Peace in China

The history of the Peace Hotel is a trip through Old Shanghai.

The Peace Hotel in Shanghai owes it origins to anything but peace.

Victor Sassoon, the developer of the hotel, was a guns and opium trader who, in the 1920s, put his considerable (albeit morally questionable) wealth into real estate. At one time, he owned some 1,200 properties in Shanghai, presumably as a safe haven for the money he had accumulated.

The Peace Hotel has long been regarded as one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, but today it looks strangely out of place among the gleaming five-star properties of Shanghai—an old-fashioned relic in an increasingly modern city.

The property started out life as the Cathay Hotel in 1929, a twelve-story building situated on two sites in the city’s fashionable Bund neighborhood. Surprisingly, the design of the 12-story property—topped off by a copper-colored roof—is not rooted in Asia at all, but rather in Chicago, as the building’s Gothic style was heavily influenced by the Chicago School of architecture. A little bit of the Windy City in the middle of the Orient.

With its milky-yellow walls, revolving hall gate and white Italian marble floor, the Cathay nevertheless became a symbol of Asian opulence. But the hotel still found it hard to shake off the ghost of its developer. As well as being known as “The Paris of the East,” it was also referred to as the “Whore of the Orient” for its ties with prostitution and opium powder.

The name change to the Peace Hotel occurred in 1956, after the country officially became known as the People’s Republic of China, and it was not long before the hotel managed to live up to its moniker. In 1964, the hotel hosted Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and French Prime Minister Edgar Faure; diplomatic relations between the two nations were established shortly thereafter.

Over its 75-year history, the hotel has been visited by world leaders and entertainers, from Bill Clinton to Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward. Coward completed his play Private Lives in room 314.

The property has also survived temporary disaster. In 2003, the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) slashed occupancy rates to 30 percent and the owners were forced to shot the hotel’s doors for a while.

But it is the cut-throat competitiveness of the hotel industry in 2007 which is forcing even bigger changes. The hotel is one of 250 in China owned by Jin Jiang Hotels. Once owned by the Chinese government, the company’s shares are now publicly traded on the stock exchange. In December, Jin Jiang sold a minority stake in its business for $30 million to US private equity real estate firm Starwood Capital, making Starwood the largest foreign shareholder in the company. Now it seems that change is inevitable.

Though guests supposedly love the history and nostalgia of the property, Jin Jiang recently announced that it would be closing the hotel for a major refurbishment. The remodeling could last as long as a year. The owners say the property will lose none of its charm, but regulars are not taking the chance. Many are returning to enjoy the Peace Hotel before it changes forever. Book that room now.