Shanghai's Fairmont Peace Hotel Reopens on the Historic Bund

Travel | by Stephan Larose
Posted: July 26th, 2010 | Updated: August 21st, 2014 | Comments
Fairmont Peace Hotel tower

It's easily the most important hotel opening of 2010, not only in Shanghai, not only in China, but anywhere. You doubt me? Read on and, if you've got a chance, pay the restored Fairmont Peace Hotel a visit as soon as possible—seeing, after all, is believing. I've visited, stayed in and reviewed my share of big-name hotels in the past couple of years. Take the Venetian Macau—the world's largest hotel and casino—for example. They've used no less than a ton of gold leaf just to decorate its moldings and colonnades, and is a vivid symbol of the world's new economic alignment.

The Peninsula Shanghai brings the legacy of Shanghai—all signs of the city's current stratospheric levels of wealth and refinement. The history is there, yes, but the Peninsula's new building can't hold a candle to the classic Bund Deco of the original Peace Hotel building. Leaving the PRC entirely for a moment, the Singapore Marina Bay Sands' enormous conference and convention facilities—desperately needed in the booming Southeast Asian market for years—will no doubt help keep savvy Singapore (70% ethnic Chinese) atop of the Asian business world along with competitors Hong Kong. And don't forget its gravity-defying Sky Park, a testament to engineering genius (and huge sums of cash of course) in the service of pleasure so cool it has to be seen to be believed.

These hotels are all tremendously important and, as I can testify from first-hand experience, impressive. They are monuments to East Asia's, and particularly China's, new-found affluence, an affluence that affords the region the chance to take its long-standing love affair with design, architecture and sensation to new heights. Yet the Peace Hotel is so much more. The words "iconic," "Art Deco masterpiece" and "historical" are always tossed around when the subject of the Peace Hotel is broached, to the point of near-meaningless cliché... until you dig a bit deeper and grasp the hotel's history and truly iconic nature.

The Bund, Shanghai, 1930's

Shanghai at the time of the Cathay Hotel—the original name of today's Peace Hotel—was the child of very particular circumstances. As Stella Dong explains as well as anyone in her book Ningbo, among others. Divided into concessions, the city hung in legal limbo while Internationals and Chinese flooded in, disrupting and rapidly altering the city's socio-economic landscape. It was a time when Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang nationalists allied with the leader of the city's notorious Green Gang (the pockmarked Huang, who served as chief of police by day) to edge out their Communist rivals.

Warlords, merchants, émigrés, spies, opium traders and refugees from Russia, Britain, Germany, France and China were among those taking advantage of the city's extraterritorial status and it was not long before Shanghai turned into a hotbed of greed, vice, and intrigue. The surfeit of opium-fueled money, the anything-goes atmosphere and intermingling of cultures yielded high fashion, fast living and big (sometimes unsavory) business.

Shanghai was an oasis to which beautiful people, crime lords, a thousand varieties of sybarite, magnates, tycoons and stars from every constellation of the artistic universe flocked for a taste of intoxicating levels of freedom and danger. Only to Shanghai's 1,000,000 Chinese and 20,000 Jewish refugees was the city safer than from where they'd come. The city was certainly no colonial backwater. As architectural historian Anne Warr describes in an earlier interview, Shanghai was

"a very up-to-date city. It had dozens of cinemas which showed the latest Hollywood movies, it had art-deco and modern buildings, luxurious apartment blocks with all the latest facilities such as elevators and en-suite bathrooms, and the most fashionable hotel in Asia, the Cathay (now the Fairmont Peace Hotel)."

Early 1930's postcard for the Cathay Hotel

By the 1920's Time described the city as being "an exotic stew of Jewish opium traders, Chinese compradors and Viennese dancing girls." Shanghai was a city without analogue anywhere in history. A time and place so fantastical and over-flowing with mystique and intrigue, writer/director Debbie McMahon couldn't have named her acclaimed theater piece anything other than Absinthe, Opium & Magic: 1920s Shanghai. Think turn of the 20th century Paris, 1970's Vegas, late 90's Bangkok and pre-bust Dubai rolled into one and given a couple of decades of open-bar privileges.

By the time Sir Victor Sassoon arrived, Shanghai was already on its way to becoming the wildest party city on the planet. All it needed was his visionary development schemes, his humanitarian heart and his bon-vivant flair to complete the journey. A Baghdad Jew by birth and a British baronet by succession, Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon's ancestors amassed their fortunes in the opium trade of the 19th century—a path Sassoon himself rejected, preferring to build his empire on exotic property, finance and trade. Sir Victor's major passions included beautiful women, thoroughbred horse racing, Chinese art, and photography, but he also spent much time and money helping Jewish refugees survive in the Shanghai Jewish ghetto.

A romantic and a progressive, despite having been the victim of prejudice (1920's Britain was quite anti-Semitic) he harbored none himself. Sir Victor took European lovers as well as Chinese ones (at a time when it was generally frowned upon from all sides). Above all else, Sassoon was the city's most notorious tycoon, known for hosting fabulous parties and extravagantly flamboyant costume balls in his penthouse—the hotel's unmistakable green pyramid. Reading about his lust for life, selflessness and ambition, it's hard to believe that Sir Victor was in fact handicapped and required the use of two canes to walk; the result of an injury sustained as a British Air Force pilot.

Others might have resigned themselves to bitterness, but such was the strength of this man's heart, such was his resolve to enjoy life and help others enjoy it, that he went far beyond overcoming his handicap; he created history and a place where fantasy became real. For this, he can only be deeply admired.

Cathay Hotel ad, North China Daily news, February 15.

His Cathay Hotel, with its reputation as “the most beautiful hotel in the Far East” was a mainstay of high society. Awash in luxuries and boasting state-of-the-art amenities, including a technology newly-invented at the time—air-conditioning—the hotel quickly became renowned as the "ultimate venue for life's pleasures."

The Cathay Hotel's guests were no less than the elite of the world, visited by scores of celebrities including Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward. Clouds of war gathered over Shanghai in 1932, and the air for glamour quickly rarefied. By 1937 hostilities engulfed the International Settlement. Bombs damaged both the Cathay Hotel and the Palace Hotel opposite, and by 1939 the world was at war. Sassoon was lucky to be in India when the Japanese took the city.

For his strong allied tendencies, the Japanese would surely have executed him. Though damaged, the Cathay was not destroyed. After surviving the dark years of World War II, the hotel re-emerged after China's communist liberation as the somewhat diminished Peace Hotel in 1956, and continued to host foreign dignitaries, including Bill Clinton, far into the present. Now, the timing for the hotel's re-opening could not be more appropriate.

Though the Shanghai of today cannot be accused of being the world's best party city (and nobody wishes for the city to revert to the chaos of old), it can definitely be asserted that Shanghai, now hosting the biggest event in the history of the world in Expo 2010, hasn't felt this electric, hopeful, dynamic and rich since Sassoon's glory days. The hotel's amazing place in history commemorates an incredible time, its character a tribute to Sir Victor and a vessel for the visions of this truly great man. On July 28th, we'll see how Fairmont and HBA/Hirsch Bedner Associates have brought together the hotel's fabulous legacy and the city's unprecedented optimism, and that's something anyone who loves hotels—or Shanghai—should be tremendously excited about.

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