Shanghai is home to one of the richest collections of art deco architecture in the world. A mix of western influences and 'Chinese deco', the city's signature style saw its heyday in the 1930s and gives insight into the cultural movements of the era.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, Shanghai embraced the mix of east and west in every aspect, from fashion to architecture. There were large numbers of westerners living in the city, particularly British, American and French, whose nations had established official diplomatic concessions in Shanghai.
While foreign architects dominated the scene at the time, it was Chinese architecture graduates returning from study abroad programmes who developed the Chinese deco style, incorporating upturned eaves and traditional Chinese motifs into their designs. A number of their buildings were situated along the Bund, a riverfront international settlement that still contains Shanghai’s most famous and best preserved collection of colonial architecture from this era.
Chinese deco could even be seen in Shanghai’s fashions of the period – from the ladies' glamourously wavy hairstyles to the high slits in their qipao (fitted dresses often made of silk), which allowed more movement for swing and Charleston dancing.
An icon of Shanghai, the Bund has served as a cinematic backdrop in films from the Bond movie Skyfall to Stephen Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, based on J.G. Ballard’s auto-biographical novel of the same name, which was set in Shanghai around this era. The stretch of colonial buildings on the west bank (Puxi) is peppered with art deco motifs.
Architectural highlights here include the Waldolf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund – noted for its glamorous Long Bar – the Bank of China Building (Chinese deco) and the Bank of Communications Building (No. 14 on the Bund) – the last of the art deco buildings to be completed here before the Republic of China was established in 1949, signalling the end of colonial influence in China.
A number of Shanghai's most iconic art deco structures are the legacy of Sir Victor Sassoon. An influential businessman from a Baghdadi Jewish family, Sassoon brought his family’s business empire from Mumbai to Shanghai in the 1920s and subsequently went on to build many of the city's art deco buildings.
Among the most well-known of Sassoon's buildings is the Fairmont Peace Hotel on the north end of the Bund. During its 1930s golden age, it hosted celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Noël Coward, and countless diplomats. Sinking in for a strong cocktail over some slinky 1930s tunes in the Fairmont Peace Hotel Jazz Bar is a great way to capture the magic of the era.
The Bank of China Building stands just next door to the Fairmont. Designed in 1937 by Chinese architect Lu Qianshou, it’s an excellent example of Chinese deco’s marriage of sweeping eaves and streamlined geometric motifs. And at the south end of the Bund, the Swatch Art Peace Hotel (swatch-art-peace-hotel.com) is notable for its ornate art deco ceilings.
A nice way to round out an afternoon exploring the Bund is to have high tea at the Peninsula Hotel. Tucked around the corner from the Bund, the hotel was designed in what's known as 'echo deco' – newly built in 2009 in art deco style.
Arguably the most well-known foreign concession in Shanghai, the French Concession was a colonial area operated by the French government during the early 20th century. The French Concession still retains much of its architectural heritage from that era, including a number of art deco structures.
The Okura Garden Hotel was the former French Club, built in 1926. The hotel’s interior is still covered in beautiful art deco motifs, from rounded balconies to Jazz Age bas-reliefs and staircase railings. The ballroom has a stunning stained glass light feature that was shipped in from Paris at the height of the art deco era.
Sir Victor Sassoon’s real estate empire spanned to the French Concession as well, with the Cathay Mansions complex and elite Grosvenor House (jinjianghotels.com) on Maoming Nanlu. The complex still draws celebrities and diplomats, and dominates the French Concession's skyline with its art deco features.
During the 1930s, the French Concession had 33 cinemas showing movies from the golden age of Hollywood. Of these, the Cathay Theatre retains its unmistakable geometric façade, though its interior was fully renovated in 2003.
Hungarian architect László Hudec left Shanghai with more than sixty 20th-century buildings, many of which were art deco. The Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum in the French Concession was designed in 1905 in French Renaissance style, and a peek inside reveals numerous art deco details.
Make it happen
For an in-depth look at the stories behind these wonderful buildings, Shanghai Art Deco (shanghaiartdeco.net) runs bespoke tours around the city. These take in many of the places mentioned above on the Bund and in the French Concession, as well as further afield in Shanghai.
Shanghai Walking Tour (shanghaiwalkingtour.com) also offers walks based around different neighbourhoods, including an in-depth French Concession tour that takes in some of the area's art deco gems. And Historic Shanghai (historic-shanghai.com) is a cultural society dedicated to Shanghai's architectural and cultural heritage. They run regular events, including monthly walking tours and screenings of vintage Shanghai films.
Megan Eaves contributed significantly to this article.