Shanghai Retro

The Chinese city finally realizes there’s money to be made in its Art Deco past.


Shanghai has long buried its history under skyscrapers but now the city is clearing away the communist debris from its colonial past to unearth its art deco splendour. The Shanghainese – famously too busy for history – have suddenly discovered that there is money to be made from it. So state-owned companies have invested billions of renminbi renovating colonial landmarks to transform the touristic face of Shanghai.

Luckily for the well-heeled visitor, some of the city’s finest architectural gems have been reborn as hotels rather than as museums: with rooms and restaurants where the city once known as the “whore of the Orient” can be enjoyed – and not just ogled.

In Shanghai, retro is breaking out all over – from the Bund, the riverside commercial centre of the colonial city with its overtones of luxe and opium, to the plane-tree-lined French Concession, home to the best of the city’s pre-communist residential buildings.

At the heart of the Bund stands the newly renovated art-deco Peace Hotel, famous symbol of all that was playful and decadent in old Shanghai. Brainchild and plaything of Victor Sassoon, a British-Iraqi trader of drugs, guns and property, it opened as the Cathay Hotel in 1929 and was the most luxurious hotel in Asia. Charlie Chaplin stayed there and one of his photographs was used to guide the restoration. Noël Coward finished Private Lives while in residence.

Owned by the state-owned Jinjiang International Hotels and under management by Canadian luxury hotel operator Fairmont, it reopened in July after a three-year, $65m renovation as the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Heads of state may want to sample its presidential suite, for a cool Rmb100,000 (£9,400) a night, but even backpackers (if they leave the daypack at the hostel) can cop a glimpse of some of the hotel’s landmark features, such as the rotunda, which (mercifully) survived the depredations of war and cultural revolution by being covered up for decades with gypsum board. The ancient strains of the gu zheng, a kind of Chinese zither, float through the octagonal space, lit by natural light filtered through glass stained in a distinctively art deco tone of golden ochre.

The walls have been redone with bas reliefs based on daguerrotypes of old Shanghai, and much of the glass had to be replaced, according to Jenny Laing-Peach, the Peace Hotel’s historian. She said the hotel was “chopped up into little cubbyholes” when it served as an office building in communist Shanghai; and part of it became a department store.

But some original art deco gems remain, such as wrought-iron radiator covers, ornate fan lights above some exterior doors, and the Lalique glass in the hotel’s Lalique corridor on the eighth floor. Also on the eighth floor is the Peace Hall ballroom, whose sprung-wood floor yields pleasingly to the modern step; Sassoon used it to stage many a decadent folly in the 1930s, including his famous Shipwreck Ball, to which one guest came clad in hair curlers, and another in a shower curtain.

Those who can neither stay the night nor wangle an invite to a latter-day Peace Hall ball can eat next door in the hotel’s lavishly restored Dragon Phoenix restaurant, where eight layers of paint had to be removed to rediscover its turquoise and burgundy colour scheme.

Finish the night at the hotel’s famous Jazz Bar: visitors to Shanghai during the bad old days before skyscrapers remember it fondly as the city’s only surviving symbol of old Shanghai. The hotel has brought back the Old Jazz Band, including some of the original octogenarian musicians – a kind of Chinese Buena Vista Social Club. But on my visit their renditions of “Those Were the Days” and other old favourites sounded as if they had not tuned their instruments since before the revolution.

Take a few steps further down the Bund – enjoying a view across the river that Sassoon could never have imagined, to the skyscraper-strewn skyline of the Lujiazui financial district – and find at Bund number 2 the old Shanghai Club, reborn as a Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

This British gentlemen’s club, which did a stint as a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1990s, has nothing like the nostalgia value of the Peace Hotel but it is the more beautiful restoration. (The hotel, owned by a state-owned company in which Jinjiang has a share, says Rmb2bn was spent on the renovation – that could explain it.) The views are better, the food is better, and cracks and discoloration in the lobby’s Sicilian marble floor make it feel more authentic. The Waldorf says 80 per cent of its hotel is original; the Peace Hotel says it cannot quantify the original features but admits much was stripped, sold, destroyed or otherwise never recovered.

With its semi-circular cage-style lift restored (and operated by a lady in a bellhop outfit), the neoclassical lobby feels a bit like it might have been transplanted from Bath. But next door is a bit of vintage Shanghai history: the Long Bar, once the longest in Asia and the watering hole for Shanghai’s best-loved gangster, Big Ears Du, and home to the new Oyster Bar.

Anyone who can spare Rmb7,500-Rmb14,000 a night should book suite 304 of the Waldorf: its corner bedroom has unparalleled views down the Bund as well as across to the neon-lit Pudong skyline. And for the guest who cannot bear to be disconnected from CNN even for an instant: the bathroom mirror is also a flatscreen TV. “Our guests like to watch TV while they brush their teeth,” says the hotel’s public relations manager.

But the Bund is not all there is to retro Shanghai: in the former French Concession is the newly opened Hotel Massenet, a renovated garden compound of 1920s villas that previously housed the richest of Shanghai’s colonial citizens. Each four-bedroom villa rents for Rmb38,000 a night and has its own private garden and butler service. A hotel spokesman says it is the perfect venue for a businessman who wants to impress clients with a sense of culture and history. Deals can be signed in the library or toasted in the garden.

The hotel, part of a larger development known as Sinan Mansions, aims to ride the wave of interest in Shanghai’s history to make a profit, says Fanny Leung, marketing vice-president of the Shanghai Sinan Mansions Management Company. But authenticity was clearly a small concern in its development: its banquet hall, formerly terraced housing for UK missionaries, was dismantled, turned 90 degrees, gutted and refurnished in European baroque.

Leung says preservation was simply not an option, for the banquet hall or for the villas: “With 14 families living in each house during the cultural revolution, how can I preserve it? I just have to modernise it,” she says, noting that, “There are plenty of old buildings to visit in Europe”.

Spencer Dodington, a historian who runs bespoke architectural tours of old Shanghai, says: “In the English-speaking world people are very interested in the historical authenticity of old buildings: the Chinese are not that interested. For them it is the old story associated with the buildings that counts.”

He says the primary goal of such developments is not to preserve Shanghai’s fast-disappearing history but to make money. Xintiandi, Shanghai’s first commercial historical preservation area – which has been criticised as inauthentic – has proved very profitable, so other Shanghai local governments want to get in on the action.

But whether the motives be pure or mercenary, bits of Shanghai history are being saved from the skyscrapers. After decades buried under the detritus of civil war, communism and cultural revolution, they are being saved in the name of capitalism. There could be worse reasons.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.