-by Graham Thompson
One of the delights of the hospitality scene in Shanghai is that many of the charming old hotels from the early 20th century still stand – and more importantly, still take bookings. In addition, some other interesting old buildings than began life for other purposes are now modern hotels. Because of its slightly unusual political status central Shanghai was largely spared damage during WW2, and you can still stay in many of these redoubtable old buildings.
If you had come to Shanghai in the 1930s you would have had the choice of several of grandest hotels in Asia. As a contemporary guidebook put it, “Shanghai offers ample hotel and hotel-apartment accommodation, with a wide variety of locations and tariffs”. On the other hand, some Chinese observers of the time felt these foreign buildings were inappropriate. A 1932 local guidebook said, “these places have no relationship to us Chinese…and besides the upper class atmosphere in these Western hotels is very solemn, every move and gesture seems completely regulated.”
The Astor Hotel [Now the Pujiang Hotel]
This is all maybe something to contemplate over a drink in the bar of the Peace or the Park !The Astor Hotel (now the Pujiang Hotel) opened in 1846, and was the first Western hotel in China.
Originally established as the Richards Hotel just three years after the city was opened to foreign trade, it was moved and rebuilt as the Astor Hotel in 1860. The Kadoorie family reconstructed the hotel in 1910. Renamed the Pujiang Hotel in 1959, it has maintained its old style while acting partly as a backpackers’ hostel.
After a RMB7m renovation of its 35 VIP rooms, the hotel decided it would rather have no star rating than be underrated by city officials who care more about the lack of modern facilities than cultural significance. “Given the limited space and the fact that we are housed in a historical building, we cannot afford modern facilities such as a swimming pool and a tennis court,” Wu Jiaming, the hotel’s VP, told local media. “So it would be a waste of time to ask to be reevaluated.”
But that didn’t stop the hotel setting prices ranging up RMB2800 per night. “This is a reasonable price, reflecting the true value of the hotel,” said Wu. The hotel hosted many important historical events. On 26 July 1882, the city’s first electric power appeared in the Astor’s Flower Garden Annex. In 1901, the hotel also broke new ground with the first automatic telephone equipment in Shanghai in 1901, and the first sound film from the West was projected there in 1908. In addition, the Astor hosted China’s first ball, helping to bring to a close the tradition that women should not attend social activities.
More recently, economic history was made here when the Shanghai Stock Exchange was launched there on 19 December 1990 was launched there, the first in China since 1949.In its long history the hotel has also welcomed distinguished guests including Albert Einstein in 1922, and Charlie Chaplin in 1931 and 1936. It is said that Chiang Kai-shek had his last dinner there before withdrawing to Taiwan.
The Cathay Hotel
The main building on the north side of Nanjing Lu was built by the Sassoons, a great trading house, whose fortune was built originally on opium trading and arms-trading, before being sunk into Shanghai real estate. It offered guests a private plumbing system fed by a spring on the outskirts of town, marble baths with silver taps and lavatories imported from Britain – with total space of 36,317 square meters, it cost 2,483,640 liang of silver to build. A 1930s brochure calls it “the most luxuriously appointed hotel in the Far East”.
Designed by architects Palmer and Turner, the Cathay was the pride of owner Sir Victor Sassoon, who lived in the large apartment under the roof. This had 360-degree views and was paneled in dark oak, resembling an English club, where he entertained lavishly. Noel Coward is supposed to have been staying here, recovering from flu, when he completed the play Private Lives, in just four days. Another noted playwright, George Bernard Shaw, stayed in the Cathay in 1933. Tragedy came to the hotel in August 1937 when a Chinese bomber, attacking Japanese shipping on the river, accidentally dropped its drops onto the street outside, killing 1,198 people and injuring 1,318.
The hotel is, of course, also famous for its Jazz Bar, although the band now playing are the not the original renowned musicians. There are 380 rooms and suites in the Peace Hotel. The suites are named after various countries – Chinese, British, American, French, Japanese, Italian, Indian, German and Spanish – and are all elegantly decorated and preserved in their original style. Our Publisher, Chris Devonshire-Ellis, stayed in the Indian Suite in 1982 on his first visit to China – he recalls, “I stayed at the Indian Suite, which was truly huge and very well appointed – for USD500 for five days. The hotel has seven suites, all decorated with a different theme – the Indian, German, French, American, British, Russian and Japanese suites, all reflecting the different foreign concessions that Shanghai had at the time the hotel was built. They are still there”.
One stunning space is the Peace Hall, in British Palace style, with a dramatic vaulted ceiling decorated with moon style windows and six huge crystal chandeliers. The original dance floor is still intact. This magnificent Hall was the venue for the launch in autumn 2005 of China Briefing’s Business Guide to Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta. The North Building reopened in 1956, and the South Building (the old Palace) in 1965. It is now operated by the Jin Jiang hotel group. During late 2004, the hotel was set as the backdrop for the historical movie The White Countess.
The Park Hotel
When it opened, the Park was, according to a 1934 advertisement, “the tallest building in the Far East” at 22 stories. It boasted “205 luxuriously furnished rooms, apartments and unfurnished flats, a beautifully decorated dining room and grill, and exquisite cuisine”. It was “situated at the theatrical and sport centre of Shanghai”, right on the edge of the race course (the northern edge of what is now Nanjing Lu is curved because it follows the edge of the old course). Within the hotel lobby is the officially-designated “centre of Shanghai” – which is not, despite their claim, the Radisson next door.
The building was designed by the famous Czech-Hungarian architect Ladislaus Hudec, based in Shanghai, who designed many famous buildings in the 1920s and 1930s. The top floor featured a night club with a retracting roof where you could dance under the stars. The club is still there but the roof no longer retracts, sadly. Recent renovations have truncated its lofty lobby and hidden most of the interior detailing that once made it an Art Deco showcase. Richard Purcell, who stayed in the Park in 2004, says, “It is a grand old hotel,” adding, “the guest room was clean, quiet and modern, the staff were friendly, the spa was wonderful… I got good value for money.” During the autumn of 2006, it was used as the base for the cast of the musical, “The Lion King”.
The Morris Family Estate (now Rui Jin Hotel)
After he died in 1919, his son H.E. Morriss Jr. purchased the land and created the family compound, comprising four villas, numerous outbuildings and a vast garden. Morriss Jr. bred racehorses and greyhounds, and indeed the Camidrone dog racing track was opposite the rear entrance of the estate. During WW2 the Italian Consulate occupied one of the villas, and one guest was Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, who apparently detested Shanghai.
After 1949 the estate was taken over by the Communist government and used as a state guest house – Mme Mao regularly stayed there. An air-raid shelter was built in the garden for such VIPs – it still exists and is used for as a storehouse for the hotel. One of the houses in the grounds of the hotel is the well-known modern bar ‘Face’.
The French Club (now part of the Okura Garden Hotel)
Designed by the leading Shanghai-based architect Paul Veysseyre, the French Club, or Cercle Sportif Francaise, now forms part of the Okura Garden Hotel. The French styled their club on the same Art Deco aesthetics as they did all their other buildings in the former French Concessions. Artistic details like carved nudes on some columns survived the Cultural Revolution by being covered up with plywood. The grand ballroom is a fantastic venue, with a stained glass elliptical ceiling lit from behind, and sunken sprung dance floor.
The French Club had a much more open membership policy than other clubs in the city, allowing women to join before WW2, for example, albeit only 40 at a time. It was also the first foreign club at permit Chinese members. After the founding of the PRC, it was used as a People’s Palace and Chairman Mao Zedong chose to stay here when visiting Shanghai. There is an eight room air raid shelter under the front lawn (the entrance is near the fountain), which runs under the street across the neighboring Jinjiang Hotel. More recent distinguished guests have included the Manchester United football team.
The Moller Villa
This is one of Shanghai’s more unusual buildings, looking for all the world like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. It was originally built by Eric Moller, a British Jew who ran a flourishing shipping business before WW2. Indeed, the story goes that his favourite daughter had a dream in which she entered such a fairytale castle, and Moller decided to design a villa based on her vision.
Work began in 1927 and was completed in 1936.The interior design, however, draws more from the reality Moller’s shipping interests than fantasy. There is a non-functional circular window on the main staircase, like a porthole, and an elliptical rail in one room, as in a ship’s engine room. There is an attractive small garden, too, now the site of outdoor seating for La Vie En Rose, the hotel’s café, as well as a bronze statue of Bionic Hill, Moller’s favourite racehorse. After WW2 and 1949, the building was for many years used by the Shanghai Communist Youth League.
In 2001, it was taken over by the Hengshan Group and extensively refurbished into its current form as a unique hotel, now protected as a cultural relic. Chris Devonshire-Ellis recently stayed in the hotel and commented, “the Moller Villa is a real treat and has a beautiful hidden garden and small patio restaurant. Moller himself was a horse racing buff and pictures of Shanghai’s race meetings and various other horse racing memorabilia are displayed throughout the building. Quiet and a peek back at Shanghai’s colonial grandeur some 70 years ago”.