A slice of classic colonial style in modern China

Article by Natalie Holmes

Astor Hotel Tianjin 2

“The renovated Astor Hotel helped Tianjin to embrace European colonial architecture, showing how it can be put to positive use in the contemporary city.”

The Astor Hotel was built in 1863 during China’s Qing dynasty. At that time, Tianjin was a treaty port, open to international trade and home to pockets of foreign merchants and residents. Back when people still traveled by ship, the city was often the last port of call before Beijing.

“It’s where a lot of early history between China and the West took place,” says Michael T. Hart, managing director of JLL Tianjin. “I moved to Tianjin in 2006, when the hotel was old and rundown but clearly had something interesting about it,” he adds.

Owned by the city government, the property was renovated in 2010 in collaboration with Starwood Hotels, who manage it as part of their luxury collection.

A snapshot of a bygone era

Located in the former British Concession, the building is in classic European colonial style, with chandeliers and darkwood detail adding to the general air of grandeur inside. The back entrance opens out onto Victoria Park, named for the British monarch of the era. “The whole place looks like it did in 1863,” says Hart. “An old revolving door, antique phone on the wall, period furniture… You walk inside and feel like you’re back in the 19th century.”

And this old world charm had a number of high profile fans. In its heyday, the Astor hosted some important people, including the last emperor of China, who would visit for social events. Former US president Herbert Hoover was a businessman in Tianjin around that same time and stayed at the hotel. Sun Yat Sen, founding father of modern China, also passed through.

“You would hear these stories about famous people visiting the hotel, but before the renovation, it was hard to imagine,” says Hart. “Once they put the polish on, though, you could see this was a place people would gather.”

Setting the standard for other buildings

The hotel is rumored to have the country’s first ever elevator – made by Otis, who have their Chinese headquarters in the city. These days, it’s fitted with characterful concertina doors, just like the original. The building was also likely among the earliest to benefit from electricity and running water.

The building’s storied history has been reinvigorated by the recent redevelopment which has proved a discussion point among local people and policymakers. “Not everyone here has a positive view of European buildings and what they symbolize,” says Hart. “But the new Astor demonstrated the value of reusing existing buildings rather than always building something new.”

Luxuriously made over and replete with state-of-the-art technology, the hotel today is well used by the Tianjin’s businesspeople, as well as those visiting for commerce and leisure. “It has been embraced by both Chinese and foreign communities as an important place in the city’s history that also has relevance in modern business,” says Hart.

There’s even an area in the basement dedicated to displaying old documents and original interior fittings. The small museum, open to guests and the public, makes links between old Tianjin and the modern city: a concept that embodies the spirit of the hotel as a whole.

Read more of this article