Old Shanghai high society life was a succession of parties and social occasions. With my second Old Shanghai party in less than two weeks, my social agenda recently looked a bit like old times.
Last Friday was the first general assembly of the “Société d’Histoire des Français de Chine”, the French association about Old Shanghai. Besides the formality of re-electing the association’s board, it was the opportunity for gala diner with an Old Shanghai dress code in one of the icons of Old Shanghai. The party took place in the Cathay Hotel magnificent Art Deco ballroom (today the Fairmont Peace Hotel).
Following French tradition, the party was a high level gala diner with Old Shanghai style cocktails, several courses with matching wine and Champagne at the end. The party was a real success thanks to the hotel team and corporate sponsorship, mostly drink companies, as well as my own company’s contribution, EXPATRIMO.
Shanghai star Jazz singer Anne Evenou and her band performed class jazz songs during much of the diner, perfectly matching the Old Shanghai atmosphere. This was another session of time travel in Shanghai after last week night out at the French Club.
The diner was also a great way to advertise numerous activities of the “Société d’Histoire des Français de Shanghai” including walking tours of Old Shanghai and well as conference and research in the topic.
Searching for “Shanghai Grand” on the internet leads directly to a Hong Kong action movie from 1996 set in Shanghai. Much more interesting is the new book from Canadian travel writer and journalist Tara Grescoe, focusing on the life and relationships of New Yorker writer Emily (Mickey) Hahn during her stay in Shanghai in the 1930’s.
Many books have been written about Old Shanghai and not all of them are good or interesting. Although published in mid 2016, Shanghai Grand only came to the attention of Old Shanghai lovers based in Shanghai, when Grescoe presented his book during the 2017 M Literary festival in Shanghai. I have to admit that I was very skeptical about an Old Shanghai book written by an author mostly known for his work about public transports and World overfishing and who never spent more than a few weeks in Shanghai. The presentation itself was of high interest, while the book turns out to be one of the best written and best documented book about Shanghai in the 1930’s and some of its memorable characters.
Shanghai Grand tell the story of the most crazy years of foreign Shanghai, the late 1930’s. Emily (Mickey) Hahn arrived in Shanghai in 1935, and through chances and connection got quickly in touch with Sir Victor Sassoon and the highest class of foreign society. As free and adventurous women, she defied conventions with her interest of the Chinese Society, that was exposed to her through her liaison with Chinese Poet Zau Sinmay (Shao Xunmei in modern PinYin, 邵洵美 in Chinese characters). The books centers on the love triangle between the three of them, while exploring Sir Victor Sassoon’s thoughts about the Shanghai political situation in those troubled times. 1930’s Shanghai was a booming city, but the party was abruptly interrupted by the Japanese invasion, Saturday 14th August 1937, that changed the city forever. Life conditions deteriorated rapidly and Emily (Mickey) Hahn left for Hong Kong, then taking a trip to Chongqing and write her first famous book, the Soong Sisters. She stayed in Hong Kong until repatriation in the US in 1943.
Instead of using local information and archives about the city, Grescoe focused on researching foreign based sources. He primarily used the hand written notebooks from Sir Victor Sassoon (now stored in a library in Dallas, Texas) that where previously unheard of by most people studying Old Shanghai. Another major source was writings by Emily (Mickey) Hahn for the New Yorker written during her time in Shanghai (1935 to 1939), her books written about China and the many letters she wrote back to her family as well as unpublished works, that Grescoe is probably the first person to have researched intensively.
Besides the main characters, Grescoe also cast a light on a few secondary characters that he managed to find new information about. Maurice “Two Guns” Cohen is definitely one of them as little was known about him apart from his work as body guard for Dr Sun Yat-Sen. Bernardine Szold-Fritz, who introduced Mickey Hahn to the Shanghai social life is also an exotic character. The background of Shao Xunmei is exposed thanks to his relatives who are still in Shanghai today. The background of the whole story, and nearly a character in itself it the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel) on the Bund.
While researching the book, Grescoe also received support from Old Shanghai experts like Peter Hibbard and Andrew Field, as well as actually meeting with numerous authors of books about Old Shanghai or the life of his central characters. He also used a number of books written by Shanghai foreigners about their life in the 1930’s, most of them being mostly unknown or really difficult to find. The body of data collected is enormous and a large part of the work was surely to compile it, summarize it and cross references. Thanks to great writing skills, the result is a highly readable book that will satisfy readers that are not familiar with Shanghai history. At the same time, the depth of the research is a treat for Old Shanghai connoisseurs as the author has spread details and references all along the book, making it a great start for further research.
The World Congress on Art Deco is promoted by the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies. Started in Miami in 1991, it has grown into a worldwide organisation promoting awarness and preservation of Art Deco architecture and history. The Shanghai Congress brought together people from several cities in the USA and Australia, as well as France, Hungary, and South America. After two congresses in South America (Rio in 2011 and Havanna in 2013), the first congress in Asia really makes the organisation global. For a week, Shanghai was the center of attention for Art Deco lovers and the best place to exchange ideas about it. Although originated from France with the Exposition des Art Decoratifs of 1925, it was so far mostly celebrated in the US as well as Australia / New Zealand. After South America picking up, it is now the time of Europe as Art Deco societies are emerging in European cities, with Paris, Perpignan and Budapest being represented at the congress. Besides the social aspect, the congress was really a place for discussion on Art Deco from various places. Conferences took place every morning with tours every afternoon, so workload was pretty tough for the ones attending every bit of it.
Being in charge of taking care of the French speaking delegates, we managed to make a small gathering of the French speaking Art Deco delegates. This unplanned event happened at the Cercle Sportif Français (today’s Okura hotel) after the presentation and dinner in the Art Deco ballroom. We took a detour on the old terrace that used to be an open air dance hall and went for a drink. As it should be with French events, it was full of discussion, drinks and Joie de vivre. Art Deco started in 1925 in Paris, so we all dream of making a 2025 Art Deco Congress in Paris to celebrate the 100 years of the exhibition, and maybe one more in another French Art Deco city before that. Lot’s of work in the planning.
From a Shanghai perspective, the real success of the congress was to bring together the largest panel of people interested in Old Shanghai ever. Old Shanghai fanatics all know about each other more or less, but this was a unique opportunity to have most of us together in one place and exchange about our favorite topic. The list was really impressive, including “Old Shanghai rediscoverer” Tess Johnston, Bund and Cathay hotel specialist Peter Hibbard, Shanghai Art Deco architect Spencer Doddington, French Concession specialist Charles Lagrange, Haipai researcher and author of “Shanghai Style” Lynn Pann as well as Shanghai White Russian specialists Katya Knyazeva were among the speakers, and I am surely forgetting some of them. Art Deco Shanghai furniture (and some previously unseen Art Deco Shanghai carpets) where on display, helping to look at Art Deco on various crafts.
The really surprising and maybe most interesting part was to see conferences on topics related to Shanghai, but about which little is known here. They included research about Old Shanghai Department stores on Nanking Road (including Wing On), tracking and giving great details about their roots back to Australia’s department stores. Another great surprise was research about Old Shanghai Chinese architect, including Liu Jipiao, who designed the China pavillon at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 and organised the 1st West Lake exhibition in Hangzhou in 1929, modeled after the Paris one. It also included a presentation of Old Shanghai architect Poy Gum Lee, who was part of the team who designed the Chinese YMCA building (today Metropolo hotel on people square) and later continued his career in New York’s China town.
The World Congress on Art Deco could not be over without an Art Deco closing party, that took place at the Art Deco masterpiece, the Sassoon House, host of the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel). This was the opportunity to celebrate in style and to say goodbye to the Art Deco community. See you in Cleveland in 2017 for the next World Congress on Art Deco!
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.
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.
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.
The mid 19th Century saw the emergence of tourism and palace hotels. Tourism then was not for the masses, but reserved to a happy few. Starting in places like Switzerland, Italy and the French Riviera, the new establishments spread all over the world. They were massively popular in the colonies, offering an oasis of “civilisation” and comfort, far away from “the locals”. In Shanghai, the major hotels were the Astor House, the Palace Hotel (today Swatch Peace Hotel), The Yantgze hotel , the Park Hotel and the most famous, the Cathay Hotel (today Fairmont Peace Hotel). Some of them raised to the top and then disappeared like the Majestic Hotel and the Hotel des Colonies in the French Concession.
Advertising for hotels and holiday destination, not yet called “Tourism marketing” became very active. In order to attract people’s attention, hotels started to produce labels that were sticked on the traveler’s luggages. In those time, trunks and suitcases were carefully handled for those high level guests who could afford them, very different from today’s airport luggage handling. The tourists of the time would compare their destination and show off their tours of the world using the labels. Those were also often used in scrap books made during or after trips. Those are extract from my own collection. For more information about the history of hotel labels, please refer to the excellent article on the topic: http://www.historia.com.pt/labels/general/history1/history1.htm
In one of the most modern cities of the time, Shanghai hotels created their own luggage labels. They followed the style evolution, the earliest probably being the Palace Hotel (1908) label displayed on the top of this post, which style matches the early German and Swiss hotel labels.
The Cathay Hotels Ltd label featuring the Cathay Hotel (1929) and the Metropole hotel (1931) is probably the most famous, having being reproduced in several books. There is definitely an oriental theme to this label with the dragons and the lettering used. The Cathay was the most upmarket of both, which is still the case today. The below label is a more detailed version of the Cathay Hotel symbol that was used in the decoration all over the hotel. I guess it is an earlier version of the label, prior to the opening of the Metropole hotel.
With art deco coming to the city in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, hotel labels followed the fashion. This modern style called for simplified design and highly geometrical designs were introduced, like on luggage label for the Yangtze hotel (see post “Yangtze Hotel, Shanghai”).
One of the rare but highly representative of the genre is left label from Park Hotel. The establishment itself was a symbol of Art Deco, designed by Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec. The location is highly recognizable on the label, underlining the high of the hotel, the tallest building in Shanghai (and Asia) at the time. It also shows the main feature of the hotel, the panoramic view on Shanghai race course, making it the perfect place to attend (and bet on) the races, without mixing with the plebe. See post “Advertising Park Hotel” for more marketing material from the hotel.
For more Old Shanghai luggage labels, please go to post “More Old Shanghai luggage labels”.
With its tower dominating the river, the Sassoon House has been the focal point of the Bund since its opening in 1929. Owned by the famous Shanghai real estate mogul Sir Victor Sassoon, it was of very advanced design for its time. The Art Deco tower was to become the place to stay in Shanghai hosting the Cathay Hotel (today’s Peace Hotel) and the most famous building of the city, being only challenged after decades of domination by the skyscrapers in opposite Lu Jia Zui. The building originally hosted a shopping arcade, offices of the Sassoon company, the Cathay hotel and the private apartments of Sir Victor Sasoon.
The building had seen many renovation of dubious quality over the years and the current owner JingJiang hotel has been known for ruinovating great buildings of old Shanghai. I went to the last jazz bar concert in 2007 wondering what would come out of the grande dame of the Bund. Numerous rumors went around during the renovation as very few people actually could see how the work developed. The shopping gallery and the hotel reopened partly in 2010, with the last suites being about to be finished in March 2011.
Being quite fearful of the result, I kind of postponed my return to the Cathay Hotel until I took a guided tour and was strike by the result. The most surprising part is surely the rotunda. I never quite realized how much of the building had been hidden before. The document left is a floor plan of the Sassoon House ground floor and the hotel’s restoration has brought it back. The West Arcade is full of shops again although the new shops may not all be of the class that used to be there Old Shanghai time. Interestingly, this is where the rejuvenated Shanghai Cosmetics Brand Shanghai Vive (mentioned in post “Brands of Old Shanghai”) has established its flagship store… just in the same spot as the Peach & Co shop seen on the map.
The Central Arcade has also been reopened and the main attraction is surely the magnificent Art Deco glass dome that has been restored to its former glory. The rose marble walls of the lobby have also been exposed again, but the luxury shops in that part of the arcade have not reopened but covered by mediocre silver sculptures. Part of the Central Arcade is now the hotel reception. The Cathay Hotel Lounge also found back its place, being transformed again back from the old hotel lobby into a stylish cafe. No orchestra is playing for afternoon “The Dancant” anymore , and the furniture used is surely not antiques but the place still has an atmosphere. The jazz bar has come back to its place before the renovation, the Cathay Bar.
The long corridor leading to the waterfront has also been restored. Although the decors described by Peter Hibbard in his book “The Bund” cannot be replaced, the former entrance of the Cathay hotel has found back a lot of the original majesty. Originally, this was the main entrance of the hotel, with guest disembarking from ships and crossing the street to find comfort and civilization again, away from the noise and crowds of the city. This entrance has virtually not been used for decades as it is particularly bad from a feng shui point of view. Having a river in front of your business’ main door can only lead your money to flow away… something that neither the original architect nor Sir Victor Sassoon took into consideration when creating the building.
Peter Hibbard wrote a book dedicated to the former Cathay Hotel (today’s peace hotel), Peace at the Cathay.