Shanghai in the Thirties

Further Recollections

Diana Hutchins Angulo

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It was with great pleasure that I recently read “The Man Who Changed the Face of Shanghai” in the New York Times. The article was a profile of Sir Victor Sassoon and, having lived in Shanghai and Peking from 1920 until 1940, I had known Sir Victor and personally experienced his world firsthand. And, in truth, my memories were of a gentleman who was a little different from the one portrayed in the Times.

Without question, Sir Victor was the epitome of glamour.

I shall always remember him in white tie and tails, a handsome man, his monocle in place. I can picture him at the Shanghai racetrack, his camera at the ready, or hosting parties for the younger generation. And always he was a gentleman with more than a dash of panache. For me, then a teenager, entering Shanghai’s fascinating and somewhat demanding social world was an exciting, even magical, adventure. Indeed, the images of those days have always remained in my heart and mind.

I’ve written of my “China Days” previously in two editions of, but reading the Times article reminded me of aspects of the life there that I had not mentioned before. Sir Victor was a great friend of my older sister, Babs, and I observed their dazzling world through the rose-colored glasses of a young girl. Looking back, I remember spending many delightful days and evenings at Sir Victor’s Cathay Hotel which was located on The Bund, only a short distance from my family’s flat.

Sir Victor’s invitations to parties for the young were almost a command performance—especially when they were fancy dress. When my delighted mother took over the preparations for my own ensemble, it was quite the undertaking. Everything was expertly orchestrated and required the ministrations of the top couturiers and skilled Chinese tailors. I loved the try-ons—the silks, velvets, ruffles, and lace—and I dearly loved being measured and coiffed, being the center of attention.

Thinking about it, the entire Sassoon family was extraordinary and incredibly impressive to me then and certainly even today. They originally left Baghdad in the early eighteenth century and arrived in Britain to be educated in public schools and then Oxford or Cambridge. All of these gentlemen whom I heard about were superb hosts and very much part of London Society.

Sir Philip Sassoon, a cousin of Sir Victor’s, was Secretary of State for Air and an MP who was, like Sir Victor, known for great parties. It is said that he turned his estates into dreams of another world with white-coated footmen serving endless courses of scrumptious food. Sir Philip was also known for his fine art collection and extensive library, which included a signed edition of Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past.

Another cousin of Sir Victor’s, Siegfried Sassoon, was, of course, the celebrated poet of World War I and the author of many diaries and books—Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man among them.

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But it was Sir Victor himself with whom I had most contact. The predominant memory I have of him was that he was skilled in the art of living. Indeed, his favorite comment when lovely ladies arrived for one of his dinners, balls, or tea parties was a quote from Oscar Wilde: “I can resist everything but temptation.”

Known for his boundless generosity to the somewhat cynical Shanghai society, he was respected and admired in many different areas and among different social sets for his business savoir faire and, of course, for his wealth. After all, at the time he was one of the richest men in the world.

His invitations to parties in the magnificent penthouse of his Cathay Hotel, which had been completed in 1929, were coveted. And recalling some of those parties I am still impressed by the way they invariably unified entertainment and art. Those dinners on top of the hotel were brilliant mixes of exotic Chinese ladies and their banker husbands, visiting maharajas, British aristocrats, and an ever-changing parade of extraordinary beauties with their husbands or escorts at their side. Indeed, the parties were a melange of the Shanghai social world.

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The Cathay Hotel itself contributed to the mystique of the city. In the thirties, the passengers off sleek ocean liners turned the lobby into a tableau vivant of starry-eyed tourists waiting to experience the thrill of a Shanghai reported to be the “wickedest city in the East.” The piles of luggage in the halls were typical of the times: wardrobe trunks, steamer trunks, hat boxes, dressing cases, jewelry cases, special trunks for shoes. The contents of all of these were absolutely necessary for the long sea voyages. It didn’t matter if you traveled via England or San Francisco across the Pacificthe voyage took a minimum of twenty-eight days.

Among the discriminating guests of the hotel in those days was Noël Coward and on one of his visits he came down with a bout of “Shanghai Tummy.” Being Sir Noël, he was able to turn this period of malaise into one of remarkable creative achievement, for it was during this period that he wrote Private Lives in just three days. Later, a discreet plaque was placed on the door of Suite E to commemorate the achievement.

One of Shanghai’s most colorful characters, and a close friend of Sir Victor’s as well as another regular at the Cathay Hotel, was also a close friend of my family’s. Emily Hahn, known as “Mickey,” was the well-known author of The Soong Sisters and innumerable articles for the New Yorker. Her style of living made her something of a Shanghai legend and she often created small ripples of scandal in her wake.

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Mickey’s companion of choice was “Mr. Mills,” a Gibbon who draped himself around her neck in a posture of complete arrogance while she lunched in the Cathay’s beautiful restaurant. For the comfort of other diners, a small screen was placed around the table as Mr. Mills, although he wore a diaper, was not always up to standard for dining out. Once another guest complained at the sight of a Gibbon wearing a diaper. Mickey replied sweetly that it would be far worse if he did not wear one.

The rhythm of Shanghai came alive at the Cathay. Here, the social world dined and danced in an aura of glitter, glamour, and conspiratorial whispers.

In truth, listening to adult conversations, I learned that there was sometimes a slight snobbish attitude toward Sir Victor displayed by some of the British nabobs, but this meant nothing to me. As a rather whimsical young man of our acquaintance remarked, “How can you snub a man who has played golf with the Prince of Wales?”

It is also very important to remember that not only did Sir Victor change Shanghai’s facade and entertain its haut monde, he also gave many people seeking refuge from Hitler’s Nazi Germany hope and the beginning of a new life. His generosity and kindness were boundless and it was through him that in those days of prewar chaos Shanghai was not only an open port but one with a welcoming heart.

Upon reflection and thinking of those chaotic and complex Shanghai years, I can’t help but remember how many happy moments this fine gentleman, Sir Victor Sassoon, gave us—happy moments to treasure forever in memory.

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Issue Twenty Two