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Old Astor House luxury hotel regains its glory
By Michelle Qiao

American author Helen Foster Snow remembered the moment she caught the treaty-port mystique in the Astor House (today’s Pujiang Hotel) when she arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 1931.

“I stood in the middle of my big, lofty room (costing about two US dollars a day, with food) and sniffed the dampish, gray-mildewed mosquito net covering the whole of the huge Victorian four-poster bed,” she wrote in her 1984 memoir “My China Years.”

For many Americans arriving in Shanghai before the 1940s — like Helen who later married “Red Star Over China” author Edgar P. Snow — the Astor House was a first stop.

Waldorf-Astoria of the Orient

Originating from a boarding house known as the Richard’s Hotel in 1846, this leading hostelry was relocated in 1857 to its current location near the Waibaidu Bridge and renamed Astor House.

Today the hotel is comprised of a six-story and a four-story buildings in Neo Classical style, designed by Davies & Brooke Architects and expanded in 1907. After the grand expansion, the hotel advertised frequently on leading English newspapers, proudly calling itself the “Waldorf-Astoria of the Orient” and the “largest, best and most modern hotel in the Far East.”

Architectural history professor Qian Zonghao of Tongji University discovered an interesting comparison between the new “luxurious” hotel and its merely “comfortable” predecessor back in 1896 in a 1912 edition of the English-language newspaper “Social Shanghai”.

“The article named ‘Then and Now’ admired the elaborate dining halls, the lofty pillared foyer, the seven-piece hotel band playing at every meal, an ice-making plant, plus the ample supply of electric fans which keep the hotel ‘so beautifully cool in summer’,” Qian says.

“Even the bathrooms were compared. The old bathrooms were fitted with big, ugly native bath tubs made of metal, which was grained brown outside and enameled with a green glaze inside. While the latest bathrooms have long white enameled baths, which have been imported from the UK with a hot water system laid inside,” he adds.

The report also described a number of “exceedingly commodious and artistic” suites, such as the London Mansions, consisting of a tiny hall, a bedroom, a sitting-room, a bathroom and a box room. A summer residence in the Astor House was popular because the foyer, with the supply of ice and the installation of electric fans, was said to be the coolest spot in Shanghai on a hot day.

Old witness of Shanghai

Among Shanghai’s historic hotels, Astor House boasts the longest history (167 years) and witnessed major events since the city’s port opened in 1843.

On December 22, 1846, a meeting to establish the Committee on Roads and Jetties was hosted in the hotel, still known as Richard’s Hotel.

The committee, which organized construction of roads, jetties and bridges, was later regarded as the cradle of the Shanghai Municipal Council that practically administered the International Settlement until the 1940s.

The Astor House enjoyed many firsts as our Paris-of-the-Orient city imported Western inventions. It was the city’s first hotel to use coal gas, electric lamps and tap water, and to provide telephone and taxi services. During its best days, Astor House attracted the majority of foreign guests, including Bertrand Russell and Charlie Chaplin, to name a few.

It was also the seat of a journalism dynasty — the Millard-Powell-Snow succession — referring to Thomas F. Millard, John B. Powell and Edgar P. Snow, three exports of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Milliard, widely considered “the dean of all newspapermen in the East,” had lived in the hotel after arriving in 1900 to cover the Boxer Rebellion for the New York Herald.

His protege Powell took up quarters in 1917 when he helped Millard found the China Weekly Review, at one time the most influential American publication in the Far East.

Their protege Edgar P. Snow arrived at the Astor House in 1928 to become assistant editor at the age of 22.

With an introduction from her father’s Stanford University alumni friends to Milliard, Helen Foster also checked in the hotel soon after she landed in Shanghai.

“It was in the American tradition to go not to the expensive new Cathay Hotel, but to the ancient Astor House,” she recalled in her memoir.

‘City of blazing night’

Today the decoration of Powell’s time and the “golden” 1930s that Helen Foster knew are stunningly preserved on a large scale. Stepping into the famous pillared foyer, visitors feel they are stepping into another era.

The highlight is the two-story-high Peacock’s Hall on the ground floor. It’s adorned by grand domes, crystal chandeliers, mirrors and marble pilasters. The centerpiece is the original parquetry flooring designed in a pattern of huge spirals, giving an artistic feeling of flowing and spinning. Imagine the beautiful lacy skirts swirling across this floor a century ago.

Shanghai used to be a city of blazing night.

According to the 1934-35 Standard Guide Book “All About Shanghai and Environs,” night life began with the tea-cocktail hour and ended at anytime from 2am until breakfast. Three hotels (Astor, Cathay, Palace) on the Bund were all popular.

“Shanghai likes to dance and to be entertained. The Cathay Hotel features tea dances and dinner dances, with elaborate floor shows. During the winter season the Astor House’s tea dances and classical concerts are popular. The Palace Hotel offers concerts during the tea and dinner hours.”

Astor House was taken over by the Shanghai government in 1954 and used as office for a state-owned trading company. In 1959 it was renamed the Pujiang Hotel and became a government guesthouse.

In 1990 the hotel embraced a new role — the Shanghai Stock Exchange was launched with a ceremony in the Peacock Hall on December 19, 1990. It witnessed the birth of the securities market in the new China.

Shocking decline came only eight years later when the former luxury hotel was transformed into a hostel with dormitories for foreign backpackers. Each bed cost 55 yuan (US$9 today).

In 2002 a renovation project was launched to revive the hotel and its storied past. Today it is a three-star hotel and many of the guests are nostalgic foreigners.

Indeed, the hotel near Waibaidu Bridge is probably the best place to get a feel of the times when the nights were ablaze. Perhaps nowhere in the Bund area is there a longer and more intense history.

On her first night in this Oriental hotel, Helen Foster struggled to open heavy mahogany or teakwood drawers.

“They were lined with camphor wood or sandal wood, some with cassia wood, and their perfume mingled with the musty air. Whenever I chance upon that scent, I feel nostalgic for the East,” she wrote.

Pujiang Hotel

Yesterday: Astor House

Today: Pujiang Hotel

Address: 15 Huangpu Rd

Built in: 1857 (expanded in 1907)

Architectural style: Neo Classical

Architect: Davies & Brooke Architects (for the expansion)

Tips: I suggest visiting the central hall on the third floor that is lined with celebrities’ rooms and features an exhibition about the hotel’s history. And of course, appreciate the spiral patterns on the floor of the stunningly beautiful Peacock Hall.

The Bund in Helen Foster’s Eyes

(1931, summer)

As we entered the fifth busiest port in the world, our living standards were about to be raised many times. With every American dollar worth four to five Chinese dollars, we were joining the 3,808 other Americans in Shanghai, among a total of some 7,000 throughout China, all living in princely style as the rest of the world was being “crucified upon a cross of gold.” I was self-confident and eager to learn ...

Never again would the foreign-owned Shanghai bund glitter with prosperity as it did in those five prime months before Japan attacked the Chinese part of the city in 1932. The tallest building on the bund had just been completed by the British-Arabian Sassoons, who were moving capital into Shanghai. This was the Cathay Hotel, where rich big-business taipans entertained each other in rented suites going begging for want of tourist trade.

It was the heyday of the Whangpoo harbor, with naval and merchant ships anchored majestically among the lowly batwinged junks and rocking sampans. The Union Jack predominated, Japan and American flags dipping respectfully in the sultry calm ...

(From Chapter 1 in “My China Years”)

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