Visiting Prada Rong Mansion

The Rong Mansion on 186 Shaanxi Bei lu is one of those places that Old Shanghai lover wants to visit. I had a chance to be part of a full tour of the house thanks to Historic Shanghai and I am happy to share pictures and impressions about one of the greatest Old Shanghai property in the city.

The original house at this location was built around 1909-1910 by a German Jewish family. The garden was much larger than today, going all the way down to Weihai Lu. Bubbling Well Road (today the busy and upscale Nanjing Xi Lu) was a road to the countryside with large residential domains on each side. The house was in the neighborhood of Silas Hardoon’s Aili’s Garden (completed in 1909) and Mc Bain building that later became the Majestic Hotel.

Bubbling well Road, 1910

The mansion was purchased in 1918 by the Rong family, as the original owner did not come back to Germany after WWI. The Rong family was one of the richest Chinese family in Shanghai. Although the house was remodeled and expanded several times there are definitely parts dating back from the construction time. This particularly true on the ground floor, where the smaller reception room is located, as well as the rooms above it, that formed the core of the original building. Tiles in this room is one of the few Art Nouveau details that can still be seen in Shanghai. Similar tiling can also be seen on third floor above. David star is also displayed in both places, probably thanks to the original Jewish owners.

Glass work has been amazingly preserved through Shanghai history and magnified by the beautiful restoration by Italian designer Roberto Baciocchi. The villa has one of the the largest collections of original Art Nouveau stained glass Windows in Shanghai. Only comparable to former College Français on Rue Vallon or the CMLI building on Guangdong Lu.

Great care has been put into cleaning, restoring or recreating the original materials. Besides glass work, this included tiles, wood floors and wood wall panels. The most iconic piece of the house is surely the stained glass ceiling of the main reception room. The only similar piece in Shanghai is the stained glass ceiling at the former Cercle Sportif Français, today’s Okura Garden Hotel.

Famous stained glass ceiling in the Rong Mansion

It’s difficult to say whether this was part of the original design or added later. I would think that it was added in the 1920s or 1930s with such a strong geometrical Art Deco center… but the outside (see picture below right) is much more Art Nouveau. It still feels like the original ceiling was more a traditional Central European style which part is still visible today (picture down left), and that the stained glass ceiling was added later.

Going through the Rong Mansion is like a trip to Old Shanghai, until realizing that it is in the heart of bustling Jing An District when getting in the garden.

The house can be viewed when exhibition take place there, but often parts are covered or off limit for visitors. We had the chance to get the full viewing!

Silas Hardoon’s garden

Silas Hardoon’s story of moving from a poor employee of the Sassoon house to the richest man in Shanghai, maybe Asia, is one of those Old Shanghai legends. He was the man that owned most of the ground on both side of Nanjing Road, making a fortune with the Westward extension of the city.

Silas Hardoon

The real mystery as long been how his famous garden and houses, Aili Garden, looked like. Completed in 1909, Aili Garden was built on the plot where the Shanghai exhibition center (formerly Sino-Soviet friendship building) is now located. As seen in picture below, this block is absolutely massive, occupying a large section of Central Shanghai.

Hardoon’s garden former location

Although Silas Hardoon was already very rich when he built the place, the Bubbling Well Road area (today Nanjing Xi Lu) was still a far away suburb. In the 1910s, this was the area for big mansion with large parks, including the Rong Mansion and the original Mc Bain mansion that was turned into the Majestic hotel. It really became densely populated in the 1930s, when the Hong Qiao had become the new place for large estate and large villas, a little like today’s Qingpu district or Sheshan area. Picture below gives a clear idea of the street view of the time.

Bubbling Well Road (today Nanjing Xi Lu) 1910.

The garden was used as base by the Japanese army from December 1941 and mostly destroyed by fire in 1943, freeing prime location space for the construction of the Shanghai exhibition Center in 1956. There was no picture available of the garden and its appearance was only described in a few books. Hardoon’s garden was lost in history.

This is until my good friends from Historic Shanghai found a source and published unseen original pictures from Hardoon’s family.

These amazing pictures can be found at this link: http://www.historic-shanghai.com/inside-hardoons-garden/

Advertising Park Hotel

Park Hotel, the highest tower in Asia in 1934

The horse race track of Shanghai (today’s People square) was at the center of the entertainment district in Old Shanghai. Hotels were built in the neighborhood including the home of Chinese stars, Yangtze Hotel (see post Yangtze Hotel for more details), the Great China Hotel and the New World Hotel.

Lászlo Hudec Park Hotel opened in 1934 on the Northern of the race track, on Bubbling Well Road. Financed by the Joint Savings Society, a major Chinese financial institution, it was a clear attempt to compete with the Cathay Hotel that opened a few year earlier on the Bund. As displayed in the advertising material below, entertainment was the main point of the hotel’s offer. If the Cathay was the home away from home for foreign travelers, the Park Hotel was designed with residents in mind, as well as guests coming to enjoy the race track and other local entertainment establishments. Those included the neighboring theaters (Grand Theater, Nanjing Theater and Metropole Theater), as well as the shopping temples on Nanjing Lu (Wing On, Sincere and Sun Department stores) as mentioned on the below map.

Advertising leaflet for Park Hotel in Shanghai

I particularly like the hotel silhouette and the characters displayed. Their dress look very much like characters from movie Casablanca. Another specific feature is the display of parts of the Chinese city (Longhua Pagoda and the Civic Center, in today Yangpu district ) as possible tours destination from the hotel. Although Longhua Pagoda was (and still is) a major tourist destination, the new Shanghai area of Jiangwan was rarely mentioned in foreign guides.

Using the same concrete raft technique as the Cathay, the 24 floors building was the highest of Shanghai… and in Asia. It only lost the Shanghai crown in the 1980’s when high buildings construction restarted. For decades the Park Hotel tower dominated Shanghai sky. The view from the top floor was unobstructed and stunning, as seen on the picture below. From up there, one could practically see the whole of Shanghai. For people of the time, this view must have been as stunning as the one from today’s Pudong skyscrapers.

Since most of the original Art Deco interior and furniture has disappeared, the Park Hotel does not compare to today’s luxury hotel anymore. The exterior is now roughly back to its original design, but inside only the ball room of which the circle floor was designed by German Bauhaus trained architect Richard Paulick has survived.  When Park Hotel opened though, it was one of the best of Shanghai, competing not only in height but also in the best services with the Cathay. Below is a rare advertising leaflet for the

Rare advertising for Park Hotel

Pictures of the original Park hotel and decoration are extremely rare, but the hotel was clearly of the highest standard. It hosted two major restaurants, the Main Dining Room “remindful of the choicest wines and Epicurean French Cuisine” on the second floor and the Grill room on the 14th floor “which has a reputation on its own”. 14th floor was also the location of the Sky Terrace, I am preparing a special post on this one.

The Grill Room of Park Hotel. Thanks to my friend Peter Hibbard to find this one

It also had a lounge on the 3rd or 4th floor, ideal location for drinking cocktails while watching the horse races. The highest attention was put for the kitchen… though no Chinese restaurant is mentioned.  “The pastry cook has his place, and quite an important one” as high teas were (just like today) an important market for the hotel. The Park Hotel’s pastry reputation survived the years, as it was one of the few places to buy cakes until the bakery revival a few years ago. It was particularly famous for its Palmiers, or “butterfly cookies, Hu Die SU” as it is called in Chinese, that are still on sale today (Please see post “Tasting Old Shanghai” for more details).

It was quite a shock when I discovered this leaflet in a market in Shanghai more than 12 years ago. It can date it from 1937 or 1938, as I know from other sources that Mr T M Lamb was the GM in 1938. Nearly eighty years later, this advertising for Park Hotel looks very much like today’s top hotels promotion material. Another form of advertising for Park Hotel was hotel luggage labels, see post “Old Shanghai luggage labels” for more details.

The rise and fall of the Majestic Hotel

Shanghai has always been a city of fast paced life and constant change. One of the best example is the fate of grand hotel shooting star, the Majestic Hotel (大華飯店 or Dai Hua Jiu Dian in Chinese) on Bubbling Well Road (today Nanjing Xi Lu). As seen on a 1932 map below, the hotel was occupying an enormous plot, on what is today Nanjing Xi Lu, from Jiangning Lu all the way to Taixing lu.

The building and its park were originally the McBain residence, of a successful business man who represented Shell (among others) in China, and sold the property to Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels company.

Majestic Hotel Garden

Renovation and transformation of the building was given to Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente in 1924. The inside yard was covered to be converted into the dining room, modern sanitary and heating system was installed and the facade was covered with marble. The garden remained despite the addition of a winter garden and a massive ballroom that became the center of Shanghai Social life for the upper class for a few years.

Advertising leaflet for the Majestic hotel

The Majestic hotel was the best and most luxurious in Shanghai and one of the leading hotels in the World from it’s opening in 1924, being the jewel of the Hong Kong and Shanghai hotels company. The gigantic ballroom became the place for most important official parties to take place, including St Andrew’s and St George’s, the Washington and the Russian ball as it was the largest venue in Shanghai, able to host more than 1000 guests.

The majestic hotel ballroom

The ballroom was also one of the main point where Shanghai dancing craze started, with a jazz band featuring, local stars such as Serge Ermoll and Whitey Smith. In 1927, the Majestic Ballroom was the location of a major event, the wedding of Chiang Kai Shek, the ruler of China then, and Song Meiling (See the Soong Sister for more information). In 1929, Hollywood star Douglas Fairbank and his wife Mary Pickford visited Shanghai and stayed at the Majestic, underlining its success on Shanghai scene.

The winter garder shows the opulence of the place

With all its grandeur, the Majestic Hotel proved to big and too luxurious to be really profitable, and the hotel was sold to developers in 1930 (source: Hong Kong and Shanghai hotels official website). At the same period, the Cathay hotel (today’s Fairmont Peace Hotel) opened on the Bund. The Majestic hotel ballroom finally closed in 1931 and the building was destroyed in 1932. The massive land was separated in several lots, including the one where Majestic Theater was built in 1941. The former location of the hotel is similar to the one of today’s Westgate Mall on Nanjing Xi lu.

Corridors of the Majestic Hotel

Winter Sports on the Racecourse

Shanghai Recreation Ground
Shanghai Recreation Ground

The former Shanghai race track (today’s People Square) remains an open space in the middle of the city. Horses racing around the horse track are long gone, but pictures of the race are a common sight nowadays. Although the Shanghai Race Club is also long forgotten, people are once again enjoying the view from the top of the building that is now the Shanghai Art Museum,  having a drink or a bite at (now gone) Kathleen’s 5 restaurant. What is much less known is what the inner space of the race track was used for.

The Shanghai Recreation ground, as it was known then, was a massive sport center. The large open space was divided in a number of fields accommodating various sports and activities. The Race track was used only periodically, but the recreation ground was clearly an everyday feature of Shanghai’s life. Like in many other places, British colonists brought there love of sports and horse racing with them, and they combined them in one location. A similar feature is still in used today in Hong Kong’s Happy Valley sport ground that is enclosed within the horse race track.

Winter sport fields on Shanghai race course

The Shanghai recreation ground was remodeled twice a year to accommodate a winter and a summer layout. Winter layout for 1938 (pictured) included 4 “soccer” grounds, 5 hockey grounds and 2 rugby grounds. Just like today’s expat, foreigners in old Shanghai would spend their winter weekends enjoying some fresh air while practicing team sports, all of it followed by a sizable amount of drinking. Having been a rugby player for a few years, I get a good picture of the “after matches atmosphere”. The summer layout included a baseball ground and a polo ground, another sport that is again practiced in Shanghai though in a far more remote location nowadays.

Similarly to Singapore’s cricket club, there were two pieces of ground reserved for the “Shanghai cricket club” and the “Shanghai recreation club”, both for cricket and tennis. The Shanghai cricket club also had a club house or a “pavilion” built on the side of its dedicated plot, it was roughly where Baraborossa restaurant is nowadays. The pavilion, a mock Tudor style building can be seen on the top left hand side on the picture above. The map also displays the SLBC (Shanghai Lawn Bowls Club) pavilion, as well as a few bowling greens. The most surprising feature was a 9 holes golf course with the tees spread over the whole field. The first tee and the 9th green were conveniently located near the golf pavilion, perfect for a drink before or after a game of golf. At some point, the Shanghai recreation ground was also used as a military airfield. At that time there was probably no time to play golf anymore.

Lights on Nanjing Road


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Electric light in Shanghai came in 1882, powered by the newly incorporated Shanghai Electric company. Fifteen (!) street lamps were installed, out of which seven in The Astor house hotel on the North Bund. They made it the first building to be lit by electricity in Shanghai. Shanghai electric lighting grew with years and streets with neon lights became a fixture of the city in the 1910’s and 1920’s. Just like today, most of the lighting was commercial, used to highlight hotels and department stores, as well as lighting the streets. Electricity was supplied by Shanghai Power Company (the ancestor of today’s Shanghai Power) in the International Settlement, and the “Compagnie Francaise de tramway et d’éclairage électrique de Changhai” in the French Concession.

Night lights on 1930’s Nanjing Road

War in the late 1930’s and later lack of power turned Shanghai back into a dark city. Street lighting has come back to Shanghai in the 1980’s with advertising sign put on historical buildings, and (fortunately) being removed later on. Most of the lighting is still commercial, shouting brand names through the night. It is not always of the best taste (see post “Lights on Huai Hai Lu“). Contemporary night in Shanghai is a fascinating show for the newcomer and old residents alike.

2009 Christmas light on Nanjing Xi Lu / Nanjing West Road

Celebration lighting is the time for the city to show its best and I had not been much impressed by Shanghai celebration lighting until now. The number of light bulbs has sometimes been enormous, but the effect was not always that successful… until this year. 1st October 2009 was a departure from previous themes and transformed Nanjing Xi Lu for a few days. Trees all along the avenue were decorated by light balls of changing colors. They looked like the impossible fruits on magic trees, and gave to the street the atmosphere of a fairy tale. The feeling of the event was made even more fragile and precious by the short time of display. Imaginative and tasteful, it was really something to see and was taken out after a few days.  The best way to enjoy this incredible show was surely to drive up the street slowly… in a side car, which I did several times. With such an incredible performance, Shanghai is getting more and more of a modern city.

Last serving on Wujiang Lu

Wujiang lu is one of the most popular and peculiar streets of Shanghai. It’s a restaurant street. My office moved on this street about 4 years ago, before it was actually pedestrianized. Their was not many cars crossing, but every now and then a Shanghai driver would force his way through the crowd. The street was blocked for cars last year, and is full every night with people eating small snacks on sale in the many shops.
When we moved in the tower (in the background of picture left below), the owner of the office proudly told me “All these horrible old buildings will be destroyed in 3 months and they will create a nice park instead”. It was so true that although the building is physically on WuJiang Lu, there is also a postal address on Nanjing Xi Lu… for the time when these buildings will not exist anymore. This was more than 4 years ago and the buildings still stand although the neighborhood has already been destroyed (Click here to see post “Another one bites the dust“). Unfortunately, this is all about to change.

Restaurants are still serving, but shops on the Shi Men Yi Lu side of the blockare already closed down and walled up. Soon will come the last serving on Wu Jiang Lu. The city will loose one it noisiest but also most popular street. This part of Shanghai will become more shiny, more modern and more sterile. Like in other areas, the renovation is a great excuse to destroy very nice old buildings that could be renovated. It surely will make much more money for the developers, but will also greatly alter the landscape of this part of Shanghai.

The block separating Wujiang lu from Nanjing Xi lu is one single building. Like many of the old Shanghai, it is a combination of several styles (art deco mixed with beaux-arts and neoclassical columns). Still there is something really nice about the round shape espousing the street corners (see pictures below). To judge form the construction details and location, this was once a luxury apartments and high class shops building. Renovation could have made a great small boutique shopping center out of it, keeping the corner’s historical view while creating high street shopping… just like this was done on Huai Hai lu. Unfortunately, this is not what will happen and soon this building will be gone.  I particularly like the balconies, the columns, the shape of the building and the white shape repeating itself all along the facade. They are detailed on the pictures below. Adieu little building on the corner of Bubbling well road and Yates road.