Peter Hibbard’s Peace at the Cathay

Peter Hibbard's new book
Book cover

Peter Hibbard has long been one of the leading scholars on Old Shanghai. He wrote the best (if not only) guide to the Bund: “The Bund Shanghai: China faces the West”, as well the privately published book celebrating the opening of Shanghai Peninsula, covering the history of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotel corporation. Peter Hibbard is also known to have revived the Shanghai Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society , an association that was at the center of cultural and intellectual life of Old Shanghai and has come back to life in recent years. With his years in Shanghai and is long term interest for city’s history, Peter always mentioned several book projects, with the most exciting surely an history of the Cathay Hotel (today the Fairmont Peace Hotel). Having started researching in the mid 80’s, the book has finally become reality.

Author Peter Hibbard
Author Peter Hibbard

With in-depth knowledge, historical photos, documents never seen before and years of passion in the making, Peace at the Cathay is the definitive guide to what is now known as The Peace Hotel. The book covers the history of the spot of its predecessor, the Central Hotel, as well as the competitor on the other side of the street, the Palace Hotel (now Swatch Peace Hotel). This is where is learned that the Palace Hotel was renovated in 1925 by Spanish architect, Abelardo Lafuente.

Obviously, the main part is focused on what became known as the Sasoon House (still known under this name in Shanghainese), and its most well known host, the Cathay Hotel that opened in 1929. With its revolutionary design, highest end service and luxury shops  offering the very best available at the time, the Cathay quickly became the center of the high class social life in Shanghai and a magnet for international tourists. Owner Victor Sassoon, with his office in the building and private apartments on the top of it, probably became the most famous Shanghailander ever and many celebrities stayed at the Cathay, as Shanghai was becoming part of the international scene.

Metropole Hotel
Metropole Hotel

Sasoon hotels also opened the Metropole Hotel n 1932 (and its sister building the Hamilton House). They completed the existing Cathay apartments in the French Concession, and were joined by another Art Deco icon of Shanghai, the Grosvenor house in 1935. All of them are also covered in the book, as well as the later use of the building after 1949.

Despite the in-depth research and the quantity of information it brings, the book makes a good read as well as a pretty coffee table book. Unfortunately, only a few hundreds of copies were made in the first print, so people interested in it should buy it fast (as far as I know, it can be bought at shop in the hotel itself as well as by contacting the author). Hopefully, as second print will be made on a larger scale, making the original copies even more valuable.

Peace at the Cathay is definitely the book about the Cathay Hotel, from the best source. We are lucky it is finally available.

Lyon Art Deco

Art Deco building near Lyon Part Dieu
Art Deco Building in Lyon 6th district

Although I knew very little about Art Deco before coming to Shanghai, I have developed a strong taste for it while living in the city. The style varies from one country to another, but Art Deco is very recognizable (together with its follower streamline design). Old Shanghai was a modern city in touch with the leading world fashion of the time, so Shanghai Art Deco buildings echo others built in the same period.

During my last trip to Europe, I had spent some time in Lyon, ending by chance in one of the districts with Art Deco buildings, including the one on the picture left. The triangular shape reminds me a lot of the Sassoon House (home of the Cathay Hotel, today Fermont Peace Hotel), but even more of the Washington Apartments (see picture below).

Washington apartments, Shanghai


Wrought iron Art Deco in Lyon

With little decoration, both buildings are edging towards streamline design. They must be from about the same period of late 1920’s early 1930’s. Washington apartment was completed in 1928, I guess the Lyon around the same time.

I then noticed another building with nice wrought iron decoration, very similar to the one found on the Cathay Apartment (today Old Jing Jiang hotel). Stylized flowers is a classical art deco motives for this kind of ornament, and there is definitely a parallel between both although their location are so far apart.

Wrought iron Art Deco in Shanghai


Another example of Art Deco building in Lyon is located in medieval area of Saint-Jean (see picture on post Shanghai Flashback), but there are just so many more. Lyon was fast developing in the early 20th century and was a pioneer or “avant-garde” city. One of the major Art Deco feature is known as the “Halle Tony Garnier”, the former slaughterhouse of Lyon that is now a major concert hall. This story also echoes Shanghai story of the former slaughterhouse being redeveloped into a creative center including a major event venue, i.e. 1933 in Hong Kou district. Tony Garnier also made other projects in the city, particularly the “Etats-Unis” (i.e. USA in French) district.

Another major feature of Art Deco style is Lyon close suburb of Villeurbanne. Built in the same period by architecte Morice Leroux, the city is famous for its double tower “gratte-ciel” i.e. skyscraper in French from 1934. It was one of the first of its kind in France, and also reminds me of the of Art Deco / Stream line design towers from Leonard & Vesseyre firm in Shanghai like The Dauphine on Jian Guo lu (see post “The return of the Dauphine“).

In a city with more than 2000 years of history, Art Deco buildings are not standing out as much as they would do in Shanghai or the USA and I needed research and luck to find them. Hopefully some effort will be made to attract the interest of Art Deco fans. Just like Shanghai in 2015, Lyon could be a great venue for the World Congress on Art Deco.

World Congress on Art Deco Shanghai 2015

The World congress on Art Deco is the main international gathering celebrating Art Deco in all its forms. It was initiated in Miami, where the Art Deco district on Miami Beach is the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world. The first congress was initiatd by the Miami Design Preservation League in 1991. Each congress is organised by a local Art Deco enthusiasts association. Held every two years, the congress took place in the following cities:

– 1991 – Miami, USA

– 1993, Perth, Australia

– 1995, Brighton, England

– 1997, Los Angeles, USA

– 1999, Napier, New Zealand (see post: Napier Art Deco Festival)

– 2001, Tulsa, USA

– 2003, Cape Town, South Africa

– 2005, New York, USA

– 2007, Melbourne Australia

2009, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

The last Congress took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2011. During this event a Shanghai delegation lead by Patrick Cranley and Tess Johnston founders of Historic Shanghai, earn the distinction or organising the 2015 World Art Deco Congress in Shanghai. After the coming Congress in Habana in 2013, the Shanghai World Congress on Art Deco will be a major event, helping preserving and valuing Shanghai historical buildings.

The organisation of the Congress will surely take a lot of time, energy and manpower. The event will require guided tours of major Art Deco buildings for large crowd of people, as well as working sessions along with speakers and venues. It will attract a large crowd of tourists in need of accommodation, help, translation and many other services. At the same time, it will put the focus on Shanghai history along with the Art Deco heritage. This is great opportunity for Old Shanghai preservation, and somehow I already know I will play a part in it.


Shanghai art deco furniture

Although it was only named in the 1960’s, Art Deco was the dominant style for modern design in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Named after the 1925 Paris “Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs“, the style was dominated by simplified geometric patterns, inspired by nature and exotic countries. It also introduced streamline design that it is closely associated with. Art Deco came to Shanghai in the 1920’s, being developed in architecture and graphic design. It was also largely used in furniture design, in a way that is quite specific to Shanghai.

Shanghai Art Deco seater

Art Deco furniture followed two different tracks: The origins of Art Deco was found in Europe, particularly in France. Art Deco furniture there were created by highly trained craft masters and manufacturedmostly for wealthy customers or in very smal quantities. They used highly refined materials including precious woods and were created for an elite that could afford it. The second track was then developed mostly in the USA using more affordable material like steal and industrial manufacturing techniques, it created items on a large schale and became the origin of modern design.

Art Deco wood carving

Shanghai Art Deco furniture followed a pattern combining both tracks while using resources specific to the city. The ancestral art of Chinese wood carving was used to create modern pieces following art deco design. Since the manpower was cheap and plentiful, Shanghai Art Deco furniture were crafted like the French ones, but using less precious material and manufactured on a large schale.Wood carving replaced precious wood inserts in furniture decoration, creating highly modern and decorative pieces at an affordable price. The result was a unique combination of craft and industry.

Shanghai Art Deco Seats
Art Deco pair of seat with Chinese characteristics

Symbol of modernity, Art Deco furniture where widely adopted by the middle and upper class of Shanghai that was fast developing in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. They followed the Art Deco movement in style but were often adapted to local traditions. Best examples are pairs of seaters separated by a tea table, or mahjong tables that are specific to China. Just like traditional Chinese furniture, they were often more decorative than usable. Hard seated Shanghai Art Deco chairs remind more of Ming Dynasty traditional seats, that comfortable European seats. Art Deco furniture and other related items such as radio sets and electric fans became ubiquitous in Shanghai. In a city obsessed with modernity, Art Deco furniture became the mainstream style like nearly nowhere else. The style fade away in the 1950’s but Shanghai residents kept them for long time because of lack of replacement. With plenty of new choices available from 1990’s, these old pieces were often discarded, replaced by new and shiny ones. They are now often used by designers in Shanghai to give the feeling of Old Shanghai in an interior. In the last year, they have become fashionable as antics and prices have climbed significantly, but it is still possible to find the right piece at a reasonable price.

Recommended books on Art Deco in Shanghai:
– Shanghai Art Deco, Deke Erh and Tess Johnston, Old China Hand Press (Hong Kong), 2006
– Shanghai Style, art and design between the wars, Lynn Pan, Joint Publishing, 2008

Recommended shops:
– Shanghai Old furniture: corner of Julu lu et Maoming Lu. The shop mixes old European antic et Old Shanghai Antic
– Lao Jo – Jing Xian Lu 152-154

Yangtze Hotel, home of the stars of Old Shanghai

Old Shanghai was a major touristic attraction. Although international travel at the pace of cruse ships and hydroplanes was much slower than in today’s jet age (see posts “No Flight to Shanghai”  and “Two months in rationnaire“), hotels of all categories where numerous then. A number of them have now been renovated, like the Cathay Hotel (see post “Return to the Sassoon House“) or created from Shanghai old monuments (see post “Shanghai Club revival“). One of the less wellknown is the Yangtze Hotel, currently the Langham Yangtze Hotel.

Yangtze Hotel, Hankou Road
Yangtze Hotel, Hankou Road

Yangtze hotel was planned in 1932 in a plot next to the newly built Moore Church designed by László Hudec. Near the Shanghai race course and Nanjing Road shopping street, the hotel was located in the entertainment area of the International Settlement. Designed by Chinese architect Paul Lin Pan 李蟠, the hotel was built by Pan Shang Lin 潘尚林 building firm. The same firm, who belonged to the family of famous Old Shanghai author Lynn Pan,  also built major landmark of the period including Park Hotel on People Square, Picardie Hotel on Heng Shan Road and the head quarters of  Bank of China on the Bund. The hotel external design is one the best examples of Art Deco architecture in Shanghai. Balconies in particular were decorated in the famous “Zig Zag Style” complementing the geometrical feel of the whole construction. Although is the middle of the city, it is less noticed at the corner of Hankou Lu and Yunnan lu, both one way streets away from it.

With is very modern design and location in the heart of the entertainment district, the Yangtze hotel quickly became the favorite of the entertainment crowd. The Great World entertainment center (corner of Xizang Lu and Yannan Lu) was only a few steps away, along with the theaters in the area. The hotel was also very close to the shopping mecca of Nanking Road, with Wing On department store among others. Finally, it was also very close to the race course as well as theaters such as the Grand Theater and the Metropole Theater. The Yangtze Hotel attracted Chinese celebrities, coming to dance on it’s famous spring wood dance floor in the Yangtze Ballroom. It was home to the first all Chinese Jazz Band, the Clear Wind Jazz Band. It’s resident singer was the legendary Yao Li who is most famous for the song “Rose, Rose I love you”.

1930's luggage label, Yangtze hotel, Shanghai
1930’s luggage label, Yangtze hotel, Shanghai

The hotel produced luggage labels like the one above in Art Deco style, perfectly fitting the hotel’s design and time period. I particularly like the Art Deco Chinese characters designs. Hotel luggage labels have long disappeared along with the attraction of the Yangtze Hotel for Chinese celebrities.

The interior of the hotel was ruinovated in the 1980’s and 1990’s in an effort to modernize it. It was used as a cheap hostel, like its sister hotel the Astor House on the North Bund. Original decoration including the famous spring wood floor was lost forever. From 2007, the hotel was renovated to put it to high level standard. Although not the original one, the current decoration is Art Deco inspired with a grand staircase and a stained glass ceiling similar to the ones of the time, like in the Cathay Hotel. With its new renovation the hotel still has a lot of charm both outside and inside, making it a nice place to stay in the middle of the city, but away from the modern hotels towers nearby, like a little time travel to Old Shanghai.

Shanghai flashbacks

Budapest Art Deco
Budapest Art Deco

First of all, I want to wish all readers a happy new year with this first post of 2011.

This entry is not so much about Shanghai, but about sight, locations and feelings that reminded me of Old Shanghai during my recent trip to Europe. Navigating old Shanghai is often about trying to find in Shanghai, buildings and artifacts that are similar to the ones from Europe and other parts of the world. Coming from Shanghai, a trip to Europe becomes the opportunity to look at European cities, looking for  Shanghai flashbacks. Such trips are also often opportunities to go back to places I have lived in, as well as to re-connect with friends and family. This one was no exception.

First step of the trip was in Budapest where I have lived many years. Most buildings there are either no-classical, or art Nouveau as most of the city was built in the late XIXth century and early XXth century. Post WWI was not a great time for Hungary, so the city has very few art deco building, though I managed to spot one near Moskva Ter, one of the more recent part of the city. Art Deco there is very recognizable, with the lack of ornaments compared to the neighboring earlier buildings, as well as the use of geometrical lines. It could argue that this building is also Bauhaus style, which sometimes looks very similar to art deco.  Funny enough, Art Deco in Shanghai was mostly developed by a Hungarian architect in the same period, Laszlo Hudec.
My time in Budapest was mostly about spending time in cafes, enjoying friend company. When I came to Shanghai from Budapest in 2004, one of the things I missed the most were cafes, the right places to meet friends and spend a few hours in the afternoon. At that time, the only approximation was Xin Tian Di’s Starbucks, and later Vienna Cafe (that I like so much because it reminds me of Budapest). 7 years later, Shanghai has a large choice of bars and cafes, often located in the old houses of the French Concession. Cafe culture has come back to Shanghai, and I love it… this is what I think sitting on some of the Budapest Cafes.

Art Deco door
Art Deco door

Hotel college facade, Lyon
Hotel college facade, Lyon

The trip continued to Dijon with Christmas and family reunion, and a short trip to Lyon. Once again, Lyon was built much earlier than art deco time but a few art deco building can be found. The best example is surely the “hotel college” in Saint-Jean. Located in the medieval district, the 30’s building is just out of place in the decor, probably as much Broadway Mansions was when it was built. The first element to be seen is the incredible art Deco door, a wonderful work of iron, similar to some found in Shanghai. The building itself is art deco, somewhat similar to the Savoy apartment on Chang Shu lu. It is also very similar to some of the long gone buildings on avenue Dubail (today the North South elevated highway), that were destroyed in the 90’s. Just like seeing European architecture is Shanghai reminds me of Europe, seeing similar architecture in Europe…. reminds me of Shanghai, bringing one of those Shanghai flashbacks.

New Heng Shan Cinema

hengshancinema01hengshancinema04Fake art deco or Fako in Shanghai was discussed in a previous post and continues to rise. This post is about a very fine brand new example, the New Heng Shan Cinema. This movie theater never really got much attention, as the original building was a concrete stack probably from the 1950’s or 60’s (see picture right). As far as I know, there was no cinema there ealier as this part of the French Concession was pretty much the country side, and then an industrial area. The cinema was remodeled or rebuilt in 2010, giving a new fako monument to this part of Shanghai.


hengshancinema03There is a clear inspiration from Art Deco theaters as seen in the USA or in Australia for this one. The building is also inspired by the Grand Theater on People Square (designed by Laszlo Hudec), the Majestic theater as well as the now destroyed Roxy and Metropol theaters on Nanjing Xi Lu.

The very geometrical shape with long line and curve really matches the period’s style with a modern twist. Even the hallway has art deco proportions and feeling, although there is very little decoration there. The side also uses a very geometrical shape and curves to guide the eye and visitors to the main building. It is particularly impressive at night when lighten. New technology in lighting has been perfectly used to create a combination of historical and modern feeling. Old art deco cinemas in Shanghai were very crafted pieces of architecture, including exquisite decorations in the inside, doors and hallways that are not always reproduced in today’s buildings including this one. Still the architecture of this one building transports us to a trip to Old Shanghai, while keeping touch with modernity.

Although fako buildings are not always great, New Hengshan cinema is a success, one great addition to this historic area. It is located 838 Hengshan lu, near Xu Jia Hui.

The rise of fako

Fako on Changshu Road
Fako on Changshu Road

Shanghai Art Deco heritage has been rediscovered in the last 10 -15 years. After decades of neglect and many destructions in the great name of progress, old buildings facades have been renovated in the last year. Expo 2010 has not only been the opportunity for destructions (see post ‘Farewell to Shanghai General Hospital‘), it also has seen a number of renovations putting light on some of the architecture jewels (see post “somebody finally got it“). Most posts in this blog are focused on Shanghai past, particularly in the 1920’s and 1930’s. This post is a little deviation from the usual theme, focusing on Shanghai today’s architecture.

Fako on Xiang Yang Lu
Fako on Xiang Yang Lu

Shanghai original skyscraper boom took place in the late 1920’s – 1930’s, with a number of these buildings still remaining today like the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel) on the Bund, Broadway Mansions on the Suzhou Creek and Grosvenor house on Maoming lu. The tallest building erected in that period was Park Hotel designed by Hungarian Architect Laszlo Hudec, 83.8 meters high with 22 stories. Park Hotel is a great art deco example, inspired by the Radiator Building in New York. It was the tallest building in Asia when it was built in 1934 and remained the tallest building in Shanghai until the 1980’s. From that point on, Shanghai new fashion became mostly white tiles looking just like a bathroom and blue (?) windows. Buildings from this period often look like a Frankenstein version of Art Deco, imitating the tiling and geometrical lines of the style but transforming it into something horrible. The next period was about glass and steel from the 1990’s followed by architecture wonders that are now all over LuJiaZui, the end of Nanjing Dong lu and other areas. Besides contemporary architecture of frameless glass bubbles, another style has been recently on the rise in specific parts of the city.


Limitations by law of the height of some building as well as renovation of older structures from the 1980’s as brought back an Art Deco inspiration to the city. As Shanghai Art Deco architecture was rediscovered, new architecture in the old areas was forced to fit in, using what is called fake art deco or fako. This is particularly true on the Bund where Peninsula as well as the brand new administration building next to the old Russo-Chinese bank were designed to match the surrounding style. Peninsula was allowed to dominate the Bund while still keeping an harmony with the neighboring buildings.

The other area is the old French Concession, where small concrete buildings that were real eye sores have been turned into fako buildings somehow matching the surrounding environment. I am not sure I like fako so much as I definitely prefer the original, but at least it is nice to have an harmony within an area. I have also seen a number of house complexes that are just like anyone else, except that they have some kind of art deco-ish decoration on top. I am much less a fan of those, but at least they keep some kind of atmosphere to Shanghai. The newly found Art Deco craze in Shanghai could be the perfect backdrop for an Art Deco festival like the one in Napier, New Zealand… though this is probably still very very far away.

Napier Art Deco Festival

Napier Art Deco
Napier Art Deco

My own discovery of Old Shanghai architecture is also about discovering art deco in other locations. After Miami Beach a few years ago, the next stop was a short trip to Napier in New Zealand. The whole area of Hawkes Bay, where Napier is located, was strucked by an earthquake in 1931 and fully rebuilt in the following years in Art Deco style. The city center of both Napier and Hastings are art deco wonders, well preserved and maintained.

Visiting Napier is very pleasant are most buildings are really well maintained, as well as being used a commercial buildings. One can see that building protection and rules for renovation are strictly followed, giving a real harmony to the city. Napier heritage has become a real asset to the city, attracting tourist the world over. Pictures in this post are only a few examples, follow this link for more pictures.

Art Deco Festival
Art Deco Festival

Napier inhabitants not only live in Art Deco Buildings, but they also live the Art Deco style… once a year. Napier Art Deco weekend has become a New Zealand institution, with enthusiast coming in from all over New Zealand… and further. For a few days, everybody dresses in 1920’s – 30’s cloths and collection cars of the period come from all over New Zealand. I was luck enough to be in Napier during the 2010 edition and it was a real time travel. Adding the people to city’s decor created the perfect illusion of time travel. We organized a Art Deco wedding in Shanghai last year… but this is a whole city turning into art deco for a few days.  Bringing my 1930’s sidecar would have been a perfect addition to the scene. Napier Art Deco Festival is an event to remember and I recommend it to anybody traveling to New Zealand at this time of the year.

1 example of art deco building
Example of art deco building

Interestingly, until the 1980’s nobody seem to have realized the potential of the architecture heritage as a tourism attraction. Using it really started only about 20 years with the establishment of the art deco trust. Heritage architecture that was viewed as worthless was turned into something really nice and money making. Hopefully something like is already starting with Shanghai Art Deco.

Paris Art Deco

Art deco Building in St Germain
Art deco Building in St Germain

Just like in previous post “Home sweet home“, I used my trip in France to look at French buildings from an old Shanghai point of view. The heart of Paris was mostly built in the mid XIXth century, thanks to the design work of Baron Haussman who redesigned the French capital. Paris new design with large avenues connecting train stations organized in a network gave inspiration to design of cities all over Europe (just like Budapest where I used to live and many others). It also inspired the design of American cities like Chicago in the early XXth century as well as Moscow with its huge avenues … and finally came back to Shanghai as a model for building today’s Pudong.


Built on a ad hoc basis and constantly changing in a bit of architectural anarchy, old Shanghai was never planned in such a way. Although it was called the Paris of the orient, the similarities of town planning only goes so far as Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai lu), that is indeed far from its model. However, Paris continued to be built in the 1920’s and 30’s at the same time as old Shanghai, here are a few examples of similarities. The first one to catch my attention was the building left that is located near St Sulpice in Paris Rive Gauche area.

Art Deco Building in Montmartre
Art Deco Building in Montmartre

Although it is not a triangle building like the Normandy building in Shanghai (picture right), they have a lot of similarities with the usage of red brick over 2 floors of stones as buildin g materials. The fist floors are both using large arches and a balcony it circling the top floor.

Willow Cour door frame
Willow Cour door frame

The second one is this art deco building in Montmartre. It did not specifically remind me of Shanghai art deco, apart from one important detail at the bottom right of the picture… the entrance door. Its shape is peculiar as it is non rectangular shape, but with cut angles instead. This shape is special enough to be remembered and I have seen it before in Shanghai, in Willow Court on Route de Boissezon (today Fuxing Xi Lu). Small detail, but clear similarity miles away from each other.