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April 24, 2017

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Glamorous history is revived in restoration of old ballroom

SHANGHAI’S legendary Paramount ballroom, where Charlie Chaplin once danced, “golden voice” Zhou Xuan once crooned and movie queen Hu Die famously got engaged, reopened last Saturday after a three-year renovation.

The Paramount, an art deco building on Yuyuan Road in downtown Jing’an, first opened its doors in 1933, becoming one of the most glamorous dance halls of the Far East.

In its heyday, politicians, tycoons, adventurers and society matrons all flocked to the building, which was a place to see and be seen. But in 1951, the hall was closed and converted to a cinema. Many of its original interior features were either lost or destroyed.

According Sun Qin’an, a Shanghai cultural and historical researcher, the dance floor, which was designed with a bit of a bounce in it, was removed from the building.

“The floor was fine teakwood,” Sun said in a book he wrote about the Paramount. “All of it was removed and used to make wardrobes. It was used carelessly.”

Another dance floor in the hall, made of glass, also disappeared. The floor was once lit from below by thousands of colored bulbs. Kuomintang General Zhang Xueliang was said to have been mesmerized by it.

“Nothing original was really left inside,” said Chen Zhongwei, an engineer in charge of the renovation. “Part of the façade also disappeared.”

The lost treasures included an iconic art deco tower that functioned somewhat like a modern information system in its heyday. When a patron was about to leave, his car plate number would be lit up to inform the driver waiting nearby for pick-up.

“The tower was pulled down when the Paramount was turned into a cinema,” Chen said. “In 1993, the tower was rebuilt, but the size and the glass were all wrong.”

In 1994, the Paramount reopened as a nightclub, but its glory days were long gone and the revival wasn’t successful.

In 2013, a three-year, 120-million-yuan (US$17.4 million) overhaul of the 3,700-square-meter structure began.

One major challenge was reinforcing the building, according to Chen.

“There was flaking rust on steel bars,” he said, adding that up to 50 tons of steel were used to reinforce the pillars.

To restore the building’s original facade and interior layout, Chen’s team referred to historic photos. The tower, dance floors, marble stairs and antique elevators were rebuilt.

To revive the atmosphere of the 1930s, photos of celebrities of that era adorn the walls, and memorabilia from the period is displayed throughout the building.

“We wanted to dig out its history so it could be passed on to future generations,” said Chen Hong, director of Jing’an’s cultural authority. “It is after all a cherished memory of Shanghai.”

Now, visitors can dance to jazz bands, watch performances, go for drinks and dine in the hall. Boxes along the corridor provide private space for get-togethers.

“To some extent, the future development of the Paramount is not easy,” said Rong Guangrun, a member of the renovation team. “We have to define what role this symbol will play in the city’s cultural development.”

Jazz is a must in reliving bygone days. China’s first all-Chinese jazz band performed in the Paramount in the 1940s — a time when most Shanghai dance halls were dominated by Filipino bands.

Hugo Cheng, who runs the Paramount, said the hall may also be used for stage plays and for the filming of TV series and movies.

For Rong, the best way to preserve the history of the Paramount is to make it a leading social venue in the city.

“Shanghai is a city largely made up of the middle class,” said Rong. “That group is badly in need of good social venues. The Paramount could be an excellent choice for them.”

In old days, the Paramount served as an upper-class venue for young couples to become engaged and get married. Those functions are still important today.

“Nowadays, most young couple choose five-star hotels for such events,” Rong said. “But hotels don’t have cultural content. The Paramount is a much better venue for important occasions that people want to remember.”


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