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No. 20: Sassoon House where Shanghai played
2013-02-06
By Michelle Qiao

Every Bund building is a showpiece but No. 20 is the one that is most closely associated in people's minds with Shanghai itself.

Social change in China has split the history of the former Sassoon House in two parts. As the Cathay Hotel, it was famous throughout Far East since 1929 and set a precedent for luxury and glamour. In 1956 it reopened as the state-owned Peace Hotel, a city landmark.

In her new book "Being the Peace Hotel," local writer Chen Danyan calls the building "a perfect monument for Shanghai."

"Fronting the river, the 'A'-shaped building resembles a gigantic ship loaded with memories, pitching up and down," she writes.

For the big ship of memories, each of her two roles has legends to tell.

Shanghai Deco

No. 20 was built on the city's most expensive land, a T-shaped area comprised of part of the Bund road and Nanjing Road E. It was named Sassoon House after businessman Ellice Victor Sassoon (1881-1961), who dominated commercial life in Shanghai for many years.

As the fourth generation of the influential Sassoon family, he served as a captain in the Royal Air Force during World War I, until a plane crash left him with a limp.

The man with a superb nose for business chose Shanghai, where he built apartments, office blocks and hotels. No. 20 was his ultimate showpiece on the Bund built on the site of old Sassoon twin buildings.

In the 1991 book "Shanghai," British historian Harriet Sergeant described Victor as an "amusing, cynical" bon vivant who held brilliant parties in his penthouse mansion in the Cathay Hotel.

Once he invited his guests to dress as if they had been caught in a "shipwreck" and another time the theme was "circus." So the costumes ranged from pajamas, shower curtain to slippery outfit that resembled a performing seal.

The first to the third floors were offices for Sassoon's company and other enterprises. The Cathay Hotel occupied the ground floor and the fourth to the ninth floors. Sassoon's penthouse occupied the 10th and 11th floors.

"Sassoon House was China's first Art Deco building but the original plan was a neo-classical high-rise," says Professor Chang Qing from Tongji University, whose team surveyed No. 20 before its renovation in 2007.

His research showed architect G.L. Wilson from Palmer & Turner was greatly inspired after attending 1925 Exposition in Paris when Art Deco style was first dated. There he also met famous glass maker Rene Lalique whose glass he later used to adorn the Cathay Hotel.

Wilson changed his plan to a much more avant-garde building, combining Commercial Gothic and Art Deco styles that we see today.

"Divided by classic three sections, No. 20 is not a pure Art Deco architecture but Wilson uses a lot of Art Deco manners, including opalescent Lalique glass," says Professor Chang. "The building also showcases commercial Gothic features, which interestingly echo with the neighboring Club Concordia (demolished in the 1930s to build the Bank of China) in Gothic revival style. So we might call it a 'Shanghai Deco' building."

An inviting advertisement announced the opening of the Cathay Hotel in the North China Herald in 1929, noting it was a "wonderful combination of art and luxury" with Lalique glass and lighting and suites in the styles "of all nations."

The advertising was honest. Despite its age and renovations, entering the hotel is like walking into a nostalgic dream.

The centerpiece of the lobby is a spectacular domed rotunda adjacent to an arcade. The dazzling stained glass in the rotunda, elegant metal lamps and abundant Art Deco carvings keep visitors lingering in the warm, yellow tones of the lobby. A soothing wood-scented aroma coming from the original 1929 Art Deco air-conditioning rents fills the air.

As a close friend of Sassoon, legendary American writer Emily Hahn, author of "The Soong Sisters" frequented the hotel.

"I might meet a girl for lunch at the Cathay, with drinks first in the lounge; that meant we would pick up men and make a party of it," she writes in her 1944 book "China to Me."

The hotel had 200 rooms and nine famous "themed" suites, each decorated in a distinctive national style, including Chinese, Indian and English. Each suite had built-in wardrobes. The bathrooms contained marble baths with silver taps and purified water. The hotel's dining rooms were decorated with colorful, blazing Lalique chandeliers.

The well-preserved Sassoon residence itself was decorated in Jacobean style, with dark, carved paneling and richly molded ceilings, instead of the up-to-date Deco.

The greyhound image, which appears at the top of the Sassoon family coat of arms, appears here and there in the former Cathay Hotel. The greyhound symbolizes courage and loyalty.

"The hotel impressed me as being an old aristocrat. He was aging but he was still a lord. Everywhere, every detail is so refined and stylish," says Professor Chang.

Sassoon's parties came to an end with the outbreak of the World War II and he left Shanghai in the spring of 1941. The building was used by the new municipal government after 1949 until it reopened as the Peace Hotel in 1956.

The state-owned hotel was one of the city's few accommodations for foreign guests before international hotel brands entered China.

Peace Gallery Director Ma Yongzhang said the hotel did not receive individual guests during the planned economy period before 1978. It only accommodated those who booked through a state-owned organization, such as an export company or a travel agency.

"We never worried about the business since the state-owned import and export companies along the Bund kept sending guests to our hotel," Ma recalls.

"The hotel had no sales department until the business began to decline as those companies retreated from the Bund. After 1978 the hotel hosted more foreign tourists and businessmen. The rate was only at a four-star level due to its aging facilities."

After a three-year renovation, the building reopened in 2010 as the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Today it is again a hotel of art and luxury on the Bund.

In the history of the Peace Hotel, hosting the 1991 costume China Coast Ball (in lieu of the last Bella Vista Ball) was a milestone.

It was the first ball to be held in Shanghai in nearly half a century and was organized again in 1992.

Nearly 400 guests, some who flew in from overseas, attended the 1991 ball on a March Saturday night.

Former hotel sales manager Cheng Qi who led the hosting team said the hotel had been dusted down and lit up both inside and out. Even the Bund itself was lit up for several hours for the event.

The guests spent a wild fun night and enjoyed dancing on the sprung ballroom floor.

According to the 1991 Sunday Morning Post Magazine, "Costumes varied from the 1930s era, to mess uniforms, to one over-the-top set of tails made of gold-colored sequins. Guests came for the party, for the location and the nostalgic - one man there had honeymooned at the Cathay Hotel in 1939."

The 1991 ball almost brought nostalgic guests back to the opening night of the Cathay hotel on August 1, 1929.

The dinner was "one of the most sumptuous ever served in Shanghai," according to North China Daily News reporting.

At the end of the meal, "the guests went on a tour of inspection and then spent several hours in dancing to music which they found quite in keeping with everything else in the hotel."

As dawn broke on the Bund on that Sunday morning in 1991, silence fell on the Peace Hotel as the guests trailed off to bed. It was reported that some locals were astonished when a group of fancy-dress revelers burst out into the crisp 8am sunlight to join in 'tai chi' in front of the building shaped like a gigantic ship and loaded with memories of Shanghai.

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