Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:54 AM CST – China


Peace Hotel

Glamor, Gossip and Gin Fizzes

With its recent refurbishment winning a prestigious Tatler design award, the Swatch Art Peace Hotel Shanghai and its bigger brother across the road, formerly the Cathay, have survived Japanese bombs, rampaging Red Guards and the city’s chaotic construction boom to become twin icons of the Paris of the East

The early days of the Bund Photo by cns

Sir Victor Sassoon, and his target audience Courtesy of the Peace Hotel

The Cathay featured colonial Shanghai’s most lavish ballroom Courtesy of the Peace Hotel

The Old Jazz Band Photo by CFP

The refurbished roof terrace now looks out over the Pudong New Area Courtesy of the Peace Hotel

On my first visit to Shanghai, back in 2004 when I couldn’t distinguish Mandarin from Martian and still considered ankle-length denim shorts appropriate evening wear, the bright lights of Shanghai utterly dazzled me. Our exhausted tour guide who had dragged a tiny air steward suitcase up backpacker trails in Yunnan at our demand – after all, we were students, not VIPs - had gleefully left our small group to our own devices for the night in China’s own City of Lights. For one well-heeled member of our group, the choice of entertainment was simple.

“Let’s go and see the jazz band at the Cathay Hotel.”

A glance at our guidebook, however, revealed that no such hotel existed in Shanghai. Our friend assured us that it did, however, these being the days before every cellphone could access the Internet, and hostel WiFi was a distant dream, we reluctantly decided that the Cathay, along with much of old Shanghai, had been lost to the ages. Instead, we decided to walk the famous Bund waterfront, forever the city’s ritziest promenade.

Halfway down the imposing colonial facades, choked by traffic fumes and humidity, my friend let out a yelp of excitement.

“There it is!”

And there, indeed, it was. An indigo spire looming over murk, tourists and traffic, gleaming like an art deco sapphire. As we ventured closer, we realized that, unlike the Bund’s countless former banks, customs houses and other colonial buildings long-since repurposed as retail spaces, offices and upscale accommodation, the Cathay, now the Fairmont Peace Hotel, had remained a hotel. As we stepped into the lobby, and gazed at the preserved 1930s fixtures, the liveried staff, the lustrous marble floors, we were all, I’m sure, wondering the same thing. How had such a decadent, unabashedly Western-looking construction survived until now?

Built on Sand

The Cathay hotel was opened on August 1, 1929 by expat millionaire Sir Victor Sassoon, British baronet and, by all accounts, shameless bon vivant. His grandfather David had made his millions in the Indo-Chinese opium trade through Hong Kong, and his relatives had spread across the globe in search of further riches. Despite having to walk with the aid of two sticks due to wound sustained as a World War I fighter pilot, Victor Sassoon would, upon his arrival in Shanghai, become not only one of the most visible and active figures in the city’s burgeoning elite, but even begin to redefine their boundaries.

Despite his millions, as a Hasidic Jew of Iraqi descent, Victor Sassoon was barred from many of Shanghai’s private members’ clubs. The apocryphal phrase “no dogs or Chinese,” supposedly emblazoned at the entrance to nearby Huangpu park, has subsequently been used to symbolize the racist social segregation that characterized colonial China. However, the actual list which was used to filter out “undesirables” from foreign hangouts was considerably more complex and extensive than this, and wealth was no guarantee of acceptance. Chinese billionaires were as unwelcome at Shanghai’s gentlemen’s clubs as an indigent white man, and popular local pastimes such as “rickshaw polo” remain effective reminders of the appalling racism expressed by many colonial residents.

Victor Sassoon thus found himself at odds with the snobbery of the Shanghai set. He responded by taking advantage of the multiple tax incentives offered by colonial administrators to establish a real estate empire through his incorporated companies in Hong Kong, buying up as much of the Bund waterfront as he could afford.

As a 1935 article in Fortune magazine attests, few of Sassoon’s Shanghai contemporaries had much faith in building upwards on the sodden, brackish marshland which made up the Bund of the 1920s. “Hitherto, the absolute limit in height on that muddy land had been figured at ten stories,” attests the reporter. “Then, while Shanghai gaped, [Sassoon] put up the Cathay Hotel. This is one of the most luxurious hostelries in the world, rivaling the best in Manhattan and charging Manhattan prices.”

Along with architect George Leopold “Tug” Wilson, Sassoon had determined the future of colonial Shanghai. The resulting twelve stories capped with a green copper turret was built on a concrete and Douglas fir foundation which survives to this day even as newer buildings have subsided. Sassoon even managed to persuade the architects behind the planned Bank of China Building next door to shave several floors off the top of their design to prevent it overtopping the Cathay.

Jazz and Jewels

The Cathay’s glittering interior reflected the modernist pluck of its exterior architecture. Gone was the Gilded Age, and in swept René Lalique stained glass, black marble and angular reliefs which would look at home in the lobby of Rockefeller Center. At the Cathay, cash, not creed, was the sole price of entry, with China’s well-to-do as welcome as their foreign equivalents. The first Rolex watch ever sold in China was purchased from the hotel’s shopping arcade, allegedly by Sun Yaodong, the great-grandson of the Guangxu Emperor.

This placement of wealth above all set the stage for a different type of snobbery at the Cathay – those who weren’t appropriately turned out were given short shrift by staff. China’s great man of letters Lu Xun reportedly arrived at the Cathay for a meeting with a British dignitary on the seventh floor. Dressed in street clothes, unkempt and unshaven, Lu was told by a bellhop he would have to use the stairs, as the elevators were for “paying guests only.” The young man was later horrified to discover his mistake.

The entire third floor was reserved for the offices of Sassoon & Co., and Sassoon, who relocated permanently to the city in 1931, occupied the penthouse. Here, this former social outcast hosted some of Shanghai’s most select and lavish parties, though Fortune magazine’s reporter claimed in 1935 that “the crusty diehards of the British colony still look askance at his exuberance and sniff at his ancestry.”

During its heyday, the Cathay Hotel welcomed iconic figures of the time, including Hollywood star Charlie Chaplin, celebrity couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, industrialist George Vanderbilt, Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (en route to Peking for a meeting with the Puyi Emperor), Irish author George Bernard Shaw, inventor Guglielmo Marconi and dramatist and actor Noel Coward, who penned Private Lives during a stay in the penthouse.

Wallis Simpson, the American socialite who would go on to charm King Edward VIII and provoke the British succession crisis, also stayed at the Cathay and, allegedly, posed naked for Sassoon, owner of one of the world’s first Polaroid cameras. During her time in China, the only Mandarin that Simpson ever took the time to learn was reportedly “pass the Champagne, boy.”

Bombs and Brutality

While the lights might have blazed in the Cathay ballroom as the jazz played long into the night, a shadow had fallen over China which touched even the heiresses sipping Bosom Caressers on the hotel’s terrace. As early as 1934, refugees from other parts of China began to flow into the city, as the Japanese war machine ground into life.

On August 13, 1937, barely eight years after installation, the clock on the exterior façade of the Cathay stopped at 4.27 PM after Nationalist bombs, originally aimed at the Japanese warship Idzumo anchored on the waterfront outside, glanced off the side of the hotel and exploded in the busy shopping district of Nanking Road. A second bomb smashed through the roof of the Palace Hotel, now the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, across the road, killing dozens and blowing out most of the windows. This moment would later be immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1991), an adaptation of author JG Ballard’s autobiographical novel detailing his detention in a Japanese internment camp.

When Japanese tanks rolled into Shanghai and warships blockaded its port, the city’s remaining foreigners were herded into what became known as the International Settlement. The Chinese living outside the Settlement were brutalized on a daily basis by the occupying forces. The Cathay was converted into warehouses, while the 1909 edifice of the Palace Hotel was occupied by Japanese officers.

Victor Sassoon remained in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation, but also began to liquidate his real estate holdings as well as negotiate land transfers to the Japanese occupiers in exchange for extraterritoriality agreements. He even speculated in a letter to friend Yvonne Fitzroy dated May 1939 that the Japanese were contemplating having him “bumped off.”

With Japan’s surrender in 1945, and the resumption of the Chinese Civil War, the end of colonial Shanghai was all but assured. In 1947, a Chinese company took over management of the Cathay hotel. In 1948, Sassoon left Shanghai for good, and in 1949, the People’s Liberation Army, led by Marshal Chen Yi, whose statue now stands across the road from the hotel’s main entrance, took the city. Officers and men were garrisoned in the colonial buildings along the Bund, including the almost-deserted Cathay Hotel. Contemporary accounts from Chinese staff members recount how some soldiers garrisoned in the still-lavish staterooms, having never seen flushing porcelain toilets before, used them to wash rice and clothing.

Shortly afterward, the Cathay was converted into municipal Communist Party offices, though the eighth floor ballroom still held weekly dances - for cadres of the Shanghai Municipal Finance & Economic Commission. In 1952, Sassoon & Co. wound up the Cathay as a going concern, and ownership was officially transferred to the municipal government, with the hotel rechristened the Peace Hotel.

When the Cultural Revolution hit Shanghai in 1966, Red Guards stormed the building with the intention of destroying its remaining colonial decor. A room attendant at the time, Ma Yongzhang, who would later become the hotel’s PR manager, recalled how staff insisted that they would destroy the hotel’s décor themselves. Once the Red Guards had left, the staff set to work concealing the Art Deco reliefs, the lobby’s glass dome and the lavish Imperial-style decoration in the Dragon Phoenix Restaurant with plasterboard and wax paper, thus saving the hotel’s historic interiors from being destroyed.

Rebirth and Renewal

After the death of Mao, and with the lifting of the Bamboo Curtain, Shanghai once again began to rediscover commerce, while the Peace Hotel’s Old Jazz Bar Band struck up lively tunes to entertain locals.

In 2007, shortly after my brief visit, the Peace Hotel, both the North and South Wings, closed for refurbishment prior to the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, reopening as the Fairmont Peace Hotel and the Swatch Art Peace Hotel respectively. Many of the hotel’s historic interiors including the illustrious Nation Suites have been restored to the height of their Art Deco glory, and both wings have attracted top-end designers and artists from across the globe to exhibit their works in this symbol of both change and constancy in modern China.  

For my part, nothing can compare to the memory of sitting in the crowded hum of the Old Jazz Bar at age 18, Margarita in hand and completely improperly dressed, choosing requests from the songsheet for these venerable old musicians – the oldest of whom, I later found, was drummer Cheng Yueqiang, who finally retired at 93.

A Shanghai local, Cheng, like the Peace Hotel itself, had seen a city transition from diminutive port to colonial jewel to pitched battlefield and now, become one of the world’s most populous and dynamic metropolises, weathering each new storm with tenacity and grace. With so little now remaining of China’s troubled Thirties, the Peace Hotel is one of the few places in China where history can genuinely be relived, though, as in its heyday, for a price.


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