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.

Return to the Sassoon House

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.

The famous glass dome
The famous glass dome

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.

Ground Floor of Sasson House
Ground Floor of Sasson House

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.

Original hotel entrance
Original hotel entrance

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.

Shanghai Saga, John Pal

One of the few copies available
One of the few copies available

John Pal arrived in Shanghai from the UK to be employed by the Imperial Customs in 1920. At that time customs administration was delegated to foreigners, initially under the control of Sir Robert Hart. All of the customs officers were foreigners mostly British but also French, Italians, Scandinavians and Japanese. John Pal’s experience of the customs services organisation and his daily life make the book a really interesting read. China had only a 5% duty for import AND export thus, “Any Tom, Dick or Harry could afford to drink the finest wines and puff the choicest of imported cigards” and “liquor was so cheap that rum runners came from the United States” to buy liquor in Shanghai to export it back to the USA. At the same time, Shanghai saw a massive smuggling activity, mostly for opium and other drugs. John Pal certainly gives a first had account on trying to stop smuggling “continually up against some of the world’s trickiest smugglers”. “Ships from certain countries, or port of call, were always suspected of bringing narcotics” including Vladivostock and Haiphong in French IndoChina (today Vietnam). In his duty, John Pal also worked on the export side, inspecting ships departing and making sure that only the declared goods were loaded in.

Author John Pal
Author John Pal

John Pal left the customs administration in 1927, as China was taking back control of its administration… but his story does not stop here. He then became a reporter for the Shanghai Times, being invited to many parties and official celebrations. Each country was throwing parties for national days of celebration and other opportunities. “If a man cared to, he could live on the free handouts from Shanghai’s annual celebration – and live high. The numerous nationals of our city magnified their celebrative days into grandiose fireworks and champagne binges.” This does not seem so different from today permanent corporate and national parties occupying a lot of people’s social agenda. He also took a job as kernel manager for the French Canidrome, getting involved in the grey world of gambling in Shanghai. John Pal left Shanghai in 1939 as the War in Europe seemed inevitable and he could see how Japan would turn on Shanghai. I don’t think he lived long enough to see the new Shanghai as it is today. I am sure he would be amazed of the difference between Old Shanghai and the city nowadays but also of some the striking similarities. Somehow Shanghai spirit just never changed.

Shanghailanders leaving the city in the late 1930’s and 1940’s often left a home that they could never return to. Exiled from their Shanghai motherland, they recreated a life in other places, back in their original home country or moving on to new places like the USA and Australia. Life in Shanghai had such a strong mark on them that they could never forger the incredible city they left. Many wrote memoirs, creating books that were a true picture of Shanghai life, or sometimes mere fiction mixed with a few true facts. Besides Shanghai Saga, I also reviewed Sin City from North China Daily News reporter Ralph Shaw in an earlier post. It turned out that both Brits were probably competitors.

Shanghai Saga is an excellent source for information about Old Shanghai, although it was very rare and difficult to find. The book has been reprinted by Earnshaw books. More details in post “Shanghai Saga republished“.

Shanghai Club revival

Reviving the Shanghai Club
Reviving the Shanghai Club

The old Shanghai Club building had been closed for quite a number of years. Its transformation and re-opening in the Waldorf Astoria hotel happened with much less hype than the renewed Peace Hotel down the Bund. However, restoration of this piece of history has been very careful and the result is matching the highest expectation.

Shanghai club postcard
Shanghai club postcard

Built in 1911, this is the second building of the Shanghai Club. The male only British Club was the center of power and wealth in Old Shanghai. A few meters down from the main banks, trading houses and administrations, the club was the second home for the rich and powerful people of the International Settlement. The building contained all that was needed by its members, including bowling alleys, billiard rooms, a barber, restaurants and the long bar, supposedly the longest bar in the world. The top floors where occupied by 40 en-suite rooms for the residency of the members.  The club membership was the cream of Shanghai businessman, drinking on the long bar with a carefully selected order.

Bund with Shanghai Club
Bund with Shanghai Club

The richest and most powerful would stand near the front windows, when the griffins (or newbies) would be relegated towards the back end of the room. Climbing Shanghai’s social ladder also meant going up the Long Bar. The Club also had massive dining room on the 2nd floor with giant portraits of the British Royalty. Besides the Italian marble staircases, a small lift was installed for the convenience of the members.

Unfortunately, the building suffered quite a lot in the 50’s to 80’s period. It became the seaman’s club serving a very different clientele from the dignified British gentlemen that occupied it before. The upper floor was turned into a hotel, also of much lower standard. The Long Bar was destroyed at some point and little remained of it when the ground floor was turned into the first KFC in China. Although this brought masses to the place, it is clear that no care was taken of the remains of splendor of this old lady of the Bund. Fortunately, the hotel renovation has been done with great care, recreating the Long Bar in its original location. I am sure that this piece of Old Shanghai will soon become one of the hangouts of the rich and famous of new Shanghai. The massive ball room on the 2nd floor has been renovated into the hotel main ball room. Although the British royalties portraits are long gone, the place still has a lot of majesty (except for the horrible new carpet) and gave a real official turn to the ceremony I recently attended. This would make an incredible location for one of my conferences on Shanghai history. The higher floors of the building have been turned into luxury suites that will surely attracted a very wealthy crowd. As the Waldorf Astoria is not fully open, the building still had a cozy a private atmosphere that matches the old club style. This is the best time to visit it, as the full opening of the hotel will surely change that.

Dancing in the bank

The Bund was the center of business in Old Shanghai. Major banks and companies had their headquarters on the riverside or in the streets behind. A number of these buildings are finally being renovated in turned once again into greatness, though mostly into fancy bars and restaurants. One of the most popular one is Bund 18, open in late 2004, the old building of the “Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China”. Renovation of this old lady was run by Italian experts in old building renovation. Thanks to their work, this dilapidated piece of art has been turned into a luxury shopping mall and an entertainment complex. Bar Rouge on the 7th Floor opened in late 2004 along with restaurant Sens & Bund. Bar Rouge was the undisputed star of Shanghai nightlife (see my post “Decadence on the Bund“) and has been joined by Lounge 18 (4th floor) in late 2007.

Bar Rouge is all about modern design, using very little of the original building’s features, apart from the incredible terrace with the fantastic view on the Pudong. Lounge 18’s decor really uses the building much more, as the 4th Floor was originally dedicated to be an art gallery. The careful restoration of the windows, ceiling and interior adds a lot to the atmosphere, giving real feeling of history in the building. The most breathtaking part certainly is the staircase seen by most people on their way to the bars.

The original owner, the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China was founded in 1853 in London, following the grant of a royal charter from Queen Victoria. The Shanghai branch opened in 1858. It developed in the city, financing trade between India, China and other parts the British Empire. Business must have been good, as the bank built its headquarter on the Bund in 1923. The building was remarkable, competing in style with others along the river… but at the end of the day, it was a bank. In here, like in any bank, people would come in to deposit and take out money, collect their salaries and make investment. Exactly like in today’s Bank of China, people would have a little booklet listing all operations executed on the account. I happened to find one of these booklets from 1940 (picture up and left). The last operation is from September 1941, as probably the client left Shanghai then. Everything was handwritten at the time and very well kept. The Chartered Bank merged with the Standard Bank in 1969 to become “Standard Chartered bank”. After leaving the country in the 1950’s, it has come back many years later as one of the main foreign banks now operating in China. Bund 18 is not a bank anymore, but I think about the booklet every time I go there and the building still is one of the jewel of the Bund.

Snow in Shanghai

Sow in Old Shanghai
Snow in Old Shanghai

With latitude in the range of to Casablanca, Baghdad and New Orleans, Shanghai is much more associated with warm summer than cold winters. Harsh winters happened every few years. I saw a little bit of snow in January 2005, but it’s nothing compared to the snow in January 2008 (see pictures in my photo albums).

As you can see on the picture, snow in Shanghai is not a new thing. The postcard was written in December 1930, but the picture is from an earlier time. Peace hotel was not yet built when the picture was taken, so the picture is from before 1928. On this picture, Palace hotel still had it’s tower that were destroyed in August 1912 and rebuilt in 1998 (according to “The Bund” from Peter Hibbard). Railways track visible on the postcard were laid down in 1908, thus the picture is from the period between winter 1908-09 until 1911-12. I have not found yet the records of temperature for this period, but clearly one of those winter was really cold. I am not sure how frequent snow fell on Shanghai then, but it could have been quite rare since the picture was still in use 15 to 20 years later.

Cold in Shanghai at that time was surely not a problem for the rich foreigners and Chinese alike. Most western style houses were fitted with fireplaces. It must have been warm in then, much warmer than later. As I explained in another post (Freezing Shanghai), most Shanghai houses have no real heating, only air conditioners that are used to warm up some air. Fireplace heating can be found in a few bars in Shanghai and a few house have it, but most people just freeze. Snow was rare then, but the cold certainly did not spare the poors. The rickshaw pullers on the picture must have been freezing, right on the most expensive stretch on road in the city. Poorer houses must have been heating burning coal, like they still do in rural parts of China. Just like today, people were certainly wearing multiple layers of cloths to fight the wet cold.

Pictures of Shanghai under the snow are very rare. This is one of the reason I bought this one. Besides the glorious pictures of wide avenue, large villas and imposing building, this picture shows a Shanghai that is rarely seen. I recall seeing another postcard of Huang Pu park covered with snow, that would be directly opposite where this picture was taken. I have not found yet when was the winter in the early 10’s that saw so much snow… just some more research to do.