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Shanghai was a place to which the ambitious, the wily and the desperate could escape to discard old identities and recreate their lives from scratch” – states Montreal writer Taras Grescoe in his book ‘Shanghai Grand’.

Why was that?

First of all, the treaty port of Shanghai hosted foreign-controlled International Settlement and French Concession in which people from 14 mostly Western countries enjoyed extraterritorial rights, free of Chinese law.

Secondly, it was a thriving commercial and a tax heaven for Western Entrepreneurs.


Finally, the prerevolutionary Shanghai boasted rich cultural mix, the extravagance and the hedonistic nightlife. This mind-blowing combo attracted ( and never ceased to do so ever since) a constant flow of Americans and European shape-shifters, bon-vivants and adventure seekers.

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In this post we would like you to meet 3 remarkable and controversial gentlemen who succumbed to the charm of Shanghai in the early 20th century, and whose charisma and talents gave the city a major makeover .

1. Sir Victor Sassoon – 1881-1961

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Businessman and hotelier, heir to a great fortune of a banking dynasty which originated from Iraq and later expanded from Bagdad to Bombay and Shanghai.

He came to cosmopolitan Shanghai as a serious investor in real estate with an estimated capital of around (US) $85 mill.

MC (read : major contributions)

·Initiated the real estate boom that transformed Shanghai into Paris of Far East

·Within a decade, transformed the skyline of Shanghai. Worked with architects ( mainly a Hong Kong Firm Palmer & Turner and a British architect George Leopiold Wilson) and developers to build the first true skyscrapers in the Eastern Hemisphere.

·His first accomplishment was the Cathay Hotel, opened in 1929 and renamed to Peace Hotel in the 50s ( today - Fairmont Peace Hotel).

Picture; Fairmont Peace Hotel - 20 East Nanjing Road

· Sassoon founded the Aerocrete Company, which produced a lighter, “aerated” concrete. This invention diminished the load, so his architects could design buildings that would rise higher than 10 stories

· In a city dominated by low-rise brick rowhouses ( Shanghai’s signature, ‘exotic’ lanehouses) , Sassoon’s housing projects offered a fully serviced, air-conditioned alternative to rising damp, insects and mold

· Thanks to Sassoon’s connections, his housing project Grosvenor House had automatic elevators powered by electricity from the supply stations of the nearby French Tramway Company.

Picture source:; former Grosvernor House, today Jinjiang Hotel - 59 Maoming South Road

· Other famous results of Sassoon’s real estate ‘binge’ include: Metropole Hotel , Hamilton House with luxurious triplex apartments and doctors’ offices, Cathay Mansions – 14 story luxurious residential hotel

Picture; Jinjiang Metropole Hotel - 180 Jiangxi Middle Road
Picture source: Culture Shock's private archive; Hamilton House - 318 Fuzhou Road
Picture source:; Cathay Mansions - today also part of Jingjiang Hotels - 59 Maoming South Road


Worked as an intermediary between Britain and Japan,and proposed to turn a district of Shanghai into a Japanese settlement. In order to ensure the extraterritorial rights of other foreign settlers in Shanghai, he had to sell part of China to the Japanese without the consent of the Chinese government ( according to his memorandum from 1939).


A ladies - man who kept record of EVERY FEMALE ENCOUNTER he experienced (which included their marital status and whether or not the specific lady was a gold digger).

2.Laszlo Hudec – 1893-1958

Picture source:ShanghaiArtDeco

Hungarian Slovak architect, active in Shanghai from 1918 – 1945, Shanghai’s Master builder.

Designed over 60 buildings in Shanghai between 1920s – 1930s, most considered icons till this day.The most famous are:Normandie Apartments, The Park Hotel, The Grand Theatre,The Moore Memorial Church.

Picture source:Shanhghai Daily; Normandie Apartments - today's Wukang Mansion - 1850 Huaihai Middle Road
Picture source:Wikiwand; The Park Hotel - 170 Nanjing West Road
Picture source:Fiveprime; Grand Theatre = 216 West Nanjing Road
Picture source:Christians in China; The Moore Memorial Church - 316 Middle Xizang Road

According to his son , Martin “He was very fussy about staircases. He believed you should be able to put your whole foot on a step and shouldn't get tired going up a staircase

CONTROVERSY (but only a mild one)

In 1916 completed his architectural degree and joined the Austro-Hungarian army to fight in World War I Later that year the Russians captured young Laszlo.

Two years later, in 1918 the Russian army put Laszlo on a train to a prison camp in Siberia. Fearless Hudec jumped from the train close to the Chinese border with three other prisoners on a hand-powered train cart and made his way to Shanghai.

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He made such a huge fortune in Shanghai, that his homes were villas with huge gardens. What's more - his family ate only European food such as bread from a German bakery, and he had up to 14 servants, with five of them taking care of the gardens alone.

3. Alexandre Leonard – 1890 – 1946

Picture source:Shanghai Art Deco

One of Shanghai’s leading French architects during Art Deco Age.


Began his own architectural firm in 1922 with Paul Veysseyre, a French architect and their first major project was the Cercle Sporitif Francais (completed in 1925), now the Okura Garden Hotel. In 1933 a third member – Arthur Kruz – joined the company.

Picture source:Shanghai Daily
Picture Cercle Sporitif Francais - today Okura Garden Hotel - 58 South Maoming Road

His firm received 68 commissions for apartment buildings, most of them for the elite, and public buildings in Shanghai: the Willow, the Magy, the Boisseison. Many of them showcased Leonard´s signature streamlines, triangles in triplicate, and stained glass – all futuristic features typical of the Art Deco Age.

2 of their most memorable Art Deco designs are : Bearn Apartments and Midget Apartments.

Picture source:; Bearn Apartments - 449-479 Middle Huaihai Road
Picture source:; Midget Apartments - 115 Wukang Road

The latter was a big challenge as the building was commissioned on the awkwardly spaced piece of land. Yet, Leonard embraced the project and designed tiny apartments within impressive Art Deco Tower.


You may or may not remember this one from one of our previous posts, so a quick reminder.Leonard was married to a cabaret singer and dancer - Anna Ivanovna Nicolaïva Bowshis – Russian by birth and Polish by nationality. In 1941, as his gift and ‘architectural love poem’ to Anna – he completed Amyron Apartments ( 14 Gao’an Lu). Amyron was meant to be a residence for artists and performers, with movable partitions in the apartments for rehearsal space, and a two-storey penthouse for Alexandre & Anna.

Picture source:Pinterest; Amyron Apartments - 14 Gao'an Road

In the same year, the Vichy Regime took control over Shanghai and it was the tragic beginning of the end. The new authorities rid Leonard of everything he had ( even his name and nationality) only because he was married to a Russian ( Anna lost her Polish nationality in 1939 due to German Soviet pact). On March 1, 1946 the authorities ordered them to leave their own apartment ( yes, in the building Leonard designed…)

Picture source:Pinterest; Lobby of Amyron Apartments

On March 26th, the consul general of France and other officials gathered at the French Consulate for the reading of Leonard’s will although…nobody knew that he died and there was no evidence that could prove his death. What happened to Leonard remains a mystery till this day.

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