When I first visited Shanghai as a college student in 1988, I stayed at the Pujiang Hotel (浦江饭店) located just north of the Bund. Back then it was serving as a youth hostel. I remember sleeping in a large room with rows of beds filled with travelers from all over the world. Little did I know that I would be spending much of my adult life in this city researching its history. Perhaps my stay there kindled my desire to learn more about the social life that once romped in the hotel back in the 1920s. Perhaps the ghosts of famous residents from decades past whispered in my ear, begging me to preserve the memory of those glorious, decadent, daring, and dangerous times.
One thing I do remember are the individuals who stood outside of the hotel, asking foreigners if we would like to exchange our F.E.C. (Foreign Exchange Currency) for RMB notes. I snapped a photo of one of those men, and along with the other photos I shot of Shanghai during that first trip in 1988-89, I treasure this visual image and memory of the city during those days.
Known back in the pre-Liberation era as the Astor House, this neo-classical heritage hotel lies on Huangpu Road just beyond the Garden Bridge that crosses Suzhou River near its confluence with the Huangpu River. Across the road is the imposing old building housing the Russian Consulate, which has blocked the hotel’s view of the river since the 1920s. To the west is the impressive Broadway Mansions, financed by the Jewish tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon, who also built the Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel) in 1929, which took the place of the Astor House as the finest hotel on the Bund if not in all of East Asia.
The hotel has been a state-run enterprise for many decades now, and it still retains many of its original features. Unlike many other landmark hotels that have been renovated extensively over the years, the Astor House has remained relatively unchanged. You can still walk on the same floor boards that famous residents and visitors such as Edgar Snow, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, and Zhou Enlai walked on in the 1920s and 1930s.
You can dance on the same ballroom dance floor where Whitey Smith and his orchestra once performed their jazz music in a half-shell of stained glass in the shape of a peacock fan, as 1920s socialites foxtrotted amidst a panoply of multicolored lights.
As I note in the first chapter of my first book Shanghai’s Dancing World, the Astor House was one of the top spots for dining and dancing for the city’s western and Chinese elites. It was a favored location for holding grand balls. Balls held there in the 1910s-1930s included the Washington’s Birthday Ball, the St. George’s Day Ball, the Caledonian Ball, the Bal de Tetes, the Shanghai Hebrew Relief Society Ball, the Marine Engineers’ Fancy Dress Ball, the Shanghai Yacht Club Dance, the Deluge Dance, the St. Valentine’s Dance, the Purim Fancy Dress Ball, the U.S. Naval Dance, the Russian Fancy Dress Ball, and the American Women’s Club Dance.
On March 7 1914, the North China Herald noted that a new dance known as the Tango was introduced at the Astor House ballroom through a series of teas with guests numbering over 200. Exhibitions of the new dance were given by Miss Elba, Miss Phillips, and Mr. Lucas. Figures introduced included: “the El Cruzade and glide, Spanish pirouette, step glide, double one-step, fan, with reverse, scissors, single and double, hesitation glide, essence, half-fan ballet, and Argentine dip, double ballet, and finale combination.” The Tango demonstrations were given two evenings each week until April 2.
Despite the ongoing war, known then as the Great War, the city continued to dance. On December 1 1917, the North China Herald announced the opening of a new ballroom at the Astor House Hotel, which opened on Saturday night with a grand ball. “Alterations and improvements have been going on for some months now and many structural difficulties have been met with and overcome to make what is now perhaps the finest dance hall in Shanghai…A solid wall was removed and replaced by reinforced concrete piers and girders allowing a passage and several private rooms to be included in the general scheme, making the new dancing floor area 95 ft. by 70 ft. A stage has been erected at one end which should be a valuable asset for concerts and soirees besides providing accommodation for the orchestra..The room is well ventilated by windows running the whole length of the hall on both sides with large mirrors between them. The mural decorations are tastefully done in cream and white matt paint picked out with old gold; the electric lighting scheme was also well thought out, the result being a pleasing soft effect with ample brilliancy. Cloak rooms and refreshment rooms are situated at the entrance. The floor is oak parquetry, highly polished and in beuatiful condition for dancing.” The architectural work was done by M. Lafuente and Wootten.
On April 5 1919, the North China Herald reported a charity ball held for Shanghai Hebrew Relief Society on Thursday at the Astor House. The report noted that “charity balls and entertainments are the order of the day” reflecting post-Great War relief efforts and the functioning of a civil society of western colonial elites in the city. “Dancing for pleasure is the fascinating amusement of the moment; dancing for charity combines duty and pleasure, and perhaps that largely accounted for the zest evinced by the dancers,” duly noted the reporter. “On entering the ballroom the eye was met with a blaze of colour intermingling under the soft light of lanterns and shown up by the flags of Allied nations.”
A contributor to the April 17 1920 edition of the North China Herald remarked: “Does the announcement that St. George’s Society is holding its annual celebration this year on a comparatively small scale--as shown by the fact that it is taking place in the Astor House--mean that the great balls to which we have been accustomed are doomed? There is more than a suspicion that they are, and except for a few sentimental regrets, no one will be really sorry. Gone are the days when the “season” opened with the Caledonian Ball, and progressed sedately through the winter months with three or four national gatherings, a series of dances arranged by various clubs and a few private affairs. For now the “season” never ends. People go on dancing no matter what the temperature may be, and the old catholicity in partners, entailing a heart-breaking search for people in an almost hopeless maze, has given place to a most exclusive style of things, to the formation of the smallest possible groups, intruders into which receive a frigid reception. And there are better floors than the Town Hall, so that more and more the great, almost conventional assembly, will disappear, and the smaller, more intimate function take its place.”
Something had to be done to accommodate the onset of dance fever among Shanghai’s high society as the jazz age hit the city with great force in the 1920s. On December 29, 1923, the North China Herald reported that a newly redesigned Astor House ballroom opened on Saturday to crowd of 375. The ballroom was designed by Spanish architect Mr. A. Lafuente. The report gushed over the ballroom: “The light blue walls decorated with maidens and sylphs dancing in the open spaces, are surmounted by the plaster reliefs for the indirect lighting system suspended from the ceiling, while high on the marble pillars beautifully cast female figures appear to support the roof.” As for the orchestral shell in the shape of a peacock fan, “five primary colors have been used for still effects throughout the variegated bedecked panels of feathers, but the revolving cylinder hidden added hundreds of shades of light that blended and dissolved over the whole giving the appearance of running waves of rainbow hues.” The Astor House orchestra played under direction of Mr. “Whitey” Smith including eight members, five whom arrived 10 days ago. Songs they played included “Zamboanga” and “No, No, North”. The report gave thanks to J.H. Taggart, director of Shanghai Hotels, and E. Burrows.
American journalist Edgar Snow spent some time in the Astor House. He would later go on to fame for his reportage of the Communist movement in Yan’an, his interviews with Mao Zedong, and his book Red Star Over China. But in 1930, he was writing about the Americans in Shanghai and their intimate relations with the Russians: “I remember one hilarious instance. Two American tourists were sitting with me in the lounge of the Astor House one afternoon when a Shanghai American stopped for a moment and introduced his wife, a beautiful ex-cabaret girl. She asked, wishing to show interest in her husband’s countrymen, what rooms they had. One said his was No. 216. The other was on the third floor. “Oh,” exclaimed Olga, “zey are both ver’ nice. I have like zem ver’ much.” She laughed her captivating laugh and I think the significance of the remark went over the heads of the visitors. But in the eye of her husband I saw agony; he feared she had been in every room in the hotel.”
In 1926, a grand new hotel opened in the city known as the Majestic. This would be the place where Whitey Smith, the American jazz bandleader, “taught China to dance.” Whitey later told a story about his days playing at the Astor House in his memoir I Didn’t Make a Million: “Some of the boys in the band were members of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps whose rifles Percy undertook to sell. I, if you please, was a corporal, and the authorities had instructed me and my squad in our detail, which was to patrol sections of the foreign settlement when trouble comes up. From time to time when there was curfew or there was fighting in the city we went to work at the Majestic in our uniforms, stacking our rifles and helmets back of the bandstand. During one siege when thousands of Communist students passed out handbills and were inciting riots, the Majestic closed for a while and the band and I moved over to the Astor House to play temporarily in the Peacock Room. It was packed every night, since the foreigners living there were afraid to go outside the compound. One night, while I was leading the band, all decked out in my corporal’s uniform, a soldier walked across the floor and headed directly for the bandstand. We were playing, as I remember, a popular march entitled “Washington Rose”. The soldier halted in front of me and I stopped the music. A hush descended on the crowd and everybody looked at us. “Corporal Smith,” the soldier said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Captain Baldwin orders you to report with your squad at headquarters immediately.” The musicians ended up being ordered to guard the latrines in the Rowing Club. Nothing much happened that evening, but soon afterwards the anti-foreignism triggered by the 1925 May Thirtieth incident, which Smith remembers was fulminated by the “Reds,” forced the band to stay at the expensive Astor House where they were relatively safe.
A guidebook given out by Hongkong & Shanghai Hotel Company in 1932 prominently advertises its hotels, beginning with Astor House: “This world famous hotel is to China what the “Waldorf” is to New York.” It includes spacious rooms and a convenient location to both steamers and railway. “The Astor House Lobby is the rendezvous of all Shanghai. At cocktail and tea time it is full to capacity the year round.” The Astor House featured not modern appurtenances, but “solid comfort.” As for the Astor House grill, “The entire domed ceiling is in varicolored stained glass--as also is the shell shaped orchestra stand. The effect is charming, with the daylight filtering through, a delightful gathering place…The dance floor is exceptionally good--tea and dinner dancing throughout the week excepting Sunday and Monday. Two European orchestras that alternate between tiffin, tea and dinner, and play exceedingly well either for concert or dance music. The Astor Tea Dances are most popular, frequented largely by the younger set of Shanghai.”
Imagine my surprise when I returned to the Pujiang Hotel/Astor House in 1997 and discovered that the ballroom that was so cherished in the 1920s and 1930s was now being used for the Shanghai Stock Exchange. The Stock Exchange soon outgrew the ballroom and was moved across the river to the Pudong side. Now, apparently, it is coming back.
On Saturday I led a group tour of the Bund that began at the Astor House. I arrived early according to instructions from the tour company Shanghai Flaneur, and thus had some time to explore the hotel and ask a few questions. I found myself roaming old dusty corridors and hallways that I’d never visited before. I made my way up and down creaky flights of back stairs as I pondered what might become of this place when it closes at the end of the year. At least, that’s what the hotel staff told me. They also told me it was being purchased by the Shanghai Stock Exchange, would close down for a couple of years, and then would reopen as a museum. When I asked for some contacts, they were not offered. And nobody was sure this would happen. So I left the matter in mysterious circumstances.
I hope to lead a final tour of the Astor House before it closes down for good. Those who want to get the full history of the hotel can consult the work of Peter Hibbard, who no doubt contributed to the Wikipedia article on the Shanghai Astor House Hotel.