When we arrived back in Shanghai and walked into the lobby of the Shanghai Mansions, I noticed it looked different to when we left two days before. The lobby seemed much bigger and where a wall opposite the reception desk had been before there was a large doorway. Before carrying my bags to my room I looked inside the doorway and saw a billiard table with an old man in a black uniform racking the balls. My friend, Toddy, also noticed the new room and we agreed to meet back there as soon as we dropped off our bags. We walked into the billiard room and the old man explained in poor English that he had been the attendant there when the Americans lived at the old (then) Broadway Mansions. When the Communists captured Shanghai, in 1949, the billiard room was boarded up and he stayed on as caretaker hidden away behind the wall.
Toddy and I asked if he would like to play a game of snooker, he happily agreed and then proceeded to clean up the table without us taking a shot. Smiling, he directed us into the next room which was decorated with a few old tables and chairs and a small bar with four stools. Toddy and I climbed up onto two of the stools and waited. A small, old and white-haired man dressed in black pants, white shirt and black apron appeared from behind a curtain. His hair was slicked back and he had a smile as wide as the bar. In excellent English he welcomed us to the bar, placed a record onto an old wind up record player and asked us what we would like to drink. Toddy noticed there were three glass shelves on the wall behind the bar but only one bottle, a bottle of Gordons Gin. We were surprised as we knew the sale of imported alcohol was prohibited in China, so asked the barman where he found the gin. He replied that when the Communists took over in 1949 all of the wine, cognac and spirits was locked away in godowns until last Friday when the Government allowed the godowns to be opened and the contents sold to the hotels.
Toddy asked to see the bottle on the shelf and confirmed it was genuine, bottled under authority of His Majesty King George V. The old metal cap with wire threaded around the rim to hold the cap tight was untouched and the label was discoloured with age. We asked if he had more bottles of gin, cognac or wine stored out the back and were told that they had brought everything up from the godown last Friday, the day we left for Suzhou, and the whole stock had been sold over the weekend. Toddy asked how much he wanted for the bottle and the old man replied: “Fifty dollars American, because it is the last bottle of gin in China.” Toddy quickly opened his wallet and handed over fifty dollars. When I asked if we were going to drink it, Toddy replied: “Are you kidding, I paid fifty dollars for the last bottle of gin in China and I am going to get a thousand dollars’ worth of stories out of it when I get home. I may not even open it then.”
Disappointed, I ordered a beer and listened to the music on the record player. It was Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again”, a hit song from the 1930s, about as old as the Gordons Gin. After two more bottles of beer, we returned to the billiard room to be beaten again by the old caretaker.
Next day Toddy showed off the bottle to our fellow travellers and told them the story. It was our last day in Shanghai so when Toddy and I arrived back at the Shanghai Mansions after our meetings we went directly into the bar for a drink. We climbed up on the bar stools and noticed a solitary bottle of Gordons Gin sitting on the shelf. When the barman came out from behind the curtain we questioned him about the bottle on the shelf as Toddy had bought the “last bottle in China” the day before. He replied, “Sir, it is another last bottle!” Toddy was speechless, he had been conned by an expert, in Shanghai.
The price was still fifty dollars for the other “last bottle” of Gordons Gin so Toddy bought it in good humour and asked for two glasses. We did not question why the payment was in US dollars rather than RMB, or who made the profit on the sale. After all, it was Shanghai. We returned to the billiard room and proceeded to drink the bottle of gin, without ice or tonic, while we played snooker, badly, against the caretaker. The Gordons had aged well and it was the most magnificent gin I had ever tasted. It was like “velvet” and, like the barman and the caretaker, it was as smooth as the cloth on the billiard table.
Shanghai Mansions: Built in 1934/35 as a nineteen floor Art Deco apartment hotel and named the Broadway Mansions, it is located on the northern end of the Bund where the Suzhou Creek flows into the Huangpu River. The hotel has a magnificent view of the Bund and the river. The Japanese military commandeered the building in 1937 but were forced out after the Japanese surrender in 1945 when the building was leased to the foreign correspondents and the US military. During the Chinese Civil War in 1949 one of the few fierce battles in Shanghai was fought in the vicinity of the Broadway Mansions when the Nationalist soldiers took possession of the hotel and fired on the Communist troops from its roof top. By June 1949 all remaining foreigners had vacated the building and in 1951 the hotel was renamed the Shanghai Mansions, the name remained until 1996 when it reverted back to the Broadway Mansions.