SHANGHAI — From the small courtyard in front of her lane house, Grandma Qi observes a towering high-rise nearby. On this sunny Sunday morning, the glittering façade of the Shanghai Hilton looks imposing.
“Where the Hilton is now used to be part of the Shanghai municipal government in the 1950s,” she explains.
With her short, neat haircut, Grandma Qi looks much younger than her 91 years. She moved to this neighborhood near Huashan Road, in the city’s former French Concession, before the arrival of Shanghai’s first five-star hotel.
Now, it looks as though she’ll outlive that hotel — at least in its current iconic form. A brief statement posted to the hotel’s English website announced that, beginning in January 2018, the hotel will no longer operate under the Hilton brand.
After three decades, the Hilton’s role as an institution tightly connected with Shanghai’s reclamation of its title as China’s international capital will soon end.
A local newspaper published Dec. 10, 1987, says the Jing’an District Hilton Hotel — Shanghai’s first five-star hotel — will be finished ahead of schedule. Fan Liya/Sixth Tone
When it first opened in June 1988, more than 700 guests from home and abroad, including Zhu Rongji, the mayor of Shanghai, who would later become premier of China, attended the grand opening. Artists staged Chinese folk dances and traditional opera outside the hotel, while the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra performed Western music inside. The Shanghai Hilton marked another significant milestone: It was the first wholly foreign-owned commercial building. And the 43-story triangular hotel lifted the city’s skyline to a new height of 143 meters.
Those who visited the Hilton during its early days remember its high standard of service. Sheng Ning, 72, is a Beijing-based professor of British and American literature who stayed at the hotel three months after it opened. “While I was dining and chatting with my friend, whenever I reached for a cigarette with my left hand, a waiter would appear and light it for me,” Sheng wrote on his Weibo microblog account, recalling his first experience at the hotel. “Overwhelmed by the courtesy, I insisted on lighting it myself — but the waiters were always faster than I was.”
Even for some who never stayed there, the hotel holds a special place in their memory. “To write a school composition about buildings, I went to the hotel with my father one day, and we counted the floors one by one,” said 35-year-old Jin Hui, whose family has been living across the street for decades. Jin keeps the photos he took in front of the hotel when he was a primary schooler. In one, he smiles proudly at the camera while standing next to the gleaming golden Hilton logo.
The Hilton heralded a renewed period of foreign investment in Shanghai, starting in the 1980s after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms began to bear fruit. The same month the hotel opened, the Shanghai government established its first Foreign Investment Committee, aiming to create a more business-friendly environment. Zhu Rongji, then mayor of the city, promised American investors at a meeting that any capital they injected into the city would surely be profitable, and that no one would begrudge them their good fortune.
Arguably, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, the global hospitality company founded by Conrad Hilton in 1919, entered China at the right time, and in the right place.
Still, the chain did not enjoy a perfect honeymoon. In a story reported in tantalizing detail by The New York Times, one diner reported not feeling well after having had strange-smelling herbal butter at the hotel. The tourism bureau intervened and determined it to be a case of food poisoning. Heinz J. Schwander, then the hotel’s general manager, told The New York Times that the incident was a setup and suggested there was anti-Hilton sentiment within the city government.
Combined photos show the Jing’an District Hilton Hotel from different angles, Shanghai, June 17, 2003. Dong Li/VCG
Despite such frictions, the Hilton succeeded in applying its own business style to the Chinese market. Over the years, it has been the hospitality sponsor for many influential events held in Shanghai, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in 2001 and the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Shanghai, an annual tennis tournament. Famous guests of the hotel include American singer Whitney Houston, who reportedly booked 180 rooms out of the hotel’s 714 while in town to give a concert in 2004.
“Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi…” said Tony Quan, a bartender at the Penthouse Bar on the 39th floor, naming the celebrities he had met in his 17 years at the hotel. “Just like common people, they laugh, drink, and joke around.”
With its dim lighting, vintage leather sofas, and Cuban decorating scheme, the hotel provides an atmosphere of relaxation, as well as spectacular views of the city. Until March of this year, the Penthouse used to be a cigar bar. Then the hotel banned all indoor smoking to comply with the city’s stricter anti-tobacco regulations.
Brian Williams, an American businessman who frequently stayed at the hotel while on business trips, told Sixth Tone that he was impressed by the bar’s jazz music and panoramic views. During a Skype conversation with his family on Friday evening, Williams showed them the skyline by night. “It’s a pity,” he said of the Hilton’s now-numbered days.
Shanghai’s hospitality landscape has changed tremendously since the Hilton first opened 30 years ago. As of May, there were 69 five-star hotels in Shanghai, according to data from the China Tourist Hotel Association.
Residents living nearby also remarked that after the Hilton, luxury hotels in the district shot up like bamboo shoots after a rain. Kris Luo, another bartender who started working at the Hilton in 2012, seems acutely aware of the competition the hotel is facing. “I have a friend who works for the W Hotel at the Bund,” says Luo, referring to Shanghai’s iconic riverside promenade. “He told me they would change the theme at the hotel every month. And the bar over there is more modern and stylish.”
But Quan, the bartender, doesn’t seem too perturbed by the imminent disappearance of the Hilton name from his workplace. “For me, it’s just a job,” he says, plopping a cherry into a patron’s mai tai.
Additional reporting: Liang Chenyu; editor: Colum Murphy.
(Header image: The entrance to the Hilton Hotel in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, Sept. 14, 2017. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)