Essay

Au Revoir to the Astor7 min read

Bidding farewell to one of Shanghai’s iconic hotels – Paul French

 

The Astor House Hotel, in one form or another and under one name or another, has stood at 15 Huangpu Lu (previously known as Whangpoo Road) since 1846. Variously, it has been called Richard’s, The Astor House, and then the Pujiang since 1959. Just across from the Waibaidu, or Garden Bridge, on the north side of Suzhou Creek, its views have been somewhat obscured by the construction of the Russian Consulate in 1917 and the art-deco Broadway Mansions in 1934. But still the Astor stands – majestically occupying an entire block with its 134 rooms and suites, a sprung dancefloor, bars, lounges and a 500-seat restaurant. The building many know and love really dates to 1911, when it was one of the city’s finest hotels. Now, due to new regulations on state enterprises owning commercial businesses, the Astor, which is owned by the Shanghai Stock Exchange for convoluted reasons, closed at the end of December. Best guess, and rumour, is that it will re-open as a museum (of what is unclear) after perhaps two years of refurbishment.

In its day the Astor (people rarely added “House”) was home to just about every luminary who visited Shanghai. Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, William Howard Taft, and Ulysses S. Grant all stayed there. Zhou Enlai hid out in the hotel posing as a tourist during the 1927 massacre of Communists when there was a price on his head. Many of the city’s foreign press corps lodged there – Tom Millard, who went on to found half a dozen newspapers and magazines in the city, frequented the bar and formed the Shanghai Press Association, a forerunner of the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Carl Crow arrived in Shanghai for the first time in 1911 and checked in not long after re-opening day, as did so many other journalists through to the start of the war with Japan in 1937 when plucky “lady reporter” Vanya Oakes refused to leave the hotel despite falling shrapnel.

Zhou Enlai hid out in the hotel posing as a tourist in 1927 when there was a price on his head”

They all loved the hotel, but the truth was it was cheaper than the Cathay or the Palace (both of which had better-working hot water, telephones and flush toilets). The Astor attracted all the more interesting types. Author, New Yorker journalist, social gadfly and former opium addict Emily “Mickey” Hahn went regularly to meet cockney-gambler-turned-Sun-Yat-sen’s-bodyguard Morris “two gun” Cohen for drinks in the cocktail bar. The legendary American oil fraudster C.C. Julian committed suicide in the hotel in 1934 when his luck finally ran out. Scott Joplin visited twice, in 1931 and 1936, bringing the Jazz Age across the Pacific (and stayed in room 404 both times). Eugene Pick – an actor, singer and dancer of dubious reputation who also operated as a gangster, jewel thief and Japanese spy – was another cocktail hour regular. Pick’s wife kept a boarding house just to the rear of the Astor that was busted for “white slaving” as a brothel in 1937.

Edgar Snow and his new girlfriend Helen (later to become his wife, the accomplished journalist Helen Foster Snow) checked into room 303 of the Astor in 1931, soon after they met. The journalistic coups of their careers were a few years ahead. This, it seems, was a pre-marital weekend rendezvous. Snow, who had worked for Tom Millard and aped his habits, liked to sit around chatting with newly arrived American tourists. He recalled in a 1930 magazine article ‘The Americans in Shanghai’ that one day an American Shanghailander (a pre-1949 term for foreign Shanghai residents) of his acquaintance stopped by to introduce his new White Russian wife to Snow and his tourist friends. She was a stunningly beautiful “cabaret dancer”, now enjoying a new life as a respectable Frenchtown housewife. The Russian lady, being polite, asked Snow his room number. 303. Then his companions? 216 and 307. Snow remembered she replied, “Oh, zey are all ver’ nice rooms, I have like them ver’ much.” The tourists – new to the more louche side of Shanghai society – made nothing of this but Snow observed, “…in the eye of her husband I saw agony; he feared she had been in every room in the hotel.”

Several years earlier, in December 1928, that same lounge at the Astor was packed with journalists demanding to know if the famous American playwright Mr. Eugene O’Neill was, or was not, staying at the hotel? The manager, Henry Wasser, refused to comment. In fact, O’Neill had been holed up in the Astor for a month, recovering from alcoholism and a nervous breakdown due to exhaustion. After arriving in the city O’Neill and an old friend had hit every bar, dancehall and cabaret in the city for several weeks straight before he collapsed. Eventually, O’Neill sent down a letter to be read to the assembled pressmen by his “nerve doctor”:

“I came to China seeking peace and quiet and hoping that here at least people would mind their business and allow me to mind mine. But I have found more snoops and gossips per square inch in Shanghai than there is in any New England town of a 1,000 inhabitants.”

Henry Wasser was the perfect discreet hotel manager and had, unseen by the massed hack-pack downstairs, smuggled O’Neill out of the Astor, down to the docks and onto a boat bound for Manila. The press never got the other big story of O’Neill’s Astor sojourn – in the throes of a messy divorce from his wife Agnes, he had come to Shanghai with his new love, the beautiful Broadway actress Carlotta Monterey, who slipped out of town unphotographed and unnoticed by the press.

The Astor in 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

Another mystery of old Shanghai led to perhaps the best novel ever about the city and one which features the Astor: Andre Malraux’s La Condition Humaine (normally called Man’s Fate in English). The novel, first published in translation as Storm in Shanghai, was written in 1933 but is concerned with events surrounding the failed Communist insurrection in the city in 1927 (the one that saw Zhou Enlai make his bolthole in the Astor). It is an amazing evocation of the city on the brink of a revolution that became a bloodbath. Yet the question has always been, did Malraux ever visit Shanghai? The descriptions of the city and its locations, including the Astor, seem, for the most part, accurate. Yet many believe he never visited. Emily Hahn praised the book, but doubted he had ever been.

It seems Malraux did indeed stop briefly in Shanghai, with his wife Clara, in 1931. This was after his years in Indo-China, and when he was starting his career as a novelist. Yet for reasons that remain unknown, in a letter to the Japanese novelist Akira Muraki, he denied ever having visited the city. Then, when he returned to China in 1965 as the French Minister of Culture, he indicated that he had been before. So Man’s Fate is not pure invention, but is partly informed by staying in the city and visiting the Astor. Malraux later claimed that Man’s Fate was a metaphysical novel and so Shanghai was no more important to it than St. Petersburg is to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Yet it is a recognisably modern, cacophonous Shanghai, especially the Astor with its crowded lobby, European manager, Chinese “boys” in soft slippers carrying urgent telegrams, cocktails in the lounge and – in a very funny scene where the pompous French businessman Monsieur Ferral plots revenge on his untrustworthy mistress Valérie – the sumptuously appointed suites.

I could go on, but time has run out. We can only hope that time has not completely run out for the Astor. Surely it is too historic, too legendary, too beautiful a structure to have a date with the bulldozer. But we have thought that about historic buildings in Shanghai before, and now they are long gone. So here’s hoping that it’s just a brief au revoir to the Astor, not a final farewell. ∎

 

Paul French

Paul French is the author of the New York Times best seller Midnight in Peking (Penguin), currently being developed as a series for TV. His new book City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir will be published in March 2018 and is centred on the dancehalls, casinos and cabarets of wartime Shanghai.