Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Einstein Room at the Astor House Hotel

Room 304.
When you first enter the room that Albert Einstein stayed in, there is an immediate feeling of modest grandness, that it is old yet cozy and somehow familiar.  The Astor House Hotel was Shanghai's first, built in 1846, and the high ceilings and roomy width mix with the marble window sills and tassled drapes.  I was in awe and at home at the same time.

It all started when my friend Mike in Los Angeles e-mailed me outta nowhere asking where I was.  Last time I had seen Mike, we were driving around Venice Beach in his truck when I got a call from Victor Hsiung of Shanghai Lida Polytechnic Institute and discussed the English teaching job at his school.  Mike e-mails me that he wants to visit Shanghai; I tell him to get my dear friend Rod interested--we all used to hangout in Los Angeles.  Next thing you know, they're both flying into town on the first day of spring, Mike from LA and Rod from Paris.
Here Rod and I are enjoying tea upon arrival in the Einstein room.  I share Rod's glee at the unexpected coolness of the room (I thought it was gonna be dank and depressing) and of course, am so glad to see dear friends in Shanghai, a kind of reminder of myself.  It was Rod's idea to stay at the Astor House Hotel, being a seasoned European and in imagining Shanghai. 

When I looked in my Lonely Planet guide, the AHH also advertised the rooms where Charlie Chaplin and Bertrand Russell stayed.  When I called to inquire about the Einstein room, it turns out that the lady who spoke pretty good English had a special half-price rate for me--800 yuan (about US$120).  Turns out, it's not tourist season; also there is mad construction happening around the AHH (as everything in Shanghai is under mass construction to pretty the place up for next year's World Expo), so it's dusty and a bit inconvenient to get to.  But once inside, it is splendid.Here is the lobby from where we take the elevators.  Mike didn't want to stay anywhere with fat-ass Americans--I assured him the Astor House wouldn't have anyone like that, but maybe a coupla old dusty colonials.
If you don't wish to take the elevators, the stairs are such.
This is what the elevators open up to on the third floor.  Very 'Shining.'
Here are Mike and Rod in the gallery on the way to Room 304.  Yup Ulysses S. Grand had stayed here too.
The odd yet endearing thing about the gallery is that it is made to look like an old English street, complete with street lamp and benches.  There are some old artifacts displayed, like an underwood typewriter an old walking cane.  When I told my friend Priya I was staying at the AHH, she mentioned that this was one of the British hotels that had the sign 'No Chinese and Dogs allowed.'  My mother, who had grown up in Shanghai, told me of such signs hanging at the park gates in this British Concession area, but I hadn't realized that the hotels were such as well.  Anyway, the Chinese staff all wear tux tails now.
So Albert Einstein first came to Shanghai by ship on November 13, 1922.  The Shanghai Daily recently claimed, when a new sculpture of the scientist was revealed, that upon arriving in Shanghai, he was notified that he had won the Nobel Prize. The next day he left for Japan, but then returned a month and a half later to deliver his lecture on the Theory of Relativity.  It wasn't clear which time he stayed here, but I did check in the desk drawer to see if there was an extra copy of his thesis in lieu of a bible.
Opposite of the wall where Einstein looks over the tea table and vanity is this glorious sitting area.  I don't think of myself as a gal who likes baroque decor, but something about this room has huge inspiration for me--perhaps my age is showing through a sudden liking for an old world colonial aesthetic.  Maybe because I immediately felt like I could hole up here for 2 weeks and just write, like Noel Coward did at the Peace Hotel down the street in 1930 when he was down with the influenza during an Asian tour and wrote Private Lives in 4 days (he plotted it for 2 weeks).
Here is the grand ballroom where the buffet breakfast is served.  
It has both Chinese and Continental breakfast items and righteous coffee.  I stocked up on toasted croissants and eggs over easy, since I've been pretty much eating mushroom/vegetable wontons and apples/yogurt/sesame crackers from the Lida cafeteria everyday.  It's weird that my being in China has allowed me to be not repulsed by stiff colonial curlicues.  I guess this is the high-brow part of a world that has become an anachronistic souvenir and has succumbed to a low-brow world (which I associate with global consumerism culture).  

The hotel's fetishization of a colonial moment gives it a simultaneous lived-in historical legitimacy and an amusement park preservation. Somehow this frozen moment of British exceptionalism no longer threatens the simple American who was given a complex by Euro-superiority or the humble  Chinese who were excluded from their own city.  I love the thought that this building existed without media and electronics, that the luminaries who stayed here enjoyed these 'same,' shining surroundings--gosh, maybe I have been isolated in the ruburbs (rural suburbs) for a bit too long, or even more so, away from the West for too long.  
This is what Einstein saw when he napped and/or formulated.
More objects to enhance my experience. The bathroom, by the way, is a room unto itself.  You had enough room to do a small riverdance in it.
When I have the means, I'm booking it for a righteous fortnight.

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