later, in 1915, Chinese minister to the United States in 1915, although only twenty-eight years old. With the end of the First World War he was given even greater responsibility as one of the two Chinese delegates to the Versailles conference. There he forcefully demanded that Japan withdraw from Shandong, recalling the humiliation of China’s defeat by Japan in the war of 1894-95 and, with his own experience as a boy in Shanghai, called for the Western powers to abandon their system of special extra- territorial leases, tariff controls and freedom from Chinese justice. It was his decision that China would not sign the final treaty, in response to the refusal of Great Britain, France and the Netherlands to accede to these demands; this earned him a reputation as someone who would not compromise on matters of national sovereignty. He was, however, an early supporter of the League of Nations, of which China became a founder member with Wellington Koo as its first representative to the new organisation based in Geneva.

In 1922 Koo was appointed Chinese foreign minister, and served as prime minister in the government of Li Yuanhong for a few months in late 1922 until the end of June 1923 (during which time he suffered two attempts on his life). The chaotic politics of this period led to rapid changes of government, and Wellington Koo was almost unique among those who held high office in not having served in the military. In 1926 he was reappointed to the premiership and at the same time became president (the eighth legitimate or de facto head of state following the deposition of President Li in June 1923), until dislodged the next year following the capture of Beijing by the monarchist generalissimo, Chang Hsueh-liang (Zhang-Zuolin, the Old Marshal). He again served as Foreign Minister after Zhang’s expulsion from Beijing before being dismissed and threatened with arrest by Chiang Kai-shek, but such were his diplomatic skills that his appointment as Chinese delegate to the Lytton commission investigating the Japanese invasion of Manchuria saved his career. He was appointed Chinese minster to France in 1932 – this appointment was upgraded to ambassadorial level in 1936; with the French surrender in 1941 and the Vichy government’s submission to Japan’s demands in Asia, Koo moved to London as Ambassador, serving until 1946, during which time he was a founder signatory of the United Nations charter – the only diplomat to participate in the foundation of both the League of Nations and the UN. In 1946 he was appointed ambassador to the United States a post he held until 1956 through the collapse of the Kuomintang government and its retreat to Taiwan; the following year he was appointed a Justice of the International Court at The Hague, serving as vice-president of the court for three years, retiring in 1967. He died in New York City in 1985 at the age of ninety-eight. Koo was a near contemporary of the three dominant figures in twentieth century Chinese history, Chiang Kai-shek (born 1887), Mao Zedong (born 1893) and Zhou Enlai (born 1898) but never shared their revolutionary belief in solving China’s domestic and international problems through political revolution and anti-imperialist mass mobilization. He nonetheless shared their aspiration to rid China of the stigma of imperialist subjugation; as the principle advocate of Chinese autonomy between 1919 and 1949 it was through diplomacy that he played a leading role in shaping modern China.

Photo courtesy of Underwood & Underwood
Photo courtesy of Underwood & Underwood

When Hui-lan found herself in 1919 seated next to the ambitious young diplomat in Paris he had already been married twice. His first marriage, arranged after he had left for the US in 1908 had ended shortly afterwards in divorce; his second marriage (by which he had a son and daughter, with several descendants living today) ended when his wife, Táng Pao-yu (the daughter of the first prime minister of the Chinese republic, Táng Shàoyí), died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Wellington Koo proposed just ten days after meeting the beautiful and impressive Hui-lan, who it must be said, was not immediately keen on the prospect of marriage to a man she barely knew. She succumbed, however, to a campaign by the prominent Chinese then established in Paris as well as her family, finally consenting to his proposal in October 1919. It was still some time before they could actually marry, however; Hui-lan had wanted to hold the ceremony in London but Wellington Koo had been sent to serve as Chinese minister to the US once again and Hui-lan and her mother travelled there for the ceremony. Before this could take place Wellington was appointed Minister in London in the autumn of 1920 (this was in the days when only few countries exchanged Ambassadors, the majority sending an envoy with the lesser title of Minister) and although the ceremony did not take place there, but in Brussels, it was still a splendid affair – her father’s gift of three Rolls Royce cars and a gold and silver dinner service making up for the fact that he could not be there for his favourite daughter’s wedding.

Hui-lan’s married life began in Geneva and London thereafter following her husband’s meteoric career as he moved from capital to capital, her considerable fortune enabling this glittering young couple to entertain in a way that few other diplomats could afford. Photographs of Hui-lan at this time show her in formal court dress with tiara and glamorous European-style evening gowns as she had not yet adopted the traditional dress for which she was later to become renowned. In June 1922 they returned to China with Koo’s appointment as Foreign Minister. Her first son was born in Beijing soon after their arrival and named Wellington for his father; the second was born the following year and, two years later, given the name Freeman (the family name of the Marquess of Willingdon, the former Viceroy of India and then of Canada, who had proposed himself as unofficial Godfather). Thereafter she became more closely involved in her husband’s career not only as his wife and hostess but also in playing a key role herself in her country’s service during a time when Japan’s ambitions and subsequent invasion and occupation caused enormous suffering. Hui-lan’s linguistic skills, sophistication and wealth gave her an entrée to both high society and the political world, enabling her to assist her husband in arguing China’s case to the British and American public. She also proved to be an astute connoisseur of Chinese art, with a particularly fine collection of jade, much of it fine jewellery (like the double row of Jade beads around her neck in our painting) but also carved objects and statuettes such as that she holds in this portrait.

With her husband out of office in the late 1926 the Koos moved to Shanghai, which had changed dramatically over the previous years – it was now the fourth largest port in the world with a bustling and energetic economy that was only briefly impeded by a real estate collapse in 1934, until its destruction by the Japanese in 1937. Unmarried couples went out together (previously almost unheard of), there was a vibrant night club and jazz scene with American films having a huge impact on fashion and life style. The city had been a magnet not only for wealthy Chinese and European business men such as Sir Victor Sassoon but also men and women hoping to make their fortunes by sharp dealing or advantageous marriage. One such, Wallis Warfield (later Duchess of Windsor) who may have had an affair with Count Ciano (the Italian ambassador to China, and later Mussolini’s Foreign Minister before being executed on Hitler’s orders, married to Edda Mussolini, who became a close friend of Hui-lan while they were still living in Beijing), is remembered by Hui-lan for her only phrase in Mandarin, “boy, pass me the champagne”.

Conventional Chinese hair styles were now abandoned and replaced with the Elizabeth Arden permanent wave, a craze for false eyelashes and new, simpler fashions which included a new type of dress, long and slim fitting. Hui-lan embraced the latter with enthusiasm becoming a fashion icon and appearing frequently in surveys of the best dressed women (figuring several times in Vogue magazine as such in the latter part of the 1920s through the 1930s). The dresses that had been decorously slit a few inches up the sides Hui-lan now slashed to the knee, with lace pantelettes just visible to the ankle. She then added braided edges to the slits that reached up to the waist while edging the under arm openings with a trim that extended to the decorated high collar. She also insisted on using local silks unlike most of Shanghai’s fashionable ladies who preferred imported fabrics even when of inferior quality.

In 1932 Wellington Koo and his wife once more returned to Paris, this time as Chinese minister; our portrait dates from soon after her arrival there when she was already well-known as a leading figure in international society and Beltran-Masses was one of the most renowned portraitists of the day. Hui-lan is shown wearing the kind of dress for which she was already renowned, the long black or deep blue qipao or cheongsam that she had adapted in Shanghai, standing confidently looking at the viewer, her crimson lips with the hint of a slight smile. She appears to be standing on a platform before a temple entrance on the left, and behind her an emerald green ground and exotic assembly of shapes and designs that pay tribute to traditional oriental motifs. A gold embroidered cape hangs from off her shoulders, her long thin right hand delicately balances a green jade figurine while the other, resting on her hip, shows her fingers

with brilliant maroon nails, one bearing a large diamond ring. Her feet are placed in gold strapped sandals, her toe nails painted the same vivid colour as her fingernails while her hair is in a fashionable bob, her eyebrows carefully plucked. The overall effect gives a feeling of mystery and elegance that must have contrasted sharply with the more robust and sensuous portrayal of the European and American celebrities whom Beltrán customarily painted. Beltrán-Masses portrait was evidently well-received; a letter from Wellington Koo written from the Chinese embassy in Paris on 19 May 1937, informed the artist that he had been honoured with the Order of Jade, seventh class.

Following Wellington’s elevation to Ambassador the Koos acquired a new building for their embassy, a magnificent edifice on the Avenue Georges V which is today the embassy of the People’s Republic of China. With the fall of France the Koos found their accreditation taking them to Vichy, the capital of that part of France that was not formally submitted to German occupation. With the Chinese ambassador in London appointed Chiang Kai-shek’s foreign minister Koo was named as his successor in London in 1941; Hui-lan, however, decided to go to New York to join her sons who were being educated there. In America Hui-lan took the opportunity to use her prestige and connections to put forward the case for coming to China’s aid but it was not until Pearl Harbour that the US finally went to war. Although she and her husband were later reunited, the years of separation took their toll and so eventually led to the break- up of her marriage. Wellington remarried in 1959, but she remained single until her death in New York 1992 at the age of ninety-three.

*As featured in Federico Beltran-Masses’ exhibition at Stair Sainty Gallery ‘Blue Nights and Libertine Legends
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