Top 10 Historic Shanghai Hotels

Culture, Travel | by Celine Ty
Posted: July 26th, 2012 | Updated: September 28th, 2014 | Comments

Shanghai citizens, visitors and expats, let's admit it: in recent years, when stumbling into the city's most modern areas, we've all thought the same thing. The neon-fluorescent, reflective-windowed glamor of Pudong is now popping up around the entire city, and it's clear Shanghai is becoming a leader for future, ultra-modern metropolises. In particular, the mass of contemporary hotels within the city are a shining example of what up-and-coming hotels around the world will have to compete with.

Many of the hotels in Shanghai are brand-spanking new, tower at stomach-trembling heights, offer the fanciest and most helpful of services and display the most unique of architectural designs (I'm looking at you, The Longement and JW Marriott).

However, when we're done being awe-struck by all the new glitz and take the time to visit the more history-beaten sides of Shanghai, we see buildings that have been standing tall for over a century, including a number of hotels and residential complexes. And there's something that these older hotels have that the slick incarnations of today don't have: history. The historic hotels of Shanghai have been through a lot, but many have (luckily for us) withstood the test of time and are up-and-running today.  

Without further ado, and in no particular order, allow us to present our list of ten history-rich hotels in Shanghai that have played a prominent role in the city's past and are in no danger of being torn down any time soon....

Astor House Hotel (Pujiang Hotel)

While it may not predate the Qing Dynasty, but this hotel has historic precedence as the first Western hotel to ever be established in China. The Astor House Hotel, known as the Pujiang Hotel in Chinese, is a truly historic landmark within Shanghai. Built in 1858, it is possibly one of the best examples of how Shanghai and China slowly became more connected with the outside world.

In the later 1800s, it was a place of many firsts for both Shanghai and China as a whole: it was the first in Shanghai to have a running water system or a telephone as well as the first to show motion pictures. It was also the first building to possess electrical lights and to hold a prom in all of China.

Along with its many firsts, it was a hub of activity for foreigners and Chinese citizens alike. Throughout the years, sailors, businessmen, crooks, celebrities, politicians and families from around the world walked through its halls as guests or residents. From the 1940s and earlier, the hotel was known for its classy and sophisticated gatherings, tea parties and concerts.

Despite its polished front, the Astor Hotel received its share of battle scars from the Second Sino-Japanese War. After the Second World War it declined in popularity and was turned into a Chinese government building before becoming even less luxurious in the second half of the 1900s. It was in the '90s that the renovations of this long-standing building began, restoring the classical architecture and original charm that attracted so many guests over a century ago. Book the Astor House Hotel!

Broadway Mansions Hotel

Not too far away from the Astor House Hotel stands the Broadway Mansions Hotel. Although not as old as the Astor, the history behind this hotel is perhaps more tumultuous and exciting.

Opened in 1934, this particular hotel was raised from the ground by a few of Shanghai's most powerful foreign businessmen of the day. It was first operated as a residential building and was one of the tallest buildings in Shanghai at that time, boasting a fantastic view that's still bragged about today.

In its earliest years, it mainly accommodated foreign residents, but just a few years after opening, the Second Sino-Japanese War began and the Broadway Mansions was taken over by the Japanese, who forced all non-Japanese out. Thus began the hotel's history of ever-changing occupants and purposes. In the mid-1900s, it was occupied by the Japanese, Americans and foreign correspondents, used for either government purposes or for housing of the military.

In 1949, the Broadway Mansions, along with a few other buildings, was used by the Chinese Nationalists as a fort against the surrounding Communist forces, with foreign residents still inside the building, trembling with fear as the battle ensued. When the Nationalists surrendered, the foreigners gradually left the hotel, and for the second half of the 1900s, it was used mainly by Chinese and foreign students. With all that it has been through, it's amazing the hotel is still standing today. A Shanghai stalwart, it has reclaimed its former glamor and its classic Art Deco architecture and lovely views of Shanghai's ever changing skyline continue to draw guests eager for a taste of old Shanghai. Book the Broadway Mansions Hotel!

Hengshan Moller Villa Hotel

There's a quaint story behind this particular hotel. A merchant prince named Eric Moller and his family were based in Shanghai in the early 1900s, making a profit off of shipping, race horses and real estate, which pushed him up the ranks of the foreign elite.

Sometime within the 1920s, Moller's daughter had a dream: she dreamed of living in a fantastical castle like those described in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. She sketched an image of the castle and when Moller heard her story, he immediately set to work to make his daughter's dream come true.

Inviting a guest architect to design this castle-like estate, Moller built a beautiful villa in a Northern European architectural style. Completed in 1936, it fulfilled his daughter's wildest dreams. Well, that's the story. In reality, the fantastical details really just apply to the architecture of the villa, not the history. Moller was actually just building a house for his large family and pets to reside in, not necessarily because his daughter was yearning for a pretty castle.

The Moller family stayed on the estate until 1950, after which it was primarily used as a base for the Shanghai branch of the Communist Youth League. It was at the start of the 2000s that the Moller Villa became a hotel after being recognized as a well-preserved historical building 10 years earlier.

Rumor has it that the Moller Villa was not just a home and Communist building during its lifetime though: Supposedly, during the Pacific War, it was taken over by the Japanese, and then later occupied by a Chinese Nationalist espionage agency. And just six years ago, when the hotel was reportedly closed for "repairs," it was actually used as the headquarters for an investigation of corrupt officials. Or so rumor has it. Who knows what really went on in this fairy tale villa? Book the Moller Villa Hotel!

Peace Hotel

There was no way that the famous Peace Hotel could not make this list. A staple in Shanghai's history, this building's story starts way back in the 1920s with ambitious and successful British businessman Victor Sassoon. Sassoon, who was flamboyant, confident and smart, was determined to make Shanghai the home base for his business, a business that was particularly interested in real estate.

In a matter of years, Sassoon almost single-handedly built up Shanghai to international recognition with a multitude of different luxurious buildings, including the previously mentioned Broadway Mansions. But Sassoon's pride and joy, his baby, was the Peace Hotel, known originally as Sassoon House, home of the Cathay Hotel. Opened in the year 1929, it was Sassoon's first high-rise building, reaching a whopping ten floors, and one of the centers of Shanghai's social scene.

Sassoon, who appropriately lived on the tenth floor, threw ostentatious parties in the air-conditioned ballroom. The parties were events that no-one who was anyone would dare to miss, along with its Jazz Bar (today, the Old Jazz Bar), which was always a happening hangout. The lavishness of the hotel, its owner and its soirees soon became known around the world, and the international elite immediately flocked to stay in the building. The pointed, green-roofed hotel became a beacon for up-and-coming Shanghai, but eventually, it became something more.

For the next few years, it became a safe haven for all manner of people when the war with Japan reached Shanghai. Despite all that occurred to and around the building, from bombings to threats, Sassoon was able to hold down the fort, keeping in mind the best interests of Western countries and communities. In 1941, Sassoon was in India when his precious hotel finally fell into the hands of the Japanese. It wasn't long before the hotel was passed on to the Communist government, who used the building for offices, then reverted it back to a hotel, officially changing its name to the "Peace Hotel."

In 1992, the hotel was named as one of the most famous hotels in the world by the World Hotel Association and it remains a landmark on the Bund. Closed for renovations from 2007, it has been restored to it former glory, its decadent hallways and suites reopening as the Fairmont Peace Hotel in 2010. Book the Fairmont Peace Hotel!

Yangtze Hotel

Unlike the other hotels so far listed in this post, this hotel has Chinese, rather than foreign, origins. It was designed by Chinese architect Li Pan (a popular architect of his time) who focused on giving the hotel its geometric design, which remains well-preserved even today. Even when it was completed in 1934, the People's Park, the Shanghai Grand Theatre, Metropole Theatre and the ever-busy Nanjing Road.

Due to its prominent location and modern design, the hotel attracted all sorts of celebrities, international and Chinese alike. But what really stood out about the hotel was its nightclub, the Yangtze Dance Hall. Both hotel guests and Shanghai citizens would flood the hall for an evening of dancing, conversation and entertainment. The main highlight of the nightclub was its music, which featured multiple different musical acts, all of them particularly comfortable in the sway-worthy jazz genre.

Among the jazz bands and songstresses that graced its halls, were the first all-Chinese jazz band, The Clear Wind Jazz Band, and Yao Lee, one of the most famous jazz singers of her time. Over the years, the prestige of the hotel may have waned, but it wasn't as affected by the events that struck the aforementioned hotels. The hotel was recently restored to its original glory and its architectural details and classy aura renewed when it became the Langham Yangtze Boutique Hotel in 2009. Book the Langham Yangtze Boutique Hotel!

Check out part 2 of Shanghai's Top 10 Historic Hotels.

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