Pei's ancestry traces back to the Ming Dynasty, when his family moved from Anhui province to Suzhou, but most importantly his family were directors of the Bank of China which later on funded the construction of important projects including the Kips Bay project in New York. They also found wealth in the sale of medicinal herbs, the family stressed the importance of helping the less fortunate. Ieoh Ming Pei was born on 26 April 1917 to Tsuyee Pei and Lien Kwun, and the family moved to Hong Kong one year later. The family eventually included five children. As a boy, Pei was very close to his mother, a devout Buddhist who was recognized for her skills as a flautist. She invited him, his brothers, and his sisters to join her on meditation retreats. His relationship with his father was less intimate. Their interactions were respectful but distant.
Pei's ancestors' success meant that the family lived in the upper echelons of society, but Pei said his father was "not cultivated in the ways of the arts". The younger Pei, drawn more to music and other cultural forms than to his father's domain of banking, explored art on his own. "I have cultivated myself," he said later.
At the age of ten, Pei moved with his family to Shanghai after his father was promoted. Pei attended Saint Johns Middle School, run by Protestant missionaries. Academic discipline was rigorous; students were allowed only one half-day each month for leisure. Pei enjoyed playing billiards and watching Hollywood movies, especially those of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. He also learned rudimentary English skills by reading the Bible and novels by Charles Dickens.
Pei describes the architecture of Shanghai's Bund
waterfront area (seen here in a 2006 photo) as "very much a colonial past".
Shanghai's many international elements gave it the name "Paris of the East". The city's global architectural flavors had a profound influence on Pei, from the Bund waterfront area to the Park Hotel, built in 1934. He was also impressed by the many gardens of Suzhou, where he spent the summers with extended family and regularly visited a nearby ancestral shrine. The Shizilin Garden, built in the 14th century by a Buddhist monk, was especially influential. Its unusual rock formations, stone bridges, and waterfalls remained etched in Pei's memory for decades. He spoke later of his fondness for the garden's blending of natural and human-built structures.
Soon after the move to Shanghai, Pei's mother developed cancer. As a pain reliever, she was prescribed opium, and assigned the task of preparing her pipe to Pei. She died shortly after his thirteenth birthday, and he was profoundly upset. The children were sent to live with extended family; their father became more consumed by his work and more physically distant. Pei said: "My father began living his own separate life pretty soon after that." His father later married a woman named Aileen, who moved to New York later in her life.