China: Pei Mansion- an Art Deco Clash of Civilizations in Shanghai

A stunning Art Deco mansion from Shanghai's 1930s golden past.

Why visit?
Although much has been made of Shanghai's recent boom, the city first rose to prominence in the early 20th century, when its East-meets-West capitalism transformed the town into Asia's commercial powerhouse.

An enormous building boom resulted in many iconic structures, many of them Art Deco, the style that was emblematic of the international jet set.

Pei Mansion is one of the most beautiful Art Deco buildings in the city, and, surrounded by tall skyscrapers, provides a glimpse of the Shanghai that was before.

On Nanyang Road, in the Jing'An area. Map.

PEI MANSION WAS built in 1934 as the family residence of the Pei family, whose most famous scion is undoubtedly architect I.M Pei, of Louvre pyramid fame. The Pei clan (Bei in Mandarin pinyin) were among the Shanghai well-to-do: originally from South China, they were rolling in cash as the family making a healthy living in banking and other trades.

The house was commissioned by Pei Tsuyee (Bei Zuyi), I.M. Pei's dad, who was heading the local branch of the Bank of China and, as a firm supporter of Chiang Kai-Shek, left China later for the US, where he died, earning himself an obituary in the New York Times.

His prodigal son I.M can only have spent a brief period of time here- he left Shanghai in 1935, a year after the house was built, on his mission to become a world-famous architect. Of course, the current proprietors of the Mansion don't hesitate to milk I.M Pei's brand name for all its worth: the house is decorated with various photographs of works by the architect.

It's a mere coincidence that the former house of a famous architect is an architectural jewel itself: I.M Pei had nothing to do with it. But building beautiful things must have been a family obsession. Because Pei Mansion is surely one of the most splendid Art Deco buildings left standing in Shanghai.
In the 1930s, Shanghai was China's most international city, effectively ruled by Westerners. As the city boomed economically, rich investors tried to out-bling each other with magnificent buildings. Art Deco, at that point the hight of architectural fashion, had the right amount of glitz and glamour, and there's a serious collection of Art Deco buildings scattered around the city.  

Pei Mansion was built like a fancy townhouse, protected from the riffraff on the street by a blind wall, and with a large beautiful garden fronting the house. The geometric forms of Art Deco combined well with more traditional Chinese ornamentation, and the house is a great example of a happy Clash of Civilizations.
Deco details on the chimney. 
Many of the original details remain: the garden with its Chinese Deco gazebo, large Crittall-style windows throughout, and a double dragon cupola in one of the ballrooms. 
Chinese-Western fusion in the garden. 
Crittal windows. 
Money was no object: Pei Tsuyee had the first Otis elevator in Shanghai installed in his home- an unusual feature in a private residence, and sure to raise the levels of envy with his friends.  

And for those who preferred to walk, the spiral staircase is beautiful contraption, starting with an elaborate carved stone dragon screen.
The dragon screen at the staircase. 
Guests who arrived by carriage would use the covered side entrance, which boats a longevity wall, which features the Chinese character for 'Long life'  written in 100 different ways, wishing you a good start to your day, whenever you passed it.
Long Live Pei Mansion!
Wonder what it's like to live in an Art Deco mansion? It's easy to find out. Pei Mansion is now a hotel, and offers about 20 luxury rooms which, price wise, are comparable to one of the many international chain hotels that litter this part of Shanghai. So for a minor splurge, you can have a unique stay in one of Shanghai's few heritage hotels. And yes, that original Otis elevator is still there, whisking you and your suitcase up to your room. 
Find your room... 

Lest you forget: we should be glad Pei Mansion is still with us. China has been knocking down historic structures at record speed, and one of the other Pei family buildings in Shanghai was sadly demolished a decade ago. 
Even the mailbox is a great example of Chinese deco. 

Getting there: 
The closest Metro stop is Jing'An on Lines 2&7. Or take a taxi: They're cheap. Just show them the address in Chinese.

Want to make the most of your visit away from the Bund? There are a few more Minor Sights in the same 'hood. Find them here. 

Useful links:
Pei Mansion Hotel website. 
The New York Times on Art Deco in Shanghai.