AN AMERICAN IN CHINA: 1936-39 A Memoir





NOTE: With a few exceptions, NONE of the images or information on this Web page
is included in the book "An American in China, 1936-1939"

Cathay Hotel
(now the Peace Hotel)


oël Coward is said to have completed his play “Private Lives” here in 1929. The Cathay was the Chinese outpost of the wealthy businessman Victor Sassoon's empire. Sir Victor, who was the undisputed king of real estate in Shanghai at the time, lived in sumptuous quarters under the hotel's green pyramid. Fond of horse racing, he is said to have remarked: “There is only one race greater than the Jews, and that is the Derby.”

The photograph above was taken by G.H. Thomas in 1938. It shows the statue, foreground, of Harry Smith Parkes, a prominent British official in 19th-century China who served as consul in Canton and Shanghai. He is said to have been a devout Christian, a hothead and a Chinese linguist. Needless to say, his statue was among others melted down by the Japanese after the occupation of the International Settlement in 1941.

The Sassoons were the most famous of the Jewish families that prospered in Shanghai. Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Baghdad, Sir Victor's great-grandfather, David Sassoon, set up the Sassoon company in Bombay in 1833. In the 19th century the wealth of the Sassoons was in large part opium based, which was shipped from India to China.

In the late 1920’s, Sir Victor, an Englishman by birth with holdings in Hong Kong, began pouring millions of dollars into Shanghai, virtually single-handedly setting off a high-rise real estate boom that was to last almost a decade, until the city’s world came crashing down with the Japanese invasion.


The Cathay or Sassoon House, as it was also called, was built in 1929 by the well-known firm of Palmer and Turner, which designed several of the Bund's best buildings. Its 20 stories rest on hundreds of Douglas firs, sunk into the mud, for the Bund is on reclaimed swamp-land. Not just a hotel, the Sassoon House also included offices and shopping arcades. Its most famous tenant, of course, was Sir Victor himself, who gave lavish parties in his penthouse apartment. Paneled in dark oak, with 360-degree views of the city, it had the feel of a luxurious British club.

After his success with the Cathay, the Metropole Hotel soon followed. Then followed the apartments or hotel/apartment complexes: Hamilton House and Cathay Mansions, Grosvenor House and Embankment House (once the largest building on the China coast).

The expatriate American writer Emily Hahn was sometimes seen at the bar of the Cathay Hotel with her pet gibbon, Mr. Mills, in tow. Sir Victor, a friend of Ms. Hahn and an amateur photographer, took portraits of Emily and her sister Helen.

The author started his long career as an oilman when he got a job as marketing assistant for Texaco not long after meeting an employee of that firm, Philip Le Fevre, at a Shanghai bar (most likely at the Cathay).

Once the rival of the Peninsula in Hong Kong and Raffles in Singapore, the hotel today is in need of a makeover. The Shanghai government may sell the hotel to the Mandarin Oriental or Raffles groups.

Among other prominent members of the Sassoon family: Siegfried Sassoon, the World War I poet and Sir Victor's cousin; Sir Philip Sassoon, who was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minister Lloyd George and a noted patron of the arts during his day; and Sybil Sassoon, Sir Philip’s sister; and more recently, Vidal Sassoon, the hairdresser of 60’s fame.


On November 16, 1936, G.H. Thomas writes:
Shanghai is a large modern city, notable mainly for the mad whirl in which it lives and its amazingly cosmopolitan population. It is a world unto itself. Many of the foreigners here seem to have lost their home ties. On the other hand they know less about China and the Chinese than the person who stays home and reads about it.


Map of Shanghai in 1930s
Old Shanghai Slide Show
American in China Site Search

Go to bottom of page


The Bund in 1930's showing Cathay and Palace,
on the corner across from it.


PClick cover left to order book.

Click here to see preview of "The White Countess"
Requires QuickTime 7

For Preview on Real Player or WMP Click here



Click here to see site with numerous pictures for "A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai,"
By Tess Johnston and Deke Ehr

This United States magazine ad from 1934 for Hennessy cognac gives a somewhat
idealized view of tea or cocktail hour on the Bund at perhaps the Cathay or the Palace.
Note the "explorer" on left reading a map of the Yangtze region. The elderly gentleman in background,
center, is surely George Bernard Shaw, who visited Shanghai in February 1933.
The businessmen behind the young lady are probably Japanese.

On the Nanking Road, looking toward the Bund and the Cathay, at center.

Click here for interactive tour of the Bund today (from University of Maine at Farmington site)

The Palace

The Palace Hotel, built by the British on the Bund in 1906, had a legendary roof garden, destroyed in 1914. The hotel was the site of devastation in 1937 when Chinese Nationalist planes dropped bombs on the Bund meant for the Japanese flagship in the harbor. It is now part of the nearby Peace Hotel, formerly the Cathay.

Left, a label by the American illustrator Daniel Sweeney.

A year and a half after the Battle of Shanghai, many in the International Settlement, although surrounded by the Japanese, kept on dancing. On March 17, 1939, the author, passing through on his way back to Peking, writes:


I left the ship yesterday about noon and am now settled in town at the Palace. Expensive but not more so than the other hotels, the Palace is on the Bund at the corner of Nanking Road, the famous corner where the large bomb dropped during the trouble a year and a half ago. Although over thirty years old, the hotel is fashionable and popular — the place to see everyone you've ever known.
Shanghai is full of places to go dancing but they are all crowded every night. People go and go and go in this town with many spending half their salary or more for entertainment. We absolutely danced our legs off at the Park, Farren’s, Arcadia and Del Monte’s.

A little over a year later, however, a Time magazine reporter wrote:

The first sting of winter hung over a dying city.... The roulette tables at Joe Farren's, the Park Hotel's Sky Terrace, Sir Victor Sassoon's Tower Night Club had none of their old sparkle.


A present-day shot of the Bund at night.
The Cathay, now the Peace Hotel, is the building with the green pyramid at right. The old Palace is visible to the left of the Cathay. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank is at far left. Today, after a deep sleep, Shanghai has become one of the fastest-growing and most vibrant cities in the world, rekindling and surpassing the energetic spirit of the 20s and 30s.


See the Art Deco in Shanghai Exhibition

opening Dec. 9, 2006

Click on above link for information and photographs




East Meets West: Art Deco From Shanghai to Miami

See the Art Deco photographs of Shanghai from the exhibition "East Meets West," presented in Miami Beach in January 2007. Above the interior of the Customs House building on the Bund. Photograph by Deke Ehr







Broadway Mansions, left at rear, was built in 1934 and was noted for its modern apartments with sweeping views of the Bund and the river. The building in the foreground is the British Consulate. Also visible is the Garden Bridge on Suchow Creek. Behind the bridge were the Astor House Hotel, and lining the river, the Russian, German, American and Japanese consulates.



DVD on Shanghai Ghetto: “A little-known and amazing chapter of Holocaust history — the plight of European Jewish refugees who fled to Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the late 1930's — gets an emotional documentary retelling.” The New Yorker

See the trailer. Requires QuickTime. Narration by Martin Landau

Film's Web site and more info

This rare postcard from the 1920s shows the Palace but not the Cathay Hotel, which was built in 1928.
The Edwardian oddity at center is the Concordia, or German Club. In the foreground
is a stature of Robert Hart, an Irishman known for his diplomatic, linguistic and mangerial skills. Hart was Inspector General of China's Imperial Maritime Custom Service from 1863 to 1907. In the distance can be seen

the statue of Harry Smith Parkes, mentioned at top. The German Club was torn down in 1934
to make way for the Bank of China building.

Left, another view of the Concordia, or German Club (torn down in 1934).

The building was as large and
as impressive as the German Club in Tienstin, both serving as a testimony to the important German presence in China.

Below, the famed Astor House Hotel, founded in the middle of the 19th century, and Garden Bridge. Among the hotel's
celebrated guests were Charlie Chaplin, Bertrand Russell and Ulysses S. Grant. It is still a hotel, if a bit tired.

The Astor House was known for its elegant dining room. Right, a postcard from the 30s.



Park Hotel Shanghai


On Feb. 23, 1938, G.H. Thomas writes:

I stayed at the Park Hotel on Bubbling Well Road, where I had a great room and bath. The appointments, the bath and the service are just like in any first-class hotel in New York. A single room such as mine costs $8 a day without food.






Where Renmin Square now lies once was the Shanghai Race Course, one of the main centers of social life in old Shanghai. The Art Deco Park Hotel, built in 34, had a rooftop restaurant whose ceiling slid back to allow dinner and dancing under the stars. To the left of the Park Hotel, above, is the Grand Theater, an Art Deco movie theater that showed first-run Hollywood films. It is still standing today, as is the Park Hotel.

Holy Trinity Church Will be Restored

Designed in the 1860's by Gilbert Scott, the Anglican Holy Trinity Church will be restored by the state-run Protestant Church in China. One of the most famous students of its cathedral school was J.G. Ballard, whose semi-autobio-graphical novel "Empire of the Sun" became the basis of a film by Steven Spielberg, The church is featured in the film's early scenes.

Click here or the poster to see the trailer with its stirring theme song, the beautiful "Suo Gan," a traditional Welsh lullaby. That is right, not Chinese. Early in the film it is sung in Welsh, or lip-synched rather by a young Christian Bale, now the famous and sometimes notorious Batman star.

Set in Shanghai 1941, this is one of the best and most underrated films of all time. It is however on the New York Times Top 100 list.


Leafy old Shanghai: a tram rattles by on Bubbling Well Road (today Janjing Road).
Green space is hard to come by in today's city, as area after area is being swallowed up by development.


Winner Lion d'Or at Venice Film Festival

A rather strained espionage thriller by Ang Lee
set in Occupied Shanghai in the early 1940s.
Starring Tony Leung, Tang Wei and Joan Chen

Link to Focus Features Site

"The Painted Veil" is based on a story by Somerset Maugham set in 1920s China. It was filmed in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangxi (Kwangsi) Province. Click the poster to see the preview and the film's Warner Brothers Web site.
Fine performances from the leads and stunning scenery cannot save this somewhat listless film. The story on which it is based cannot really sustain a full-feature dramatic treatment. It should have been a Masterpiece Theater special introduced by, of course, Diana Rigg.




A CNAC plane flying over Shanghai in the 1930s.






Above, Broadway Mansions is visible to left of plane's tail. On the Bund the clock tower of
the Customs House Building and the dome of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank predominate.
The Texas Company had its headquarters in the bank. Needless to say, the city's topography
has changed dramatically. Above right, Stella Dong's book on the wheeling and dealing sin city
of Old Shanghai is informative if a bit sensationalized.

Colorful Nanking Road in the 30s. The large tower in upper right is the Park Hotel.

USS Chaumont

The USS Chaumont arriving off the Bund on Sept. 19, 1937. Notice the Cathay
and the Palace hotels at top center. The battle of Shanghai had broken out a month earlier
but the International Settlement was a safety zone amid all the fighting.


Le Cercle Francais in the 30s, a sports club patronized not only by the French.


Before "Babel," before "Crash," before "Grand Canyon, before Robert Altman, before "Hotel," there was Vicki Baum, a popular Viennese-American writer of the 1930s who is often credited with inventing the form of a story with totally disparate characters (sometimes in different settings) whose lives eventually intersect through some fateful encounter.
Her best seller "Menschen im Hotel" was made into a film, "Grand Hotel," and musical. Her 1939 novel/potboiler "Shanghai Hotel," is based in part on the Cathay, although it is not called that in the book.
An interesting curiosity piece, if a bit slow-going for contemporary readers, it was made into a 1997 TV film.


I've been looking high
I've been looking low
Looking for my Shanghai Lil

(Song from "Footlight Parade" (1933)

"Shanghai Express" (1932), Josef von Sternberg's steamy melodrama with Marlene Dietrich (as Shanghai Lily)
and Anna May Wong, is not available on DVD, only VHS.
China initially banned the movie, unhappy with its portrayal of the Chinese characters. The film is based in part on an incident that took place in 1923, when the northbound Tientsin-Pukow Express was held up by bandits, numerous in northern China during the warlord period. One of the passengers on board was Lucy Truman Aldrich, the sister of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. The more than 30 Westerners on the train were forced to march to the bandits' hiding place but were eventually ransomed for a huge sum. Notice the actual name of the train was the Tientsin-Pukow Express, Peking-Pukow Express or sometimes the Blue Express, but not the Shanghai Express; southbound passengers from Peking going to Shanghai would travel to Pukow, cross the Yangtze River by steamer or train ferry — initiated only in 1932, the year of the film — to Nanking, where they would proceed to Shanghai.

Here is an excerpt from an account by Ms. Aldrich in the Atlantic Monthly of November 1923:

"We left Shanghai early Saturday morning, taking a Chinese guide with us as far as Nanking, where we changed for the Peking train. We had so much hand luggage with us, we were afraid of losing it on the ferry. With a good deal of bustle and rushing around, we finally settled down in two compartments on the Peking-Pukow express ... The car was much the most luxurious I have ever seen in the East, quite the last thing in modern sleeping cars, more like the Twentieth Century Limited than Chinese. We had a very good dinner in an equally up-to-date dining car."

Because he went from Peking directly to Hankow in 1936 and because of the war
with the Japanese, which started in 1937 and severely disrupted transportation, G.H. Thomas
never traveled between Peking and Shanghai by train. Instead he took a slow
Dutch boat or the SS Shengking (a freighter of the China Navigation Company),
in both directions along the East China coast.
The passengers were surely just as interesting, and he never encountered pirates.

Beijing-Shanghai Express Today

hiChina has recently announced plans for high-speed service between Shanghai and Beijing. According to the ministry, trains on the Beijing-Shanghai Express Railway will reach speeds of 350 kilometers (217 miles) per hour, shortening the trip by nine hours to five hours, The project, however, has encountered major delays. TTrains now running between China's two largest cities have a speed limit of between 140 and 160 kilometers (about 90-100 miles) per hour. The cost is expected to be some $26 billion and will not be ready until after 2010. For a contemporary account of train travel between Beijing and Shanghai, read this CNN account.

A wA wee bit of Britain near Shanghai.

If you think China has turned its back on its colonial past, think again. Thames Town, a residential village for wealthy Shanghaiers, is a recreation of an English village, complete with pubs. Fish and chips, anyone?


NOTE: With a few exceptions, NONE of the images or info on this Web page
is included in the book "An American in China, 1936-1939"
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