Shanghai | Inside the Embankment

Embankment Building | Shanghai, May 3, 2012

While living in the Embankment building [河滨大楼] in Shanghai 上海 we are constantly amazed by how well this building, completed in 1933, functions, not only architecturally, but also socially and collectively. So we went on a research, to know more by not leaving it, and discovered a history of Jewish migration to Shanghai, four sisters and film studios moving into the building. We found stories of obsessions and renovations, we strolled through its corridors and searched for anything connected to what was once the largest apartment building in the Far East.

In an article on the history of Jewish migration to Shanghai, we read that the construction of the building can be linked to a first wave of migration [1843-1920]. Although only build one a half decade later, the Embankment Building [河滨大楼] is one of the several key-projects in Shanghai 上海 marking the presence of this entrepreneurial generation:

The First Wave of Jewish migration to Shanghai is marked by the arrival of Sephardic Jews from Baghdad and Bombay. The most successful of these-the Sassoons and Hardoons – built many of the city’s greatest business empires, and many of the city’s landmark buildings including Sassoon House, the Metropole Hotel, Grosvenor House, the Embankment Building, Hamilton House and Cathay Mansions.

In another article on Old Shanghai we get to know more about Sir Victor Sassoon, the developer of the building and a fourth generation Sassoon who arrived in Shanghai in 1923:

….arriving in Shanghai in 1923, he immediately set about changing the city landscape. Known as much for his flamboyant costume parties and horse and greyhound racing as for his business acumen, he opened more than 30 companies in Shanghai. His legacy, however, was the real estate he left behind.

Despite having build up for almost two decades a business and building empire, Sir Victor Sassoon seemed to have lost everything almost overnight as ‘Victor Sassoon was in New York in 1949 when Shanghai was liberated, and his properties came under government control.

Embankment Building in original state | date unknown (source; Dan Maolem)

There is a difference between living in the building and being obsessed with it, of course together they form a great combination. Interestingly enough, there is someone out there that shares this feeling and dedicated a ‘That not-so-little building I am not obsessed about‘ post to it. The article gives a great overview of parts of it present condition – I didn’t just love our building in Shanghai because it was kinda quaint and had all these adorable local uncles and ayis in it – and its history:

In 1938-39, the peak years of the influx of Jewish refugees from Europe, the Sassoons converted several floors of the Embankment into a reception center where new arrivals could stay until they could find other accommodation in the Hongkew district. Then in 1945 at the war’s end, it served a similar role for the Red Cross to process allied POWs released from the camps around Shanghai. (from

The logistics behind this operation to house Jewish refugess were considerable as we can read on page 102 in Port of Last Resort: The Diaspora Communities of Shanghai:

Sir Victor Sassoon had made the first floor of his Embankment Building available to register the newcomers, give them something to eat, and temporarily house them. Considering that each passenger ship arrive with approximately 700 refugees, the demands on such makeshift facilities were great.

Embankment Building | April, 2011

In the years between the second World War and the liberation of Shanghai, parts of building served as office space for U.S. film studios like Columbia, MGM, Motion Picture Association of America, RKO and United Artists (source; Shanghai Today).

Some call the architectural style of the Embankment Building [河滨大楼]almost a quarter of a mile long and upon completion the largest apartment building in the Far EastStreamline Art Deco (past) and rather dilapidated (present). Peter G. Rowe and Seng Kuan analyze it in Architectural Encounters With Essence and Form in Modern China as following:

The firm Palmer and Turner was to continue with curvilinear plan forms in the organic layout of the large Embankment Building of 1933, although there the overall appearance was more strictly modern, as the strong horizontal bands of windows and balconies were accentuated.

There is this nice little account, from the 1930s, of four sisters (Mary, Nellie, Ivy and Bessie Stead) who were one of the first residents in the building:

The Embankment was a new construction, very modern, with all the latest conveniences, including central heating — we had only been used to fires — and there was also a swimming pool. There were four entrances, each with a large foyer and lifts. (…) The front of the building facing the Soochow creek was designed rather like a ship, insomuch as the verandahs had a concrete base a foot high followed by horizontal railings up to a safe height. Sitting on the verandah with one’s feet resting on a railing one could imagine you were actually travelling up the creek to Soochow ‘more far’ — a local Chinese expression which means a long way away….

Embankment Building | Shanghai, May 3, 2012

About three years ago, Creativehunt interviewed Tucho Iglesias, founder of CHAI Living and renovator of some twenty units in the building. He fills up another gap in the history of the building:

In 1949, the Communists took over, and then the building was divided. It was given to government, people from the party, and according to the level of the rank, they get different heights and different units, some of them have different sizes. The oldest resident — she’s still here — she moved in in 1951. And then the eighth, ninth and tenth floors were added in the 80’s. The original building was seven stories. The big apartments, in 1949, were divided into 3 and there were 3 families living in them. And then at the beginning of 2000, that was the first time that foreigner moved in again.

Recently, we roamed around in the Embankment Building [河滨大楼], floating from floor to floor, dived into stairwells and cruised around in its corridors.

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