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Building a lasting impression
By Michelle Qiao

Broadway Mansions Hotel Shanghai was once the haunt of foreign journalists and businessmen working in Shanghai, and this Art Deco beauty remains a prominent part of the northern Bund today.

The Broadway Mansions Hotel Shanghai acts like a huge screen for the Bund from the city’s northern territory. As one of the three tallest Bund buildings (the Peace Hotel and the Bank of China are the other two), the 22-floor riverside edifice offers a panorama of the Bund.

The building was built by British firm Shanghai Land Investment Co Ltd in 1930, when Shanghai developers were in the midst of a skyscraper craze to show off the city’s modernity, power and success. They were also usually smart investments as land prices skyrocketed during Shanghai’s “golden age” of the 1920s-1930s.

The developer’s previous projects were mostly shikumen, stone-gate houses jammed together in a townhouse layout, which suited Chinese living habits and Shanghai’s limited supply of land.

The company also constructed red-brick veranda-style apartments and townhouses that were preferred by expatriates. Broadway Mansions, which took five years to build, was one of the first highrise projects. 

“It was such a huge project at the time,” says Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao. “The total building area amounted to 31,000 square meters, which was even larger than Park Hotel, the city’s tallest building back then. The company had to expand its architecture department and hire architects from the UK to accomplish this giant task.”

Perched alongside the Waibaidu Bridge and Suzhou Creek, the steel-structured building was designed as a hotel with some apartments, just like Park Hotel.

The ground floor featured restaurants and a hair salon. Hotel rooms and apartments of various sizes were on the first to the 15th floors. Small dining rooms, kitchens and facility rooms were on the upper floors. A huge garage was on the northern wing.

The 77-meter-high building is made in the Art Deco style, which spread to Shanghai soon after it first appeared in France in 1925.

The style had a great impact on Shanghai’s architectural scene. Nearly one quarter of the heritage buildings on the Bund contain Art Deco features.

According to Tongji University researcher Xu Yihong, 165 Art Deco buildings still exist in Shanghai.

“The Art Deco trend interestingly coincided with Shanghai’s real estate boom from the 1920s to the 1930s ... From 1929 to 1938 Shanghai built 38 buildings taller than 10 floors, most of which were in the Art Deco style,” he wrote in his book “The Origins and Schools of Art Deco.”

Professor Qian divides the city’s Art Deco buildings into two styles — French and American.

“Authentic Arts Decoratifs from Paris” was introduced by French architects or those who had studied in France in the early 1920s. Their works were elegant and luxurious like the former French Club (the annex of the Garden Hotel).

The “American Modern Art Deco” became popular in Shanghai in the late 1920s and reached a climax in the 1930s. Chinese and Western architects had taken inspiration from Art Deco buildings in New York and Chicago and used similar ideas in Shanghai. Their creations were characterized as “modern and avant-garde,” a perfect fit for Broadway Mansions.

Designed by British architect B. Fraser, the highrise reveals a four-wing shape to make full use of the land and obtain the best sunlight for hotel rooms.

The facade rises in the center and the cornice near the top is adorned with geological patterns, all very Art Deco. The walls are capped with brown ceramic tiles.

After completion, the occupancy rate was 100 percent as famous international journalists and senior employees of foreign enterprises were quick to rent apartments.

However the investment did not generate a profit for long. After Japanese invaded Shanghai, the property had to be sold to a Japanese company in 1939 at a price even lower than it cost to build it.

After World War II, Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek reopened the hotel as a guesthouse for Li Zhi She, or The Society for Encouragement, which was like an alumni club for the Huangpu Military Academy.

Chiang was president of the academy in the 1920s.

The building’s biggest brush with history came in May 1949, when Chiang’s soldiers were about to lose to the Communists.

Peter Townsend, who had served with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in China, witnessed this scene.

“From the top of Broadway Mansions you could see smoke wreathing upwards across the river. In the western confines you came across charred homes and shops, and a number of foreign-owned properties had been burned down. The refugees poured into the city ... when you go out on the parapet of Broadway Mansions a bullet whistles above your head and you duck and crawl back on hands and knees,” he wrote in his 1955 book “China Phoenix.”

According to Noel Barber’s 1979 book “The Fall of Shanghai,” the foreigners trapped in Broadway Mansions were terrified the Communists would retaliate by shelling the building. Thus, they tried to persuade the Kuomintang to surrender.

“At first it was unsuccessful, but when Chiang’s troops learned that the Communists had crossed the Soochow Creek further up river and outflanked them, they agreed to hoist a white flag — at a price. The foreigners had to pay for a slap-up Chinese dinner for the 100 troops in the building. Broadway Mansions with its restaurant had an excellent chef and the troops sat down to a sumptuous meal, after which their officers handed each man a red armband to be worn when leaving the building,” Barber wrote.

Shanghai government took over the building after 1949 and renovated the interior. However, a gramophone, a piano, a snooker table and an Ottis elevator survived, all originals from the 1930s.

And, of course, the famous 18th-floor balcony is still there. It has hosted a galaxy of honorable guests over the years like late Premier Zhou Enlai and late French President Georges Pompidou.

Kitty Xia, a former official with the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office, says she has taken numerous foreign guests to the balcony from the 1960s to 1990s.

“The balcony offered the best view of Shanghai,” she says. “It was an important part of the itinerary to take foreign delegations to this balcony. Within minutes, our foreign guests were touched by the charisma of Shanghai, such as the Bund, the Huangpu River and Hongkou District where Jewish refugees had sheltered during World War II.

“Although the Oriental Pearl TV Tower was built in 1994 and now offers amazing views, Broadway Mansions is still my favorite. Every time I visit the balcony, I get excited because I love the city so much,” she adds.

Today this balcony is probably still the best place to appreciate both the Bund and Lujiazui from one spot.

Writers in the past have referred to Shanghai as a “magic city” and even the young generation today think of it in these terms. From this balcony, it’s hard to argue.

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