‘Mommy, who’s that girl in the wall?’ | The cool but slightly creepy Astor in Tianjin

By Jim Boyce | Saturday night drinks with Tianjin-based businessman Martin Winchell inspired this long overdue post about a visit to his adopted city last year and a stay in the intriguing Astor Hotel.

The Astor dates to 1863 and has housed guests like modern China founder Sun Yat-sen, “Last Emperor” Pu Yi and U.S. President Ulysses Grant as well as, simultaneously, the consulates of Canada, Germany, Japan and the United States. Oh, and the “girl in the wall”. More on her below.

Many of the Astor’s rooms feature plaques that explain who slept there. One of my favorites concerns a fellow Canuck:

Aloha Wanderwell: A Canadian born adventurer who ran away from a convent in France. Although her real name was Galcia Hall, she was dubbed “Aloha” because of her lively personality, by her husband, Walter Wanderwell. She is famous for being the first woman to drive around the world. During her tour in China, she stated at The Astor Hotel, one of her official sponsors.

The visit is recorded on the Aloha Wanderwell website:

Founded by pastor John Innocent by the Hai River in the former British Concession, the Astor started as a one-story structure before renovations tripled its height in 1886. A hotel time-line states it was the first Tianjin establishment with running water (in 1899, the year then-businessman and future U.S. president Herbert Hoover moved in), thermostat heating (1905) and, during more renovations, an OTIS elevator (1924).

The Japanese army grabbed the Astor in 1941 and put the hotel’s British shareholders in a concentration camp. They were eventually freed—the hotel bar O’Hara’s is named after one of them. When the Red Army took control of Tianjin in 1949, the victory party was held at the Astor. The hotel would see many changes over the years, such as an eight-story addition in 1987 and a national cultural heritage site listing in 1996.

The Astor became increasingly seedy until major renovations a half-dozen years ago returned the mojo both to the older “heritage” section, where rooms feature high ceilings and four-poster beds, and the newer one facing the Hai River.

Winchell, who heads Tianjin’s American Chamber of Commerce and has sent many guests Astor’s way over the years, gave us a tour of the hotel’s basement. Once the site of much drinking and depravity, it is now home to a museum.

We looked through an account book with a century-plus of entries, photos of the who’s who that stayed at the hotel (my favorite is Ulysses Grant and Li Hongzhang, one of China’s more intriguing characters) and menus, complete with wine pairings, from bygone eras.

We also checked out more suites that housed famous guests, including one that today serves as a prayer room for Buddhists. States the hotel, “in 1954, a Tibetan committee, including the Living Buddha Apei Awangjinmei, stayed at The Astor Hotel and a special room was organized where the 10th Banchan chanted the Buddhist Sutra.”

As we walked the halls with Winchell and a hotel guide, someone asked about rumors the place was haunted.

Who really knows, said the guide. Then added: In this very hallway, a family took a similar tour a few years ago and the daughter, lingering behind, suddenly asked, “Mommy, who’s that girl?”

The parents turned, saw no one besides their child, and said, “Darling, what ever are you talking about?”

“There,” she replied and pointed a finger sideways. “The girl in the wall. She’s waving at me.”

Yikes. Maybe best to stay on another floor! Or just stick in O’Hara’s drinking martinis.

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