High anxiety

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 February, 2007, 12:00am

AN AIR OF uncertainty and worry hangs over Shanghai's most famous hotel these days. The art deco Peace Hotel will be closed for a year for extensive renovations and the proposal is sending chills through the city's conservation community, long used to botched jobs that have steadily eroded the city's architectural heritage.

For one thing, no-one's sure when the 78-year-old hotel's refurbishment will start, or what the work will entail. Ma Yongzhang, its long-time public relations manager, thinks the hotel is due to close in April. 'We've stopped taking bookings for after March 31,' he says.

But even that deadline is in doubt. In December, the owners, Shanghai Jin Jiang International Hotels (Group), shelved a freeze on bookings that was to begin last month. So when a high-level delegation from the cultural relics bureaus of Shanghai and Beijing visited the hotel on a fact-finding mission, two weeks ago, it fuelled rumours that its fate may not be entirely in the hands of the state-owned enterprise.

The spokesman for the Jin Jiang board, Shen Yu, is apparently also in the dark. 'We have decided we will renovate, but we don't know anything more about it, either,' he says. 'We haven't made a public announcement yet.'

Meanwhile, the Peace Hotel's 800 employees are agonising over how they will make ends meet during the closure.

'We proposed to management that they not shut down the hotel, and renovate in stages instead, but they rejected that idea,' says Jack Zhang, who has worked as a bellhop at the hotel for more than 20 years. 'I'll have to find another job.'

The Peace Hotel is one of the jewels in the crown of Shanghai's art deco heritage. Built in 1926 by Sir Victor Sassoon, it opened three years later as the Cathay Hotel. Through the 1930s, the hotel epitomised the wealth and sophistication of Shanghai. Noel Coward wrote his best-known play, Private Lives, in room 314. Prominent personalities including the writer Lu Xun and nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen stayed there, as did foreign luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin and Bill Clinton.

The hotel survived Japanese invasion, civil war and decades of communist disapproval to emerge an elegant, if frazzled, old lady, still showing the opulence of an earlier, lost age. In the lobby, lines on the ceiling, pillars and around windows create the severe geometrical patterns typical of art deco.

But historian and writer Peter Hibbard, who has tracked changes at the hotel since 1984, fears the overhaul will prove disastrous.

'It's worrying, to say the least,' says Hibbard, who will soon release a book on developments on the Bund. 'The scenario is frightening.'

Deke Erh, a photographer and one of Shanghai's best-known authorities on art deco, is equally scathing. 'Of course, they're not going to do it well,' he says. 'They're not consulting experts. Who even gave this state-owned enterprise the right to renovate?'

Past redecorations go a long way to explaining the concern. According to hotel staff, much of the original 1930s furniture, including valuable pieces from the nine prized national suites, was thrown out during one exercise in 1996. Original marble was ripped out of the wall and floor of the lobby, and flat-screen televisions installed around the area that now screens advertising all day. Elegant dining halls were turned into karaoke lounges. Upstairs, Lalique glasswork from the 20s - four thick, porthole-shaped panes with jumping fish in relief - still decorate the door of a banquet room. But the bathroom in what was Sassoon's personal suite has been smashed, and lies covered in dust. The original fixtures have been replaced, although the wall decoration and some furniture have been retained.

Insiders say Jin Jiang is feeling the heat from five-star hotels that have opened recently, including the JW Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Shangri-La and Grand Hyatt. And a new Peninsula hotel is coming up, just a stone's throw away.

Chris Bachran, a former in Jiang International Hotel Management Company president who saw an eight-fold increase in profits during his term from 2004 to 2006, says the Peace Hotel is facing stiff competition. But he says there's no reason it shouldn't be classed among the world's leading heritage hotels, along with the Peninsula, Raffles and the Dorchester.

'It has the mystique, heritage, location and history, all these things,' he says.

Rumours persist that the current management under chief executive Yang Weimin feels the old-fashioned facilities put the Peace Hotel at a disadvantage - properties built in the 20s rarely had tennis courts or a swimming pool. But Bachran disagrees.

'I'm not sure if it needs these things to deliver a hospitality product,' he says.

Hibbard blames much of the hotel's problems on its state owners. 'They don't operate in a sensible way,' he says. The hotel is handicapped like other historic properties such as the Jin Jiang Hotel, he says. 'They're all in state hands, these hotels, of course, and they're not open to any debate or private ownership.' To survive in a competitive market, Hibbard says the owners need to revive the original spirit of the Peace Hotel.

'They need to bring back the essence and soul of the place,' he says. 'The warmth is what needs to be rekindled and it's just not there any more.'

The Fox and Hound jazz bar on the ground floor, where a band has played for decades, was a shadow of its old self. On a recent week night, it was a soulless space with an ugly red stone floor, where bored waiters were quick to pounce on a visitor for the 50-yuan cover charge.

Despite its mystique, the hotel's failings are quickly apparent. Bathroom sinks don't always drain and toilets flush erratically. A late-night call for food listed in the hotel brochure elicits a flat 'mei you' - there is none - from room service. It takes three arguments before they bring the fried rice, but there are no condiments. At breakfast, the following morning, there's no black tea - none in the entire hotel. But the bill still comes up to 143 yuan, which is hefty for the mainland.

Even so, the Peace Hotel works its charm. From the Dragon and Phoenix Restaurant, a converted reading room, diners look out to passing ships and tugs on the silvery Huangpu River, far below. In the lobby, clocks on the wall give the time in London, Paris, Rome, New York - and Hawaii - vestiges of an earlier era when ships from the US west coast might dock at the island en route to Japan and China.

Bachran is optimistic about the Peace Hotel's makeover.

'The Jin Jiang [group] has a lot of pride,' he says. 'The hotel has a long history in China and I don't think they would throw that away. They will look at it positively and do everything they can to enhance their position.'