Tracking Sassoon’s Shanghai legacy

Tracking Sassoon’s Shanghai legacy

Though over 60 years have passed since his departure from Shanghai, Sir Victor Sassoon's vision is still evident in every corner of the city

Victor Sassoon was a real estate magnate, visionary, capitalist, hotelier, philanthropist and downright scandal-monger -- but few can deny that from the moment he stepped foot on Shanghai’s shores (in 1923 to be exact) the city was forever changed.

Sassoon arrived in Shanghai soon after inheriting the family business. Filling the shoes of the renowned and affluent Sassoon clan was no easy task. The family's banking and business footprints spanned Asia, particularly in China and India, and included a heavy hand in the opium trade.

Sassoon nevertheless soon proved himself an unstoppable force, particularly in real estate.

Victor Sassoon and his countless Shanghai properties -- the numbers waver between three and four digits, depending on who you ask -- spread art deco, modernism and luxury to the city’s new age of modernization.

While economies crumbled in Europe and North America, Shanghai boomed in both affluence and population. Sassoon and his business entourage viewed Shanghai as lagging and underbuilt.

Despite the area's swampy soil, Sassoon initiated the construction of some of the city’s most exceptional properties. With open arms and lots of cash, Shanghai embraced his vision of new heights (literally) and accompanying levels of luxury and service.

“Sassoon’s properties still stand out as exceptional and, unlike many, remained functioning throughout the Cultural Revolution and up until today," notes Peter Hibbard, English historian, author and President of RAS China (Royal Asiatic Society). "The key thing about Sassoon was that he changed Shanghai into a modern city overnight, with manners to match.

“Sassoon had his hand -- and wallet -- in every corner of city.”

A larger-than-life figure, Sassoon’s real-estate legacy alone could fill books with landmarks and slices of history spanning all corners of the city. Although Sassoon would eventually leave Shanghai for the Bahamas, remnants of his legacy remain in the city. Here are a few:

Sassoon - hotel

The former Cathay Complex at the Jin Jiang Hotel

Sassoon’s massive Cathay Mansions, built in 1929, continue to dominate even today’s Shanghai skyline.

The Grosvenor Mansions (now Grosvenor House) and nearby Grosvenor Gardens apartments, built in the early 1930s, added  more art deco luxury, with a large garden to boot. They were located just minutes from the city’s once-elite Canidrome greyhound racetrack.

Over time, portions of the Cathay Complex have come and gone, but since 1951 its has maintained its role as the first State Guest House of the People’s Republic.

It also now houses a massive five-star hotel encompassing more than 30,000 square meters, taking in the Cathay Garden, Jin Jiang Grand Hall and Jun Ling Building.

Grosvenor House remains the address for the city’s top diplomats, glitterati and others who can afford it.
59 Maoming Nan Lu 茂名南路59号

Sassoon - peace hotel

The Fairmont Peace Hotel (The Cathay Hotel)

Sassoon’s most famous property, the original Cathay Hotel (changed to Peace Hotel in 1956 and Fairmont Peace Hotel in 2010), was a stab at creating the city’s first American-style, art deco skyscraper.

It opened on August 1, 1929, and became a legend nearly overnight.

Setting new luxury and height standards as China’s first high-rise -- it had 10 floors -- the Cathay’s design and state-of-the-art amenities were unrivaled in Asia.

So was its price tag, an inconceivable building cost of more than one million pounds.

Swarmed by celebrities and wealthy wannabes, Sassoon's infamous nightclub parties -- in Shanghai's first air-conditioned ballroom, no less -- and penthouse bachelor pad tales were covered in many gossip sheets and diaries.

Local newspapers of the day speculated that the lavishness of Sassoon's parties was inspired partly out of spite toward the many Shanghai clubs that denied him entry due to his Jewish heritage.
20 Nanjing Dong Lu, near the Bund 南京东路20号, 近外滩

Sassoon - hamilton house

Metropole Hotel and Hamilton House

Opening amid the Cathay Hotel’s afterglow in 1930, the Metropole Hotel set even jaded Shanghai abuzz with its sixteen stories, 200 rooms and unique, semi-round facade.

Four years later, the Hamilton House (now on Fuzhou Lu, pictured above), a new building that included office space, hotel and apartments, was built adjacent to the Metropole.

Flash and luxury aside, both properties have seen their share of darker times.

“Hamilton House’s low point occurred on Dec 8, 1941, when it became a center for the Japanese army and ‘enemy’ nationals were humiliatingly forced to register -- surely a blow to an ego or two," notes Peter Hibbard. "The Metropole was also the scene of several Japanese-organized meetings after Pearl Harbor.”

Several decades later, the Metropole has been downsized to a more modest, "modernized" three-star hotel. Though its public areas still reflect its bygone glory, most of its old world charm is limited to the exterior and a few pricier rooms and suites.

Its Hamilton House neighbor now serves as a residential building and home to the popular French brasserie and bar Hamilton House, recalling not only its namesake, but its original art deco look and feel.
180 Jiangxi Zhong Lu and 137 Fuzhou Lu 江西中路180号, 福州路137号

Sassoon - Embankment house

Embankment Building

Sassoon's mission was to cater to the moneyed and glamorous. His Embankment Building on Suzhou Bei Lu, a luxurious, gray curving edifice, did just that.

Extending a quarter mile in length, it was the largest building on the China coast.

Time and renovations have taken their toll, but the building is still a worth a visit, as is most of the lesser-explored Hongkou district.

“Although many key features of this massive, modernist building, including a swimming pool, have long been closed, you can still get a sense of what an incredible structure it once was,” says historian and writer Paul French.

Originally built as housing for foreign management types, the building eventually became a symbol of Sassoon’s and Shanghai’s munificence. On the cusp of World War II, its doors were opened to European Jewish refugees  -- a stepping stone to what soon would become Hongkou District’s thriving Jewish community.

Sassoon's benevolence wouldn’t stop there. After his relocation to the Bahamas, he established the Sir Victor Sassoon (Bahamas) Heart Foundation for children, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2011.

“To many [Jewish refugees], the Embankment Building was their first roof in the new town, until they could find their way out of there to other housing or move to other shelters throughout the Hongkou district,” says Dvir Bar-Gal, journalist and Shanghai Jewish history tour guide.

After Sassoon’s penultimate departure in 1941 -- he fled Japanese internment, but returned after the war -- the building was deemed government property and turned into government housing. Floors were added during the 1980s.

Foreign tenants didn’t begin to trickle back until after 2000.
310-434 Suzhou Bei Lu 北苏州路310—434号

Sassoon - cathay theater

Cathay Cinema

The visionary Sassoon hardly limited his art deco propagation to homes and hotels.

One of the city’s few historic theaters still in operation, the Cathay opened on New Year’s Day 1932.

With 1,080 seats, a large screen and American movies, it quickly became the place where socialites gathered. The cinema continued to screen English and Hollywood films until 1949, when Chinese films were introduced.

The theater's bilingual mix of shows remains today, along with a regular (and affordable) stream of local and international blockbusters.

Sadly, barring its exterior, the theater's recent renovation-cum-triplex transformation has left little of the original construction intact.

Today's Cathay participates in the city’s annual Shanghai International Film Festival.
870 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Maoming Nan Lu 淮海中路870号, 近茂名南路

Sassoon - Cypress hotel

The Cypress Hotel

Even the busiest of tycoons needs a moment to unwind. When Sassoon’s non-stop partying got to be too much, he retired for a few days or weeks to his summer retreat.

The house was located far out in the city’s western countryside, a district popular as a retreat for wealthy Shanghainese and foreigners.

Today, the English-style country villa serves as Building 1 of the Jin Jiang Cypress Hotel.

Although now almost completely renovated, the building isn't a total historical loss. The grounds are still lush with greenery, providing a haven for those out roaming the Hongqiao streets.
2419 Hongqiao Lu 虹桥路2419号

Stephanie Thomas is a freelance writer of all trades based in Shanghai.
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