This Day in History: The world's longest bar (in 1910)

By Erik Crouch, July 6, 2015

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History of the 'Hai is when we have a look back at the rich pickings Shanghai has to offer...

If you were a foreign gentleman of means living in Shanghai around the turn of the century, you did certain things.

You passed time at the Shanghai Racecourse (now People's Square), which was bedecked with polo fields, a golf course and, of course, a racetrack. You went to shows at various theaters, and hit up Shanghai's most rockin' night clubs like the Paramount. You learned Chinese and appreciated the local culture (just kidding).

One keystone of your social calender was undoubtedly the capital-c Club. And, if you were wealthy, classy and connected enough, that Club was none other than the decisively named Shanghai Club.

Occupying the address of No. 2, The Bund, the Shanghai Club was an institution. In 1879, it was host to US President Ulysses S. Grant during his visit to Shanghai - certainly a good start. By the beginning of the 20th century, membership to the Shanghai Club was the rarest, and most exclusive of honors.

For the modern reader, it's hard to fully wrap one's head around the importance of the Shanghai Club. In the days before mass technology like television or - in Shanghai - even well-working telephones, the Club was a principle means for the city's decision-makers to get together.

The original Shanghai Club building, circa 1908

It was less presumptive than meeting in a specific person's office, and it offered privacy - namely from anyone who wasn't of the highest of classes - and the types of political and business connections that most could only dream of.

The arguments, feuds and decisions hashed out at the Club are now part of history - but the Club itself still stands.

Originally founded in 1861, the entire building was redesigned in 1910 to become the structure that today sits at No. 2, The Bund. The building oozes the sophisticated style that was all the rage in the early 1900s: Greek columns, Baroque cupolas and intricate engravings cover the building's facade - and inside, things only get more extravagant.

For many, the defining characteristic of the Shanghai Club wasn't the meticulous design on its outside - it was the absolutely epic bar housed within.

Clocking in at more than 110 feet long (34 meters!) and another 39 feet across in an L-shape, the Shanghai Club boasted what was - at the time - the world's longest bar.

This third-of-a-football-field behemoth was a sight to behold. When Noël Coward, the unfortunately-named English playwright, visited the establishment, he pressed his cheek against the bar and exclaimed that he could see the curvature of the earth.

In addition to being a feat of engineering, the bar worked as a barometer of social status. While everyone admitted to the Shanghai Club was of an elite status (and male, and white), some were more elite than others. The best views from the Long Bar were taken in by those gazing upon The Bund - and those seats were reserved for only the most powerful bankers, businessmen and diplomats. As one moved further away from the Bund-facing side of the bar, one's social stature shrank as well (not that any of these fine gentlemen were exactly paupers).

The Long Bar, in all its glory

Life in the Shanghai Club was one of drinking, smoking, reading (at a library rumored to be bigger than the Shanghai Public Library), chatting, drinking, eating, drinking and drinking. It was the highest of high society, and the place to be for anyone seeking to make their fortune in the Far East.

History wasn't particularly kind to the Shanghai Club, however. In 1941, it was occupied by the Japanese after their invasion of Shanghai, and by 1949 it housed the Communist government of the city. (Say what you like about the Communists and the Japanese Imperialists - they know a fine establishment when they see one.)

The latter half of the 20th century was one of flux for the Club - it housed everything from the International Seamen's Club to a KFC. It looked as though the Club's time as a sophisticated, timeless escape from the bustle of Shanghai was lost - until the property was bought up by the Hilton Group in 2009.

Two years later, No. 2, The Bund, opened up as the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai - and if the Shanghai Club's founders could see their establishment now, they likely wouldn't be disappointed. The refinement and class of the original has been restored and rebuilt with meticulous detail - including, of course, the Long Bar.

If you're in the mood to rub elbows with the city's elite - or to imagine yourself being a part of Old Shanghai's most exclusive social circles - then it's still possible to saddle up at the Long Bar. There might be a few changes, sure - for instance, the bar now admits women, and the view of Pudong is no longer an assortment of fishermen's shacks - but a visit to the Long Bar is like stepping into a time machine back to the glory days of the Shanghai Club.

// Check out our listing for the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria here. To see more History of the 'Hai posts, click here.

The Waldorf Astoria, No. 2, The Bund

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