The Fairmont Peace Hotel was the brainchild of Sir Victor Sassoon, Anglo-Jewish real estate tycoon and visionary. Work on the Cathay Hotel (its original name) commenced in 1926 and was finished in 1929. It seemed impossible to erect a huge steel and concrete structure on the Bund, Shanghai’s great waterfront, since the area had once been mud flats with the consistency of “pudding.” The problem was solved by driving 1,600 redwood and concrete piles into the muck to provide a secure foundation.The Cathay was 10 stories in height, but on one side of the building there was an added tower that rose to 13 stories. This elegant tower was crowned by a copper-sheathed pyramid roof.
Sassoon House: an Art Deco Masterpiece
Technically the building was called Sassoon House, with its first three floors leased to various business concerns. The hotel occupied the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors. There were elegant suites, with pure water ( a relative luxury in China at the time) piped in from Bubbling Well springs. The eighth floor ballroom was an Art Deco extravaganza, with interplays of linear and swiling designs. It was here that guests danced the night away, or attended one of Sir Victor’s legendary costume balls.
The Tower Room nightclub and Grill were other popular venues. According to Peter Hibbard’s The Bund, the Cathay boasted the “most modern kitchen in China”, and a a staff of “70 Chinese cooks, and one French, and one British.” Diners could feast on German hams, Italian cheeses, and Russian caviar
Charlie Chapin, Paulette Goddard, and Noel Coward’s Private Lives
Actor and playwright Noel Coward penned Private Lives at the Cathay while recuperating from a bout of the flu in 1929. Silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were honored with a reception at the hotel. But perhaps the most famous guest was Charles Chaplin, a comic genius whose screen alter ego, the “little tramp,” remains popular today. Chapin arrived in 1936 with actress Paulette Goddard. In those more conservative days there was some doubt if they were married, so the press besieged them at the hotel.
World War II and the Coming of Chinese Communism
The Cathay’s glory days ended when fighting broke out between the Chinese and Japanese in 1937. Although the hotel was in the International Settlement “officially neutral ground” it was slightly damaged by a Chinese bomb on August 15, 1937. Over 400 people, both Chinese and foreign, where killed and wounded by the blast just outside the hotel’s Nanking Road entrance.
The Japanese occupied all of Shanghai on December 8, 1941, and made the Cathay one of their headquarters. After World War II China plunged into a civil war, with violence, strikes, and inflation commonplace. When Mao Zedong’s Communists took over Shanghai in 1949, they viewed the hotel as an example of western decadence. By 1952 the Communists seized the property, expelling Sir Victor’s management staff.
The building reopened in 1956 as the Peace Hotel, a slightly shabby affair catering mainly to the Russians and other Communist bloc “comrades.” Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms in the 1990s helped improve things, but the Cathay/Peace still had seen better days.