Iconic Shanghai hotel retains center stage in a literal sense
Shanghai is an unusual place. Its hybrid of Eastern and Western cultures, and its blend of history and modernity are found nowhere else in the world. Boasting a history of more than 6,000 years, the city is the birthplace of the unique haipai (Shanghai-style) culture and the cradle of the country's civil aviation industry. It is also where the Communist Party of China was born. In this series, Shanghai Daily explores some of the city's origins and the country's significant firsts.
The Park Hotel in Shanghai has a long, intriguing history. One of its lesser-known distinctions is marked by a bronze plaque in the lobby. It features a city map with a red dot that indicates the city's "zero center point."
In November 1950, the then Shanghai Bureau of Land Administration decided to use the flagpole of the hotel as the geographic center of the city's coordinate system, mainly because of its central location and height.
Located on Nanjing Road W. in Huangpu District, the Art Deco hotel dominated Shanghai's skyline for nearly 50 years. Shanghai's first skyscraper was designed by the celebrated Hungarian-Slovakian architect Laszlo Hudec and built by the Chinese company Voh Kee Construction Co.
The 83.8-meter-tall building, with 22 stories above ground and another two underground, was the tallest building in Asia over the three decades from its completion in 1934.
"Look up, hat off" was the idiom of the day, still remembered by older Shanghai residents.
The hotel once fronted the city's racecourse, which was later converted into People's Square. It was built with an investment from the Joint Savings Society, a consortium of four Chinese banks, in 1930.
The society originally planned an apartment building on the site, but Hudec convinced them that a hotel would be more profitable, according to a letter written by the architect and displayed in the gallery of the hotel.
The establishment of the "zero center point of Shanghai" laid the foundation for urban surveying and mapping, influencing construction of bridges and Metro lines, and aircraft and marine navigation systems.
In 2021, Shanghai introduced a new coordinate system, based on the China Geodetic Coordinate System 2000. However, the Park Hotel's distinction remained, making Shanghai the only city in China that has never changed its official center point.
Beyond geographic significance, the hotel has been the site of many important historical events.
Its glittering guest list include Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), for whom a gala farewell party was held there before his visit to the former Soviet Union in 1935.
One year later, Mei and Chinese movie star Hu Die invited Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin and American actress Paulette Goddard, who starred with Chaplin in the classic film "Modern Times," to a banquet held in the Park Hotel.
In one recorded anecdote, Mei and Chaplin, the two 40-something celebrities who first met in Los Angeles in 1930, compared their hair color during the banquet, with Chaplin complaining about his graying temples while noting Mei's enduring youthful appearance.
The hotel also hosted the launch of wireless telephone service between Shanghai and North America in 1937, and the 1947 engagement of war correspondent Chen Xiangmei (also known as Anna Chan Chennault) and US general Claire Lee Chennault, who headed the wartime Flying Tigers pilots.
In May 1949, Shanghai marked the birth of the People's Republic of China with the raising of the new national flag atop the Park Hotel. Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army sang battle hymns as they marched past the hotel.
In July that year, then Shanghai Mayor Chen Yi hosted senior army officials on the 14th floor of the Park Hotel. A year later, the first group of national model workers from Shanghai were invited to dine in the hotel's restaurant after receiving their awards in Beijing.
According to a news report published in 1951, the Western habit of tipping was rescinded by the hotel. Western food was so expensive that hotel chefs cooked Chinese food instead, and the garage was transformed into an inexpensive snack bar.
The exclusivity of the hotel ended, and its doors were open to a wider range of the public. For the younger generation, the most impressive thing about the Park Hotel is its signature "butterfly pastry," or hudiesu (蝴蝶酥) in Chinese. Almost every day, long queues form in front of the hotel's bakery on Huanghe Road.
"The recipe of hudiesu is nearly unchanged in the past few decades," said Peng Yubin, 50, a docent at the hotel. "The hotel employed French bakers in the beginning, but they fled Shanghai during wartime and left the recipe."
Peng, a Shanghai native, first stepped inside the Park Hotel in 2000.
"It was even more luxurious than I had imagined," Peng said. "When I was a child, my grandfather often talked about the hotel with an air of reverence. Every time I passed by the hotel, I would look up to see how tall it was."
As a guide, Peng has received hundreds of visitors at the hotel. "The hotel is the pride of China," he said. "Its history is unparalleled."
If you go:
Address: 170 Nanjing Rd W.
Tip: Take Metro Lines 1, 2 or 8 and get off at People's Square Station.