IT’S only at a heritage hotel that guests will be met by a white-haired doorman who’s been there all his working life and can reel off all the great names who stayed at the hotel; or listen to a housekeeper telling the stories of events that happened there half a century ago.
History has endowed these old hotels with a deep attraction for many city residents, none more so than the Peace Hotel that opened in 1929.
“I must get married at the Peace Hotel, no matter whether my husband is rich or poor,” says 25-year-old Shanghai native Jiang Pengpeng. “The hotel for me evokes a delicate yet deep feeling,” she adds.
Others are more specific on the appeal.
“Only those wooden floors and spiral staircases, carved ceilings and vintage chandeliers can satisfy the romance in my imagination,” says Flora Li, a 26-year-old local bride-to-be, who is deciding whether to hold her wedding at the Peace Hotel or the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.
While there’s not a precise definition of what constitutes a Shanghai heritage hotel, these are generally expected to be more than 50 years old.
There are other common features.
They are often in 1920s and 1930s buildings — usually, though not always, Art Deco in style.
Some feature classical columns and arches influenced by French Arts Decoratifs while others favor clean and modern lines — represented by the Peace Hotel and Park Hotel — and are more influenced by American Art Deco, says Wang Li in the book “Beautiful Hotel Architecture and Gardens.”
They are centered around three main areas, the former French concession, especially the area close to Maoming Road, Xingguo Road and Ruijin Road; the Bund; and Hongqiao — in the past the Western outskirts of town where the rich built villas with gardens.
Unlike business hotels which are mostly run by international chains, most Shanghai heritage hotels are run by local hospitality brands. For example, Dong Hu Hotel Group manages the Shanghai Xijiao State Guest Hotel and the Shanghai Dong Hu Hotel. Jin Jiang Hotel Group manages the Park Hotel and Jin Jiang Hotel. Heng Shan Hotel Group manages the Moller Villa Hotel and Astor House Hotel.
However, these brands have faced criticism for providing inconsistent service.
“There are historical reasons behind this,” says William Tsao, general manager at InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin, part of Dong Hu Hotel Group.
“Local brands such as Dong Hu and Jin Jiang were formerly mainly involved in running state guest houses, with an emphasis on providing a high-quality personal service for political leaders.”
But when dealing with less prestigious guests, the service may not have been quite so good.
At its best, the Chinese high-quality personal service offers much to be admired, and is comparable to Western butler service, says Tsao.
“What we are trying to do is bridge our own culture with international standards,” he adds.
Ren Baizun, founder of Jin Jiang Hotel Group, the biggest local hospitality group, quotes a famous Chinese poem from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) originally applied to the effect of spring rains on the landscape.
He says “run wu xi wu sheng” — moistening everything exquisitely and silently — defines Jin Jiang service; pleasing customers but in an understated, almost imperceptible way.
“For example, we require staff to be familiar with guests’ habits and be at hand whenever guests need them,” says David Zhu, resident manager at the Jin Jiang Hotel.
Some heritage hotels formerly run by local brands are now managed by international brand, such as the InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin and Fairmont Peace Hotel. These hotels retain some of the old staff.
In terms of the running strategy, some international brands think differently to local ones.
“Heritage only refers to the architecture. From the operational level, running it is just the same as a modern hotel,” says Simeon Olle, general manager at Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.
But Olle admits that historical architecture brings operational limitations — especially space planning.
“We cannot change the structure of the old building, so big parties cannot be held. We try to create a balance between protecting architecture and making business revenue,” says Olle.
“Contradictions between the two are unavoidable,” says Zhu from the Jin Jiang Hotel. “But protecting the architecture is undoubtedly the priority.”
Working with InterContinental and rebranding the Ruijin Hotel, Dong Hu Group has invested 600 million yuan (US$97 million) on restoring historic architecture.
“To ensure authentic material, we went to Tianjin in northern China to source bricks from demolished 1930s buildings,” says Tsao from the Ruijin Hotel. “When running a heritage hotel, what we sell is not just a hotel room and dining but beauty and history.”
Jin Jiang, in association with Fairmont, has opened a museum on the ground floor of Peace Hotel, displaying tableware, furniture, keys, newspapers, wine glasses and decanters used by the hotel since 1920s. It offers guests a free one-hour hotel history tour.
“That doesn’t mean undue absorption in the past. We’re dedicated to giving the old hotel vibrancy, not through adding modern decor or the latest facilities but through creating new stories. For example, we gave Prince William a warm reception last month,” explains Tsao.
Retaining long-time staff is the biggest challenge for many heritage hotels. Problems come down to what Tsao calls deep-seated prejudice in China against the hospitality industry. Basically, few people would want to be a doorman all their working life.
“Some 60 percent of our staff are over 40 and are our most precious asset, greeting guests in Shanghai dialect, telling them the story behind the hotel,” says Zhu of the Jin Jiang Hotel.
But with an increase in foreign guests, 40 percent in Jin Jiang Hotel, many older staff are embarrassed by their poor English, say management.
And so another challenge faces these unique hotels and their staff, offering a glimpse of history in the modern world.
Here are four representative heritage hotels in Shanghai.
Garden’s still blooming
The InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin is a complex of four historical buildings occupying 60,000 square meters. Formerly known as Morris Garden, it was mostly built in 1917 as home of the Morris Family from England, owners of the North China Daily News, the first English newspaper in China, and the Canidrome dog track.
The property has probably the largest garden in the former French concession.
Henry E. Morris, the owner of the newspaper, stayed there until his death in 1951.
It became the Ruijin Hotel in 1979 and was a state guest house for national and international political leaders until 2012, when owners Dong Hu Hotel Group began working with the InterContinental Hotel Group.
The most impressive building, called appropriately enough No. 1, is a two-story example of English neoclassical architecture.
Once the main building of the site, it currently hosts meetings, conferences and events, with three meeting rooms and eight other rooms preserving all the original furniture and decor.
The first floor looks more mainland European, highlighted by its blue glass ceiling with a red five-pointed star in the center. The floor is black and white marble in a checkerboard pattern.
Its second floor expresses more of a Chinese touch, with wooden furniture carved with Chinese auspicious designs, such as a peacock.
The building was the venue of the engagement of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and Soong May-ling in 1927.
Their pictures are on display.
The No. 4 building was constructed in 1924 by the Japanese Sanjin Company, which bought 2.4 hectares of land on the site from the Morris family. The building, featuring a Mansard roof and window frames decorated with traditional Japanese patterns, now houses the hotel’s fine dining Chinese restaurant.
Choose a window seat on its second floor and order signature Shanghai dimsum walnut puff pastry. The garden showcases cherry blossom in spring and red maple in autumn.
Address: 118 Ruijin No. 2 Rd
Scene of historic signing
The Jin Jiang Hotel, which opened in 1951, was the first state-owned hotel in Shanghai and the venue where the Shanghai Communique was signed in February 1972 by then US president Richard Nixon and then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.
It’s also the place where the Chinese president and premier would entertain foreign guests, from US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
The hotel complex includes five buildings. Cathay Mansion, constructed in 1929, has a British Gothic-style exterior and art deco interior, while Grosvenor House, built in 1934, features a symmetrical Art Deco style.
The hotel’s history can be traced back to 1930s, when legendary female restaurateur Dong Zhujun founded Jin Jiang Restaurant nearby, known for its authentic Sichuan cuisine.
Dining is still a hotel highlight. Signature dishes include tofu stewed with hairy crab roe, said to be Kissinger’s favorite.
Address: 59 Maoming Rd
The Fairmont Peace Hotel — known as the Peace Hotel from 1956 to 2007 — originally opened as the Cathay Hotel in 1929 and was among the most famous hotels in the Far East.
Built by Victor Sassoon, the undisputed king of real estate and finance in Shanghai at the time, it was one of the first hotels in the world with central air-conditioning and in-house telephones.
The exterior combines the Chicago School with Gothic, featuring an A-shaped cross section and a green copper pyramid tower. Its interior shows a strong Art Deco influence in its chandeliers, furniture and geometric-patterned ceilings.
Vintage furniture, tableware and other hotel amenities used in the 1920s are on display in its museum on the ground floor. These include aluminum recordable gramophone discs given by the Cathay as gifts to guests, on which they could record personal greetings.
The impressive lobby has an octagonal glass rotunda decorated with geometric patterns. On a sunny afternoon, the space is filled with golden light. The emblem of the hotel, two greyhounds inspired by Sassoon’s pets, can still be seen on the entrance atrium.
The hotel’s Lalique corridor is said by old-time staff to be the most beautiful corner, decorated with Lalique glass that looks like ivory from a distance, deep-blue close up and flame-red when held to light.
“That comes from a traditional craft, integrating dysprosium, arsenic and cobalt in glass making,” a museum staff member explains.
Some 11 rooms have legendary status. The nine nations suites are the original suites of the Cathay Hotel, designed on the themes of countries including China, Great Britain, India, Japan, American and France.
In 1930, British playwright Noel Coward finished his drama “Private Lives” in the British suite.
In March 1936, Charlie Chaplin stayed in the Indian suite, while his girlfriend Paulette Goddard was in the Spanish suite.
The hotel’s presidential suite occupying the entire 10th floor was Sassoon’s private residence.
And Room 433 — now Room 335 — was the Hungarian Consulate and headquarters of International Committee for the Organization of European Immigrants, where Sassoon organized assistance for Jews escaping the Nazis.
Address: 20 Nanjing Rd E.
The Waldorf Astoria Shanghai is located in an English neoclassical-style building, established in 1911 by Warren Pelham, the British Consul General, as the Shanghai Club. Running from 1911 to 1941, it was open exclusively to male foreign settlers in the city’s foreign concessions.
Between 1971 and 1989, the building was the Dong Feng Hotel.
The architecture is highlighted by a huge column system, with the windows showing strong Greek and Roman influence, while the roof features a Baroque tower.
The Shanghai Club was known for its 33.5-meter long bar, the longest at that time in the Far East — which can still be seen today.
“At the time, the long bar was seen as a mirror of social status and wealth. The most powerful people in town always sat closest to the window, while those less wealthy sat near the door,” explains a waitress at the hotel.
Carefully restored, it is now the hotel bar — complete with dark wood, leather seats and a vintage ceiling fan. It is known for its classic cocktails and whiskies.
The hotel’s lobby, ballroom and Western restaurant are all in this old building. The marble lobby is filled with double columns and arches and vaults, expressing Victorian style.
Most of the suites preserve the original decor from the 1920s, highlighted by white fireplaces, wooden parquet floors and classic mechanical butler’s bells — now only used for decoration.