China: Has the moment finally arrived for Shanghai's pleasure palace?

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After 50 years and £41m, Victor Sassoon's elegant Art Deco hotel is back. He'd be pleased with how the old girl has turned out, says Adrian Mourby

The little metal disc I'm looking at is about the size of a CD yet it dates from the 1930s. When Victor Sassoon built his Cathay Hotel on the Bund in Shanghai, he wanted to create not just an international pleasure palace but the most up-to-date building that his considerable fortune could buy. Phonograph discs like this were available in the lobby. Guests could record a message nearby and the labelled disc would then be delivered to the recipient's room where it could be played back on a gramophone. It was an early form of answering machine.

"Sir Victor Sassoon was a visionary," says hotel historian Jenny Laing-Peach. "In the 1920s, he relocated his family's fortune from Bombay to Shanghai, convinced that it was going to become the centre of a great economic powerhouse."

Sassoon was right, of course. It was just that Mao Tse-tung's revolution got in the way and held back the People's Republic for 50 years. When I stand out on the Bund today, Sassoon's hotel no longer seems as tall as it did in Jenny's old sepia photos. Shanghai has grown up to dwarf it. Moreover, this building no longer represents the future so much as a stunning repository of Art Deco heritage.

I'm looking at the disc and other memorabilia in the Peace Gallery, a museum of Sassoon artefacts that reopened, along with the hotel, last summer. As Jenny explains, it's called the Peace Gallery because that's how this famous hotel is known around the world now. In 1956, the government in Beijing renamed what had started life as the Cathay Hotel after Mao's Asia and Pacific Rim Peace Conference which had been hosted in the capital. (This would be rather like Harold Wilson renaming the Dorchester after a particularly successful TUC rally.) But the name stuck.

Today, we read that Noël Coward wrote Private Lives at the Peace Hotel during a bout of flu in 1930; that in 1949 a Reuter's correspondent at the Peace Hotel observed Chiang Kai-shek fleeing with all China's gold bullion; and that Charlie Chaplin dined at the hotel's Dragon Phoenix Restaurant which, like so much of the hotel, has been restored exactly as it was built. Eight layers of paint were removed to get down to the original pale-green ceiling with its embossed red Chinese dragons. The only thing missing is the polished Emperor's Table at which Sassoon hosted his guests. That disappeared during the drab years when the hotel was a hostel for visiting Communist dignitaries.

Before meeting Jenny, I had lunch in the Dragon Phoenix, sitting where Sassoon's long table once commanded a view over the Huangpu River from the eighth floor. It's a broad, looping, busy river. Coal barges in droves were chugging up from the Yangtze confluence, 11 miles away, slotting in behind container ships. China's phenomenal economic rise seemed to be before my eyes. On the opposite bank, Pudong, an area of slums and farms in Sassoon's day – and not much different in Mao's – now rises like the Hong Kong skyline.

Up above the Dragon Phoenix, another restaurant, the Cathay Room, has been restored to its original Art Deco lines, and above that, on the exclusive 10th floor, Sassoon's own apartment is now the presidential suite. Like much of the hotel, this combines faithful restoration with levels of comfort undreamt of in the angular 1930s. The parquet floor is reproduction but the panelling throughout and the Jacobean-style fireplace date from 1929. Sassoon called this apartment his "muse", because he was inspired by the sweeping views while planning business ventures and the parties he threw to celebrate them.

The ebulient character of Sassoon formed the hotel. Thanks to injuries sustained in the Royal Flying Corps, Sassoon walked with two silver-topped canes, but he threw the most lavish Jazz Age parties in the ballroom (now the Peace Hall), with its priceless Lalique Corridor of pioneering glasswork by the exclusive Paris company. At one event, Sassoon appeared as the ringmaster for a circus-themed fancy dress evening. Though barred from membership of the Shanghai Club because he was Jewish, invites to Sassoon social events were, ironically, much sought-after by the club's all-English committee. (The affable Victor said the paradox amused him.)

The spacious Jasmine Lounge on the ground floor is devoted to Sassoon's very British love of tea. There is no longer a "tea sommelier" as in his day, but the menu is dense with all the tisanes on offer. Coffee is also available, but is not listed. The nearby bar retains the faux rafters and half-timbered panelling that the owner had installed in 1929 because he wanted this dark corner bar – which he named The Fox & Hound – to resemble an English pub although once word got around that some of Shanghai's best jazz was played in the hotel, it became known as the Jazz Bar.

The orchestra disbanded after the Communist Revolution, but as times changed during the 1990s the same players regrouped as the Old Peace Hotel Band and can now be heard every evening at 6.30. They are, of course, ancient now – the lead trumpet died recently, aged 92 – but they play old-time dance numbers like "Slow Boat to China" and "Begin the Beguine" solidly, each lasting exactly three minutes. I prefer Theo Croker, grandson of the great Doc Cheatham, whose sestet comes on afterwards, but there's no doubting that the band is a living link with the Peace Hotel's heyday.

It cost more than £41m to refurbish this hotel and much of the work simply involved removing layers of paint, regilding, replacing broken glass or cracked marble. The biggest job was reuniting the hotel's two receptions. Main reception was always intended to be on the Bund with an impressive side entrance on Nanjing Road, Shanghai's premiere shopping street. "But the British architects failed to consult the feng shui by having the front door opening on to running water," Jenny tells me. "So, soon after the hotel's opening, reception was moved to the side entrance."

These two long corridors converged at 90 degrees, originally meeting in an octagonal central light-well, brilliantly finished in marble – the beating heart of the old hotel. After the Communists took over in 1949, the section facing the Bund remained a hotel while the Nanjing Road side was given over to apartments and offices. Reception was moved back to the Bund and a concrete wall built that cut the hotel off from its light-well. The recent restoration has not only moved reception back but taken down the wall, thus reuniting both halves.

Every evening now, a string trio plays Strauss and Lehár in the light-well beneath the idiosyncratic coats of arms that Sassoon designed. There are eight of them, pairs of animals seeming to support the eight marble pillars. I couldn't work out what they were until Jenny pointed out that they're actually brown racing whippets picked out in gold leaf. "Sir Victor loved racing his dogs," she says. It's an odd image, one of Sassoon's stranger indulgences, but, rendered geometric by Art Deco, they don't look out of place.

A restoration like this is a delicate balancing act. A total museum piece would not be a comfortable hotel. Today's guests expect beds that would have been the size of a room in Sassoon's day, and you could not walk into a wardrobe in the 1930s.

Outside, much has changed on the Bund. The gardens alongside the river – where neither dogs nor Chinese were allowed – have been replaced by a high embankment that acts like a viewing platform for Pudong across the river. The statue of the British envoy Sir Harry Parkes, which faced the hotel while it was being built, was long ago replaced by a statue of Chen Yi, poet, revolutionary leader and first Communist mayor of Shanghai. But in many respects what has happened in recent years is simply the fulfilment of Shanghai and China as a major trading nation. Nowhere is this more spectacularly seen than along the Bund. Having led the way, the Peace Hotel with its famous green pyramidical roof now presides, centre stage like a proud mother whose children have outgrown her.

As for Sassoon, by 1948 he could see history was against him. To avoid drawing attention, one morning he packed a single suitcase and quietly boarded a boat out of Shanghai. "I gave up on India – and China gave me up," he remarked. Sassoon lived out the rest of his days in the Bahamas. Photos in the Peace Gallery show him looking tanned and jovial at the end of his life, but it would be another 60 years before his hotel would be restored to the glamour he loved. Wherever he is partying now, I'm sure he's proud of how the old girl looks.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Bales (08456 345115; balesworld wide.com) offers a three-night Power Break at the Peace Hotel from £1,225 per person, based on two sharing, including return air fares, transfers and three nights' B&B.

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