On the table before me, a martini glass of chilled gin, Cointreau and vermouth, spiked with a shot of crème de menthe, seemed to glow green from within. Raising slender arms, a chanteuse in a qipao — scarlet, tightfitting and sleeveless — stilled a babble of Mandarin, German and Japanese voices as she trilled the first tones of“Ye Shang Hai,” an aching anthem to the legendary night life of the China coast.
It’s been a long time coming, I thought on a visit to Shanghai this spring, but Sir Victor Sassoon would once again feel at home in the lobby bar of his grand hotel, in the city he loved most.
Never mind that I’d had to slip the bartender the recipe for the Conte Verde (one of Sir Victor’s favorite cocktails) as I’d entered the bar. Never mind that, back in the ’30s, the real parties had taken place nine floors above, in the Tower Night Club, where Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard once twirled on the teak floorboards of a sprung dance floor. The night I visited, the crowd in the Jazz Bar was cosmopolitan, the playlist pre-revolutionary, the drinks divine. It would have been fitting, I thought, if a tall man sporting a monocle and a top hat emerged from the shadows to make the rounds of the tables with proprietorial ease, as Sassoon was wont to do in the heyday of the Peace Hotel.
Until recently, the name Sassoon — or, more exactly, Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon, the third baronet of Bombay — had been all but effaced from the streets of Shanghai. The scion of a Baghdadi Jewish family, educated at Harrow and Cambridge, Sassoon shifted the headquarters of a family empire built on opium and cotton from Bombay to Shanghai, initiating the real estate boom that would make it into the Paris of the Far East.
The 1929 opening of the Cathay Hotel (its name was changed to the Peace in the mid-50s), heralded as the most luxurious hostelry east of the Suez Canal, proclaimed his commitment to China. (He even made the 11th-floor penthouse, just below the hotel’s sharply pitched pyramidal roof, his downtown pied-à-terre.) Within a decade, Sassoon had utterly transformed the skyline of Shanghai, working with architects and developers to build the first true skyscrapers in the Eastern Hemisphere, in the process creating a real estate empire that would regularly see him counted among the world’s half-dozen richest men. Within two decades, the red flag of the People’s Republic was hoisted over the Cathay, which would for many years serve as a guesthouse for visiting Soviet bloc dignitaries.
Yet, over the course of the years, Sassoon’s buildings, apparently too solid to demolish, continued to stand, so many mysterious Art Deco and Streamline Moderne megaliths in a cityscape growing ever grimier with coal dust. As Shanghai once again takes its place as one of Asia’s fastest-growing metropolises, and supertall, 100-plus-story towers define its new skyline, there are signs that the city is beginning to value, and even treasure, its prewar architectural heritage. Sir Victor would have appreciated the irony: The landmarks of Shanghai’s semicolonial past, vestiges of a once-reviled foreign occupation, have lately become some of its most coveted addresses.
The last time I was in Shanghai, in 2007, the Peace Hotel was in a sorry state. In the Jazz Bar, whose faux Tudor walls seemed to be stained yellow with the nicotine of decades, I watched a sextet of septuagenarian Chinese jazzmen lurching their way through “Begin the Beguine.” (The musicians, who rehearsed clandestinely through the Cultural Revolution, are still sometimes joined by their oldest member, a 96-year-old drummer.)
I was given a tour of the property by Peter Hibbard, an author whose books “Peace at the Cathay” and “The Bund” document Shanghai’s European architectural history. He showed me tantalizing glimpses of marble and stained glass, partly hidden by poorly dropped ceilings, and explained that the lavish décor of the eighth-floor restaurant — inspired by the Temple of Heaven in Beijing’s Forbidden City — had to be papered over during the Cultural Revolution to spare it the wrath of the Red Guards. Hidden away in storerooms, he assured me, were the original Arts and Crafts furniture and Deco glasswork that had been a feature of every guest room. Mr. Hibbard informed me the hotel was about to close its doors for a complete makeover; he feared the worst.
After a three-year restoration overseen by the lead architect Tang Yu En (and a makeover supervised by the Singapore-based designer Ian Carr, completed in 2010), much of the cachet of the old Cathay has been restored to the Peace.
On the ceiling of the Dragon Phoenix Restaurant, gilded chinoiserie bats once again soar; Lalique sconces have been returned to the corridor that leads to the eighth-floor ballroom. In nine themed suites, the décor has been recreated from old photos: The Indian Room is newly resplendent with filigreed plasterwork and peacock-hued cupolas, while a semicircular moon gate separates the sitting and dining rooms of the Chinese Room. A spectacular rotunda has once again become the centerpiece of the ground floor, its soaring ceiling of leaded glass undergirded by marble reliefs of stylized greyhounds that remain the hotel’s insignia.
Some changes would surely have caused Sassoon to arch an eyebrow. To avoid spooking visitors from the south, elevators now skip directly from the third to the fifth floor. (The number 4 sounds like the Cantonese word for “death.”) The revolving door on the riverfront Bund, once the privileged entrance for such celebrity visitors as Douglas Fairbanks and Cornelius Vanderbilt, is now chained shut with a rusty padlock. (It is bad feng shui for a building’s main door to face water.)
In spite of such adjustments, Mr. Hibbard is delighted to see Sassoon’s flagship property reclaiming pride of place on the Bund. “Sir Victor changed the face, and the manners, of Shanghai,” he said. “The Cathay exemplified this. Outside, it’s so simple, clean and streamlined. Inside, it’s fanciful and buoyant. It gave society a venue to play in. It still gives people from around the globe an opportunity to have a fantastic time in one of the world’s most exciting cities.”
The building has something else going for it: location. Sassoon built his headquarters where bustling Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s main commercial street, intersected with the banks, clubs and head offices of foreign firms that lined the Huangpu riverfront. The hotel, in other words, sits at the exact point where China meets the world — which means that, to this day (and well into most nights), it is buffeted by concentrated streams of humanity.
I was not surprised that Noël Coward found the serenity to write the first draft of “Private Lives” during a four-day sojourn at the Cathay in 1929, or that Sassoon, a nomadic tycoon who could live anywhere in the world, chose it as the site for his aerie. The sensation of being swaddled in luxury at the calm center of a bewitching maelstrom is unique. After building the Cathay, all Sassoon had to do was sit and wait for the world to come to him.
Come it did, and Sassoon was there to receive it. Working with Palmer & Turner (a firm founded in 1862, and with offices in Hong Kong to this day), Sassoon went on a building binge. His favored collaborator was the British architect George Leopold (Tug) Wilson, whose travels had exposed him to Parisian Art Deco and the latest American skyscrapers. Shanghai’s swampy soil had long prevented structures from rising more than 10 stories. Wilson faced the challenge by building on concrete rafts set atop the mud, and Sassoon founded the Aerocrete Company, which produced a lighter, “aerated” concrete that further diminished the load. His clean designs, though not the first time modernism came to Shanghai, brought a touch of Gotham to a city whose architectural face had hitherto had a stodgy, neo-Classical cast.
The impressive stepped tower of the 14-story Metropole Hotel, three blocks south of the Peace Hotel, is typical. Completed in 1932, and decorated with Persian rugs and Jacobean furniture, the Metropole catered to executives rather than wealthy tourists. (It remains a hotel primarily for business travelers, if a somewhat down-at-the-heels one). The sweep of its concave facade is continued, across Jiangxi Road, by the mirror-image Hamilton House. The twin Art Deco towers, on a curved intersection designed to be downtown Shanghai’s answer to Piccadilly Circus, create an impressive, amphitheater-like urban space.
Hamilton House, though its luxurious triplex apartments and doctors’ offices were relentlessly subdivided in the 1950s, remains the most atmospheric of the old Sassoon properties. As I read a glassed-in directory in the lobby (you can still make out the name of Viola Smith, a former tenant who became American consul to Shanghai in 1939), a silver-haired man, an infant balanced on the seat behind him, drove his scooter directly into the elevator next to me. Riding up to the upper floors, I emerged into daylight. The Chinese tenants have made what were once private rooftop gardens into a world of their own: miniature penjing trees and aquariums of tropical fish now share a stunning river view with a three-foot-tall statue of Chairman Mao.
In a city dominated by low-rise brick rowhouses, Sassoon’s housing projects offered a fully serviced, air-conditioned alternative to rising damp, insects and mold. The 14-story Cathay Mansions, a luxurious residential hotel, had opened off the leafy streets of the French Concession in 1929. Six years later, it was joined by the even more opulent Grosvenor House. Separated by luxuriant gardens, the buildings gave long-term residents a choice of Old English or American Colonial-style suites, complete with claw-foot bathtubs and servants’ quarters. Thanks to Sassoon’s connections, Grosvenor House’s automatic elevators were powered by electricity from the supply stations of the nearby French Tramway Company.
While the décor of the Cathay Mansions, now a business hotel, has been effaced by an insensitive renovation, Grosvenor House has retained its charm. From a central tower in classic Art Deco, ribs of brick spread outward, like stylized bat wings. I paid a visit to a spacious model suite, whose high ceilings, parquet floors and curvaceous niches preserve the elegant simplicity of Jazz Age metropolitan style.
The Sassoon buildings were renamed the Jin Jiang Hotel in 1951, after a popular restaurant in Grosvenor House run by Dong Zhujun, the mistress of a Sichuan soldier. Taking over as director, she turned the complex into Shanghai’s most famous state guesthouse. Mao Zedong used the tunnels that link the complex to the former Cercle Sportif Français across the street to go swimming in the old French Club’s pool; in 1972, Richard Nixon stayed at Grosvenor House when he signed the Shanghai Communiqué, the first step in easing Sino-American relations. The complex of buildings, whose lobbies and gardens can be reached through a gate on Maoming Road South, remains an oasis of tranquillity in the heart of the city.
When Sassoon wasn’t sleeping in his penthouse at the Cathay Hotel or cruising the canals in his houseboat, he stayed at Eves, the country estate next to his favorite golf course (now the Shanghai Zoo). Currently owned by descendants of the Ningbo textile tycoon Li Shuxiong — the estate briefly went on the market in the ’90s for $15 million — Eves is hidden from view by a stone wall topped by razor wire. Another of Sassoon’s suburban retreats, the modestly scaled Rubicon Gardens, can still be seen from Hongqiao Road. Amid modern apartment buildings, its half-timbered walls and red-tiled roof, now overgrown with vines, suggest a Sleeping Beauty’s castle mysteriously marooned in an ultramodern megacity. It is currently uninhabited; outside, a sign warns trespassers to beware of dogs.
Other reminders of Sassoon’s influence, like the stone-and-brick Art Deco facade of the Cathay Theater, remain dotted throughout the city. At the height of his power, wags liked to point out that one rode a Sassoon-owned streetcar to a brothel rented from one of his holding companies, where one would drink beer supplied by his Union Brewery.
History brought a swift end to his empire. As fascism tore apart Europe, Shanghai’s status as a free port made it a magnet for refugees. Sassoon gave generously to the Russian Women’s Hostel, a milk fund and a committee that helped Ashkenazi refugees start new businesses, but as Shanghai buckled under occupation and civil war, he began to liquidate his Asian real estate holdings. At the Cathay Hotel, his penthouse suite would be commandeered by a Japanese officer, and foreigners were asked to assemble at the “Enemy Aliens Office” at Hamilton House, where they were issued red armbands, to be worn in public at all times, that identified them by nationality. In 1948, Sassoon left Shanghai for the last time; he would die 13 years later, in Nassau, still lamenting the grand old days in the city he’d loved the most.
There is no statue to Sir Victor Sassoon anywhere in China; nor, for obvious reasons, is one likely to be raised in the foreseeable future. The Peace Hotel, Sassoon’s grandest, meanwhile, though operated by Canada’s Fairmont Group, is owned by Jin Jiang Hotels. Even now, the state-owned group (founded by a woman who ran a Sichuan restaurant at Grosvenor House) is building the world’s tallest hotel in the upper levels of the Shanghai Tower, on the other side of the Huangpu River.
Fortunately, Sassoon built his own memorial, a fact that became evident when I visited one of his most impressive buildings.
Embankment House, whose east end rises like a ship’s prow against a bridge that could have been transported from the banks of the Seine, stretches a quarter of a mile along Suzhou Creek. Once the largest residential building in Asia, Embankment House was built to house Sassoon’s employees, though he later made its ground floor into a temporary shelter for Jewish refugees. After 1949, its best apartments were handed over to high-ranking Communist Party members. Since 2000, foreigners (among them Michelle Garnault, owner of the restaurant M on the Bund) have been trickling back, painstakingly renovating select suites.
Earlier in the day, I’d walked the diagonal wings of the Peace Hotel, verifying that they meet in a point at the Bund. Now, as I paced out the sinuous upper floor of Embankment House, walking through corridors hung with dripping clothes and redolent with the medicinal smell of boiling herbal tea, I was able to confirm a rumor I’d previously dismissed as wild invention. The building is indeed shaped like a stylized “S.”
Viewed from the Bund, and reading from left to right, the letters “V” and “S” are legible in the outlines of Sassoon’s two signature buildings. (The 110th floor of the Jin Jiang Hotel in the Shanghai Tower, when it opens next year, will offer the perfect bird’s-eye view.)
Which is why Sir Victor Sassoon needs no official monument in Shanghai. He made sure his initials were permanently monogrammed into the fabric of its streets.