Iconic red-brick facade reminiscent of former glory of innovative hospital in city

Qiao Zhengyue
In the garden of Shanghai Bellagio Hotel stands a red-brick building which is the only surviving architecture of the once largest hospital in China, Shanghai General Hospital.
Qiao Zhengyue

In the stylish garden of Shanghai Bellagio Hotel stands a classic red-brick building which is the only surviving architecture of the once largest hospital in China, Shanghai General Hospital. The hospital, often the first choice for expatriates living in old Shanghai, has operated since 1864.

Iconic red-brick facade reminiscent of former glory of innovative hospital in city
Qiao Zhengyue / SHINE

This red-brick building is the only surviving architecture of Shanghai General Hospital. 

“Founded by French Catholic medical missionaries in the former French  section of the Bund, Shanghai General Hospital treated expatriates only and served also as a sanatorium,” says Lu Ming, a medical historian from Shanghai No. 4 People’s Hospital.

According to the annals of Shanghai General Hospital, the municipal council of the former Shanghai French Concession planned to establish a comprehensive hospital for the city’s growing number of expatriates in 1862. Italian father P. Mannus Desjacoues, who was commissioned for the job, raised 50,000 taels of silver and rented a four-story building at the crossing of the Bund and Rue Colbert (today’s Xinyong’an Road) to open the hospital. The site is the present “Bund 22,” a life-style complex on 22 Zhongshan Road E2.

The hospital opened officially in 1864 and was funded by the Catholic church, as well as municipal councils from both the French Concession and the International Settlement.

At the beginning, the hospital was small with only 17 wards and 35 beds. It received British, French and American patients and treated dozens of diseases like rheumatism, syphilis and chest problems. With only a resident doctor designated by the hospital’s committee of seven council members, doctors from other hospitals were often invited by patients for medical treatment. The nurses were 10 Catholic sisters, who were responsible for medical care and administration work.

The General Hospital was developed and expanded after moving to an 18-mu site (around 12,006 square meters) purchased along the bank of Suzhou River where the red building of Bellagio Hotel now stands.

Iconic red-brick facade reminiscent of former glory of innovative hospital in city
Shanghai General Hospital

An old postcard shows the river-side hospital.

A surviving building

According to a 1914 report on the North-China Herald, this surviving building is one of the two newly completed extension blocks situated on the northeast corner of the hospital compound.

“The two extensive blocks of new buildings, which are designed entirely to meet the needs of the hospital administration, one providing much needed accommodation for the Catholic sisters, and the other, known as the kitchen block, being exclusively arranged for the domestic work of the hospital. The buildings have been designed by Mr. George A. Johnson (of the firm of Lester, Johnson & Morriss), and the contractor is Koo Lan-chow. Every stage of the work has been very carefully supervised, with the result that an appreciable saving on the estimated cost has been effected, without impairing workmanship or the quality of the materials used. The building will at once be seen to the admirably planned and efficiently and economically constructed, the accommodation being adequate and comfortable, but plain in style. The exterior is of red brick with patent stone facing,” the report said on December 5, 1914.

Covering an area of 613 square meters, the four-story building for the Catholic sisters housed offices, community room, a parlor, store rooms, sick wards for the sisters and a chapel. It’s a real pity that this building had been demolished. The surviving building in the hotel garden was the five-story kitchen block that covered an area of 502 square meters.

“On the first floor there are quarters for the Chinese attendants and on the second, rooms for the Japanese nurses and dressers. The building is completely equipped with store rooms and a laundry, with special steam-heating apparatus in the drying room,” the newspaper said.

Today, the building retains the simple-cut, red-brick façade graced by stone cornice, arched windows and an exquisite stone carving as the centerpiece. Though simple in style, both blocks were well-equipped functional hospital buildings which appeared “to be excellently adapted to their special purposes.” 

Iconic red-brick facade reminiscent of former glory of innovative hospital in city
Qiao Zhengyue / SHINE

The building’s simple-cut, red-brick facade is graced by an exquisite stone carving.

Both the heating by steam radiators and the general sanitary installation were carried out by the Shanghai Water Works Company, while the electric wiring was done by the Shanghai Electric and Asbestos Company. The two buildings were even equipped with electric lifts, which were manufactured by Messrs. Smith, Major & Stevens. A good deal of reinforced concrete was put into the buildings, rendering them as nearly fireproof as possible. Fire escape staircases were provided to meet emergencies.

According to the research of expert Peng Xiaoliang from the Shanghai Archives Bureau, the hospital was not open to Chinese but foreign patients were not limited to their nationalities. There were 50 free beds prepared for stateless aliens.

“Because doctors and patients of the hospital came from different countries and spoke various languages, nuns of different nationalities were very helpful. There were special wards for foreign sailors, a baby ward, a boy ward and a girl ward. Sikh Indians were arranged to live in the same ward as much as possible,” Peng said of his research on a Shanghai General Hospital memorial booklet, which was published in 1948 and preserved in the Shanghai Archives Bureau.

According to Peng’s research, the hospital grew to have 270 beds and housed up to 150 inpatients by September 1935. There was one medical superintendent, one to two resident doctors, 30 nuns and 20 nurses. In 1937, the hospital began recruiting Chinese students who graduated from the Aurora University School of Nursing in Shanghai as nursing assistants.

Iconic red-brick facade reminiscent of former glory of innovative hospital in city
Shanghai General Hospital

In 1937, the hospital’s nurses escorted American patient Frederick Snite in the “iron lung” to Chicago.

After World War II broke out, the hospital underwent a turbulent period. Between September and November 1937, the hospital was bombed twice, but fortunately no one was hurt.

The hospital staff had to transfer more than 70 seriously ill patients to the Lester Institute of Medical Research on today’s Beijing Road W. The institute was built with assets donated by British tycoon Henry Lester shortly before he died of disease in the general hospital in 1926.

In the obituary columns of old Shanghai English newspapers, the general hospital was frequently mentioned as a place where many expatriates passed away in Shanghai.

During World War II the hospital turned into a concentration hospital by Japanese military force. A number of the 160 sick prisoners from Japanese camps were sent to the hospital for medical treatment, some of whom were critically ill, in poor nutritional condition or even dying.

“On August 15, 1945, when the news of the victory of the war against  Japanese invaders came, Shanghai General Hospital was full of joy. The Chinese military sent representatives to congratulate and present flowers to the patients. The sick prisoners and their relatives and friends who were detained there for a long time were all very excited. On the afternoon of the same day, people of different nationalities gathered in the sisters’ building and sang hymns to celebrate the victory,” Peng adds. 

Iconic red-brick facade reminiscent of former glory of innovative hospital in city
Courtesy of Lu Ming

A file photo of the Shanghai General Hospital 

After World War II broke out, the hospital underwent a turbulent period. Between September and November 1937, the hospital was bombed twice, but fortunately no one was hurt.

The hospital staff had to transfer more than 70 seriously ill patients to the Lester Institute of Medical Research on today’s Beijing Road W. The institute was built with assets donated by British tycoon Henry Lester shortly before he died of disease in the general hospital in 1926.

In the obituary columns of old Shanghai English newspapers, the general hospital was frequently mentioned as a place where many expatriates passed away in Shanghai.

During World War II the hospital turned into a concentration hospital by Japanese military force. A number of the 160 sick prisoners from Japanese camps were sent to the hospital for medical treatment, some of whom were critically ill, in poor nutritional condition or even dying.

“On August 15, 1945, when the news of the victory of the war against  Japanese invaders came, Shanghai General Hospital was full of joy. The Chinese military sent representatives to congratulate and present flowers to the patients. The sick prisoners and their relatives and friends who were detained there for a long time were all very excited. On the afternoon of the same day, people of different nationalities gathered in the sisters’ building and sang hymns to celebrate the victory,” Peng adds.

After World War II, Chinese doctor Zhu Yanggao became the new director and did much work to boost the hospital’s reputation, such as the well-received “mobile hospital” project. The director renovated a truck into a medical vehicle and sent service to people in the countryside.

“The scale of the hospital was very large with more than 200 medical staffs when I joined as an intern doctor in 1947,” said Tang Xiaojun, former deputy director of the hospital, in an earlier interview. “In terms of equipment and technology, the then Paulun Hospital (today’s Changzheng Hospital) was the best in Shanghai. But the General Hospital provided the best conditions and services. Except for the third and fourth-class wards, each ward area had at least two nuns and a nurse on service. The wards were equipped with private bathroom facilities. It was essentially a noble hospital,” Tang says.

After 1949, the hospital was taken over by the Shanghai government. Its Chinese name, Gongji Hospital, was changed to Shanghai First People’s Hospital on January 1, 1953. After relocation and expansion, the hospital moved to the present site on Wujin Road and grew to be a modern comprehensive hospital. Having won many national awards including “China’s top 100 hospitals,” it became the First People’s Hospital affiliated to Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2002. On April 20, the hospital held a ceremony to welcome its 161 medical workers home who had been sent to aid hospitals in Wuhan in treating COVID-19 patients during the past months. 

Iconic red-brick facade reminiscent of former glory of innovative hospital in city
Shanghai General Hospital

The hospital held a ceremony to welcome its medical workers home who had been sent to aid hospitals in Wuhan. 

Today, most historical buildings in the old hospital compound have been demolished, except for the red-brick building in the hotel garden. But the hospital still kept its old English name, Shanghai General Hospital and the founding year, 1864, is seen everywhere, from above the elevators to its logo gracing a big stone fronting the hospital.

This spring, Shanghai General Hospital completed the compiling work of its newest hospital annals, which is a large book of 875 pages. And this river-side hospital is also like a big, heavy book.

Shanghai General Hospital was another health care hospice at the forefront of medicine and it provided hospitals that followed a blueprint for future medical care.

Iconic red-brick facade reminiscent of former glory of innovative hospital in city
Qiao Zhengyue / SHINE

The hospital’s founding year is listed above an elevator.

Yesterday: Shanghai General Hospital

Today: Shanghai General Hospital (Shanghai First People’s Hospital)

Architect: George A. Johnson

Architectural style: Neo-classic

Built in: 1914

Address: 188 Suzhou Road N.

Tips: The façade of the century-old surviving building graced by arched windows and a stone carving can be appreciated from Tiantong Road (across Suzhou Road N.). 

Iconic red-brick facade reminiscent of former glory of innovative hospital in city
Qiao Zhengyue / SHINE

Shanghai General Hospital includes the founding year 1864 in its logo.


General Hospital is reoccupied

The General Hospital reoccupied its permanent quarters in North Soochow Road on January 14. Patients and equipment being shifted during the day from the Henry Lester Institute of Medical Research, 1320 Avenue Road, in fire brigade ambulances and lorries respectively. Three ambulances were used to convey 30 men, women and children from the temporary wards to Hongkow and all had been safely transferred by noon.

The capacity of the General Hospital is 220 beds, but for the time being only a much smaller number will be available. Dr. G. Chambers, medical superintendent, Mr. J. E. Melchior, treasurer and the large nursing staff composed of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary are now all installed in the hospital.

Generally speaking, the building suffered a little during the recent hostilities. The damage to the operating theatre, which was struck by a shell, has been partly repaired. In the garden, just inside the wall in North Soochow Road, are two sizable shell-holes, the missiles having apparently come over the building from the northwest in the course of Chinese shelling. One projectile exploded in the “boys” quarters, which were damaged.

The heat has been on in the large structure for a week in preparation for the return of patients and staff.

In the morning smoke was pouring from the kitchen chimney. From a tree near the main entrance a bird-cage (with bird) was suspended, lending a Chinese touch to the return.

The homecoming ended an exile which began on August 16, last year, when the hostilities had just started. At that time the hospital removed to the new Chase Bank Building in Nanking Road. It was later transferred to the Henry Lester Institute.


Excerpt from The North-China Herald on January 19, 1938

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