Initially constructed 80 years ago as a private residence for the celebrated Pei family, the Pei Mansion is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in Shanghai. Today it operates as a boutique hotel.
by Lilian Feng 冯玉平 (translated from Chinese), Photos Courtesy of Pei Mansion Hotel
The Pei Mansion is hidden away at 170 Nanyang Road, not far from the bustling commercial street of Nanjing Road. It’s an oasis inside and out, one that insulates the visitor from the sensory assault that Shanghai can be. Passers by will miss it altogether if they do not look carefully.
The house was built in 1934 and bore witness to one of the most prosperous times in the Pei family history. I. M. Pei, the world-renowned master of modern architecture, designer of the Louvre renovation and its divisive glass pyramid once lived here. The financier Pei Zaian and his brother Pei Runsheng, a dye magnate known is his day as the ‘King of Pigment’, also once resided here, as did Pei Zuyi, the President of Central Bank of China during the Mingguo period (1912 – 1945). Like its residents, the Pei Mansion was enjoying its own success. It was rated just behind the former residence of Wu Tongwen, on nearby West Beijing Road, as the most luxurious home in the Far East.
Push open the compound door and you step straight into a Suzhou-style courtyard garden with waterways, bridges, a pavilion, carved stone lions and Taihu stones. It is said that the Peis selected each Taihu stone individually for their garden. The pentagonal pavilion is the centrepiece of the garden; surrounded by water on three sides, each of the five facets representing one of the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth.
Walking through the garden, you will see that on closer inspection the house is comprised of a main building and a separate U-shaped annexe. As with many Art Deco buildings of the period, it is an assimilation of Western and Chinese styles, but few accomplish that as seamlessly as the Pei Mansion. The main building has a traditional Chinese layout with a master bedroom and two further rooms, one on each side, called Sanjianerxiang, The design of the stairway is another illustration of the East-West fusion that runs throughout the house: the finely crafted curve of the Chinese marble staircase is illuminated by a Western stained-glass skylight overhead. The pattern is well preserved but the pane is coated with dust. It is an original feature of the house, and due to its obvious age and fragility, no one dares to clean it. It is the same with the Shou picture (which means longevity in Chinese), but the mottled appearance only adds to the sense of authenticity.
As you walk the corridors of the building, you come across Islamic-style archways housing traditional Chinese latticed doors.It feels as though you have stepped into a time warp, transported back into the rich atmosphere of Shanghai as it was in the 1930s. Six years ago, design guru Yin Ding took over the renovation of the Pei Mansion and played a pivotal role in transforming it from an ageing private residence into a refined boutique hotel.
Having graduated from Nankai University, Yin went on to earn a doctorate at Stanford. Later, he entered the hotel industry and took up the post of Asia-Pacific director at Sheraton and Holiday Inn. Yin is now a renowned figure in the boutique hotel industry as an expert renovator, but his work extends well beyond that. After his return to China he also masterminded the renovations of several famous projects including Xintiandi, Beijing’s Dashilan area and the Hangzhou New West Lake project. He also presided over the remodelling of the Mansion Hotel, the former residence of infamous Shanghai triad boss Du Yuesheng.
In 2007, Yin took over this challenging project from CITIC Group, who had used the Pei Mansion as an office in earlier years. As one of Shanghai’s most historically important buildings, Yin had to take a very considered approach to the new design of the house and décor. He had to reconcile the need to preserve as much of the original features as he could, whilst also transforming it into a luxury boutique hotel that could cater to every need of its guests.
One of Yin’s most significant changes was to open the garden to the public, and more inquisitive visitors can venture inside the entrance hall to take a closer look at his work.
The remodelling of the lobby and master bedroom are the highlights of the project. Entering the hall, you pass a gramophone and fireplace as well as several other original features. Colourful glass panels are juxtaposed with photographs of Pei family members meeting with political figures of the day. These photos, provided by later generations, illustrate family stories that they still tell to this day.
The western section of the lobby was redesigned to accommodate the Xin Rong Ji Chinese restaurant, while the eastern portion was converted into a conference room, where the Caisson ceiling with its Shou pattern, and a vivid ceiling mural of ‘Two dragons playing with a ball’ both attract guests for their power and artistry.
On the second floor, the two suites that adjoin the master bedroom express the faultless combination of old Shanghai style and hi-tech modernity. The retro radios, electric fireplace, black window frames, Chinese-style stationery box, Pankou curtains (a traditional Chinese buckle style) and Chinese embroidered slippers combine to create an experience greater than the sum of its parts. The bathroom is equally well-equipped with a high pressure shower, a large Jacuzzi bath, a Japanese toilet… not forgetting the plush bathrobes.
The Pei Mansion renovation proved to be Yin’s final work; sadly he passed away shortly after the renovation was completed. The Pei Mansion Hotel is the apogee of what Yin, a man of impeccable taste and a lifetime of knowledge, thought a boutique hotel should be.