A Nick Grant Adventure

by Jamie Dodson

The Cathay Hotel Shanghai, 1936

In 2010 the Cathy Hotel reopened as the Peace Hotel. The words "iconic," "Art Deco masterpiece" and "historical" are always tossed around when the subject of the Cathy Hotel is broached, to the point of near-meaningless cliché... until you dig a bit deeper and grasp the hotel's history and truly iconic nature.

Shanghai at the time of the Cathay Hotel was the child of very particular circumstances. As Stella Dong explains as well as anyone in her book Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City 1842-1949, concession-era Shanghai was shaped by the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. Signed by China under threat of British canons at the end of the Opium War, it granted the British and other foreign powers the right to bring in as much opium and other goods as they wanted, through unregulated treaty ports in Shanghai and Ningbo, among others.

Divided into concessions, the city hung in legal limbo while Internationals and Chinese flooded in, disrupting and rapidly altering the city's socio-economic landscape. It was a time when Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang nationalists allied with the leader of the city's notorious Green Gang (the pockmarked Huang, who served as chief of police by day) to edge out their Communist rivals. Warlords, merchants, émigrés, spies, opium traders and refugees from Russia, Britain, Germany, France and China were among those taking advantage of the city's extraterritorial status and it was not long before Shanghai turned into a hotbed of greed, vice, and intrigue.

The surfeit of opium-fueled money, the anything-goes atmosphere and intermingling of cultures yielded high fashion, fast living and big (sometimes unsavory) business. Shanghai was an oasis to which beautiful people, crime lords, a thousand varieties of sybarite, magnates, tycoons and stars from every constellation of the artistic universe flocked for a taste of intoxicating levels of freedom and danger. Only to Shanghai's 1,000,000 Chinese and 20,000 Jewish refugees was the city safer than from where they'd come.

The city was certainly no colonial backwater. As architectural historian Anne Warr describes in a ChinaTravel.net interview, Shanghai was "a very up-to-date city. It had dozens of cinemas which showed the latest Hollywood movies, it had art-deco and modern buildings, luxurious apartment blocks with all the latest facilities such as elevators and en-suite bathrooms, and the most fashionable hotel in Asia, the Cathay (now the Fairmont Peace Hotel)."

Early 1930's postcard of the Cathay Hotel

By the 1920's Time described the city as being "an exotic stew of Jewish opium traders, Chinese compradors and Viennese dancing girls."

Shanghai was a city without analogue anywhere in history. A time and place so fantastical and over-flowing with mystique and intrigue, writer/director Debbie McMahon couldn't have named her acclaimed theater piece anything other than Absinthe, Opium & Magic: 1920s Shanghai. Think turn of the 20th century Paris, 1970's Vegas, late 90's Bangkok and pre-bust Dubai rolled into one and given a couple of decades of open-bar privileges.

By the time Sir Victor Sassoon arrived, Shanghai was already on its way to becoming the wildest party city on the planet. All it needed was his visionary development schemes, his humanitarian heart and his bon-vivant flair to complete the journey.

A Baghdad Jew by birth and a British baronet by succession, Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon's ancestors amassed their fortunes in the opium trade of the 19th century—a path Sassoon himself rejected, preferring to build his empire on exotic property, finance and trade.

Sir Victor's major passions included beautiful women, thoroughbred horse racing, Chinese art, and photography, but he also spent much time and money helping Jewish refugees flee the Nazi death camps and move to the Shanghai Jewish ghetto. He was a romantic and a progressive.  Despite having been the victim of prejudice British anti-Semitism during the 1920's, he harbored none himself. Sir Victor took European lovers as well as Chinese ones (at a time when it was generally frowned upon from all sides). Above all else, Sassoon was the city's most notorious tycoon, known for hosting fabulous parties and extravagantly flamboyant costume balls in his penthouse—the hotels unmistakable green pyramid.

Reading about his lust for life, selflessness and ambition, it's hard to believe that Sir Victor was in fact handicapped and required the use of two canes to walk; the result of an injury sustained as a British Air Force pilot. Others might have resigned themselves to bitterness, but such was the strength of this man's heart, such was his resolve to enjoy life and help others enjoy it, that he went far beyond overcoming his handicap; he created history and a place where fantasy became real. For this, he can only be deeply admired.

Spirit of the times

His Cathay Hotel, with its reputation as “the most beautiful hotel in the Far East” was a mainstay of high society. Awash in luxuries and boasting state-of-the-art amenities, including a technology newly-invented at the time—air-conditioning—the hotel quickly became renowned as the "ultimate venue for life's pleasures."

The Cathay Hotel's guests were no less than the elite of the world, visited by scores of celebrities including Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward.

Clouds of war gathered over Shanghai in 1932, and the air for glamour quickly rarefied. By 1937 hostilities engulfed the International Settlement. Bombs damaged both the Cathay Hotel and the Palace Hotel opposite, and by 1939 the world was at war. Sassoon was lucky to be in India when the Japanese took the city. For his strong allied tendencies, the Japanese would surely have executed him.

Though damaged, the Cathay was not destroyed. After surviving the dark years of World War II, the hotel re-emerged after China's communist liberation as the somewhat diminished Peace Hotel in 1956, and continued to host foreign dignitaries, including Bill Clinton, far into the present.

The Cathy Hotel’s amazing place in history commemorates an incredible time, its character a tribute to Sir Victor, and a vessel for the visions of this truly great man


Copyright 2012. Jamie Dodson. All rights reserved.

Created on ... July 20, 2011

Updated on... January 8, 2012

Article Courtesy of  ChinaTravel.net

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