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Notes on the Geography of China: Shanghai:The Bund

It's a bit of a mystery, but the famous Shanghai waterfront, called Wai Tan in Chinese, is called in English the Bund, a term that (as band) is used in Hindi, Persian, and Sanskrit to indicate an embankment to control water.   Presumably, the name was applied here by a European with experience in South Asia--not improbable, since the first European to urge the development of a base in China was Frederick Pigou of the East India Company. That was in 1756, almost a century before the actual establishment of a European settlement here.

The buildings along the Bund flaunt their European origin, but the Chinese today are happy to retain these massive symbols of a hated era, perhaps because the same buildings also mark an early phase of China's entry onto the world stage.  In that vein, the characters wai and tan literally mean "outside" and "beach."  The polite translation might be "waterfront," but the perhaps more accurate reading is "Outsider's Beach," or "Foreigner's Beach."

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China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 1

Here's the view looking upstream or south from the head of the Bund. On the left, just out of sight, is the Huangpu River. The road itself began as a towpath, and unlike other parts of Shanghai's waterfront, its side facing the water was kept open and never built up. A tramline began running up and down the Bund in 1908. It's gone, so we'll have to walk. We'll go straight through the picture, but before we do that, we have to turn around a minute. Before we do, maybe we should get in a suitably commercial mood by remembering John Wharton MacLellan, whose Story of Shanghai from the Opening of the Port to Foreign Trade (1889) recalls that "Commerce was the beginning, middle and end of our life in China. If there were no trade, not a single man, except missionaries, would have come there at all" (p. 16).

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 2

We're looking across Suzhou Creek, which flows east to join the Huangpu. The tall building is the Broadway Mansions hotel, built as an office and apartment building by the Shanghai Land Investment Company and opened in 1934 to a design by Bright Fraser. How did the Bayer logo get on the roof? Don't know. The building cropped on the right is the Russian Consulate.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 3

The Russian consulate was built in the (for the Romanovs) terrible year 1917. Behind on the left is the famous Astor House, the city's first Western hotel. The hotel's owners can't have been pleased to lose their view.

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A close-up of that hotel, which opened in 1846 but was rebuilt in 1907.

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We've come back to the head of the Bund, or the Waitanyuan. The building in the center was built as the Banque de Indo-Chine in 1914 but is now the China Guangda (Everbright) Bank.

Off to the right is the site of the Shanghai Bund Origin Project, a joint venture of the Rockefeller Group International, which despite its name is actually a Mitsubishi subsidiary, and the New Huangpu Group, controlled by the People's Daily, the government newspaper. It's a big project, calling for the renovation of 14 buildings in the area bounded by Suzhou Creek on the north, the Huangpu on the east, Sichuan Zhonglu on the west and Dianchi Lu on the south; the goal is a mixed-use residential and retail complex. In the increasingly standardized Chinese use of the term, "renovate" probably means retain the facade and rebuild everything behind it. The first stage of the project was construction of a Peninsula hotel.

How do locals feel about it? "Qiang fangzi! Qiang fangzi!" "House robbers! House robbers!" That was the cry from residents forced to move. (Don Lee in Los Angeles Times, 22 July 06)

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 6

The same, taken in February '07, with cranes getting to work.

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A block behind those cranes: an old theater was presumably also part of the project.

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There's lots of decrepit but structurally sound stuff back here. For example: the massive building at the corner of Central Sichuan and E. Beijing roads.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 9

This adjoining building on the Bund, from 1922, is another part of the Everbright Bank. Originally, it contained the Shanghai office of the Glen Line, which ran 80 ships; it also had the general manager's apartment. The Glen Line had begun with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and it ended as an independent line in 1911 when Glen became part of Elder Dempster, which in 1935 became part of Blue Funnel. The company's last ship was sold in 1978. Until 1949, the American government rented space in the building, first for the Navy, then forthe American consulate.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 10

The Shanghai Foreign Trade Building, built in 1920 for one of the most famous British companies operating in China. Founded in 1832 by two Scotsmen in Canton, the company soon was shipping tea to England. In 1841 it was the first buyer of land in Hong Kong, and in 1844 it came to Shanghai. By the 1850s it was running steamships to India, and by the 1870s it was building a railroad inland from Shanghai to Wuhan. In 1898 it helped establish Hong Kong's Star Ferry. Its headquarters were in Shanghai from 1912 until the move to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover. Since then, it's operated hotels, beginning with the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong in 1963. It also holds franchises for 7-11 and Pizza Hut. It quit the shipping business in 1984 and, with the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong, moved its headquarters to Bermuda.

Figured it out yet? Answer: Jardine Matheson and Company.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 11

The tall building in the center is the 1937 Bank of China, from the outset Chinese owned and a key institution in the development of modern banking in China. On its right is the Yokohama Specie Bank, built in 1924 and later housing the Central Bank of China and then the China Industrial and Commercial Bank. Further right, the Yangtze Insurance Building (1916).

Nodding to Chinese tradition, the Bank of China building, designed by the firm of Palmer and Turner in collaboration with Lu Qianshou, incorporates slightly curling roof brackets or dougong.

The Yokohama Specie Bank is a useful reminder of the early Japanese presence in Shanghai, easily overlooked. In 1870, the city had 894 British residents, followed in second place by 255 Americans. The Japanese, with 7 residents, were outnumbered even by the Portuguese, Germans, and Spanish. By 1900, however, the Japanese had risen to second place with 736 residents, still well behind the British, with 2,691. By 1915, the Japanese had risen to first place, with 7,169 residents, well ahead of the 4,822 Brits. By 1930, the city had 18,478 Japanese residents and only 6,221 Brits. (Figures from Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren's very useful Building Shanghai: The Story of China's Gateway, 2006.)

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 12

The pyramidal building is the Sassoon House (now the Fairmont Peace Hotel), built in 1929 and boasting air-conditioned ballrooms. It was the city's tallest building, resting on thousands of wooden piles driven into the muck. The Sassoons, originally from Baghdad, came to China from India, where they had made a fortune in the opium trade. In a sense, the money they invested here was only returning home. On the left is the older Palace Hotel, Shanghai's biggest building when opened in 1906 and now operating as part of the Peace.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 13

Adjoining the old Palace Hotel is the Chartered Bank building of 1923. The bank was established in 1853 and by 1858 had offices in Calcutta, Bombay, and Shanghai. It's still in business, though merged in 1969 to form the Standard and Chartered Bank.

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Another view of the same building, this time taken early in 2007, when the ground floor had been rented to Cartier. Call it the New Bund, as Westernized as ever.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 15

Next door, the North China Daily News Building of 1921, since 1996 housing the Shanghai office of American International Assurance (part of AIG). Contrary to what you might expect, AIG was founded not in New York but here in Shanghai in 1919.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 16

The former Bank of Taiwan, from 1924.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 17

The Jiang Hai Custom House, 1927. It's still the custom house, though ships no longer clear customs at the jetty opposite. The building still retains the clock of the original customs house of 1843. On its right, an edge of the German Asiatic Bank, 1940, later the Bank of Communications Building and now the Federation of Trade Unions Building.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 18

This is the central part of the facade of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building, from 1923; now it's the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. The HSBC was set up in 1865 by the Hong Kong superintendent of the P&O steamship line. He foresaw the need for a local bank organized, as he put it, on "Scottish banking principles." The Shanghai office opened the same year; offices opened in Japan a year later and in Bangkok in 1888. This building was one of three hte bank opened at about the same time: one in Manila opened a year earlier and one in Bangkok a year later. The bank's Hong Kong headquarters were opened in 1935. Like Jardine and Matheson seeking a safe haven, HSBC left Hong Kong with the last British governor. The bank headquarters is now in London, in a building housing 8,000 staff at Canary Wharf. It's been a while, in other words, since the top floor here housed the private apartments of HSBC officers.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 19

Portico plaque. The architect, George Wilson, asked for an extra $1 million "to enhance the building." He was told to "spare no expense but dominate the Bund." (F. King, The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, 1988, vol. 2, p. 132.) Wilson also designed the Union Assurance Company and Sassoon House, now the Peace Hotel.

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China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 21

Under the dome, a rotunda of Italian marble. The building rests on 2,600 piles of Oregon pine and was especially reinforced at the corner with the bank treasury, in the distance here.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 22

Banking hall.

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The China Merchants Bank Building of 1907; now, the Bangkok Bank.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 24

The original China Merchants Bank building, from 1897.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 25

Restoration in progress in 2007.

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China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 27

The Union Assurance Company building of 1922, Shanghai's first steel-framed office building; later, it housed the Shanghai Jiatong Real Estate Company.

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A window in that building promises great things. Any ideas?

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China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 30

The doors, originally a bright lacquer red, were removed when customers made it clear that they wanted a Western look.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 31

Around the corner, Hugo Boss.

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Union Insurance on the right; the Shanghai Club in the middle; on the left, the McBain Building.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 33

The Shanghai Club was established on this site in 1865 and occupied this building from 1910 to 1949. The building then became the Dong Feng or "East Wind" Hotel. The oddly sunken entrance illustrates the problem with subsidence along the bund.

Harold Acton came by in the 1930s and later recollected: "The tone of conversation in the Shanghai Club with its longest bar in the world was intensely anti-Chinese, and when I ventured to protest I was just told I was not qualified to have an opinion. Thirty years--and sometimes more--without troubling to learn the language, and these 'Old China Hands' pickled in alcohol considered themselves supreme authorities on the country and the people. They prided themselves on never mixing with the 'natives'. Was it due to the climate? They were inveterate grumblers. A traveller fresh from Europe who, instead of sozzling, went about sober with his eyes open, was plain 'green'; his views were worthless, and if he had learnt the lingo--well, the poor devil was past praying for" (Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948, p. 291).

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 34

Club entrance, showing subsidence. The building now houses a Hilton Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 35

The McBain Building, built by George McBain as a combination office and apartment building, housed for many years the North China office of Asiatic Petroleum, which had been established in 1903 as a joint-marketing operation by Shell and Royal Dutch, not yet joined. Shell was forced to leave China in 1966 but returned, in 1970. The building now houses the Pacific Insurance Company.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 36

Shanghai has many European buildings off the Bund. This one, startlingly out of place near the Bund end of Fuzhow Road, housed Calbeck Macgregor and Company, wine merchants.

China: Shanghai:The Bund picture 37

Another view. (For more on buildings of this era, see Tess Johnston and Deke Erh's A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai, 1993.)

All in all, what shall we make of the Bund? It's become so iconic that it generally escapes judgment, but Harold Acton wasn't fooled. "The Bund was a ponderous parody of the palaces which men delight to build along all rivers, along the Thames, the Seine, the Hudson, the Arno. But along the rivers of Europe and along the Hudson, there is something noble about the buildings. The Louvre belongs to the Seine, the Houses of Parliament to the Thames: you may not like the architecture but you have to admit its integrity and a certain splendour. Each is a product of its own civilization; these monuments are habitable by the sort of man who made them: they have personality. But the buildings along the Shanghai Bund do not look man-made: they have little connexion with the people of China; they are poisonous toadstools sprung up from the mud, a long line of pompous toadstools raised by anonymous banks, trusts and commercial firms. Imposing from the river with their turrets and clock-towers, but essentially soulless: no court or government had designed them and given them life. There they stand trying to give materialism importance, but they fail." (Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948, p. 292.)

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