February 20, 2012
China showed some cracks. And we could see a continent half a world away through them.
Back in the era of steamers, when Westerners sailed into Shanghai through the Huangpu River, they were greeted not by ancient pagodas, but by a far more familiar sight – the decidedly European skyline of Old World buildings at the city’s iconic waterfront, the Bund (Waitan in Chinese).
The country had kept foreign influence at bay for centuries until the 1800s when the British furtively gained foothold under the cloak of opium smoke. Westerners divvied up swathes of Shanghai and turned them into exclusive enclaves outside the control of the Chinese, which ran counter to China’s propensity to lay claim on lands beyond its borders. These international settlements were called concessions, and more than a century later, they remained as gaping reminders of China’s less than impervious wall.
The concessions were still architecturally evident in the city, but the most preserved historical buildings were those found in the Bund. Considering China’s manic obsession with modern development, they had surprisingly escaped wanton demolition. It was more surprising to me that these reminders of foreign domination had been preserved at all and had even survived the devastating Cultural Revolution. Either preserved or restored, these stately edifices, some of institutions that protected British interests then, had retained the original purpose for which they were built.
The skyline may have been resilient to change, but the embankment itself had undergone a major facelift to accommodate the surge of both city population and river water levels. When I first laid eyes on the Bund in 2001, it was already a mile-long elevated and widened paved promenade showcasing the modern Pudong skyline across the Huangpu. Apparently, the city government was serious about the development – the entire scenic stretch was spit-free. Maybe I had not noticed the spittoons; my afternoon stroll, fortunately, did not require dodging flying spit.
So unmistakably British, the Big Ben lookalike clock tower of the Customs House was a definitive landmark in the Bund. The London-made clock was illuminated at night and formed the focal point of the Old World panorama as seen from Huangpu and Lujiazui Riverside Promenade on the opposite bank.
The HSBC Building, although dwarfed by the Customs House beside it, commanded attention for its stately dome and granite exterior. Small wonder then that the Communist government took over the building and turned it into their headquarters for several decades. Despite the name, it housed Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. HSBC had since moved offices across the river. The bank’s modern skyscraper in Pudong held the head office of the first company I worked for in Shanghai. It would’ve been much cooler if I could claim I worked in the original building.
Winter became the Bund; bald trees lining Zhongshan Road complemented the stark neoclassic architecture in this riverside row. And lest people forget, Chinese flags were proudly staked on top of these buildings.
The Fairmont Peace Hotel was the only building in the Bund that I had entered. With its Art Deco colors, it didn’t look as forbidding as the monochrome of neighboring neoclassic buildings, and, by virtue of the nature of its business, it seemed tourist-friendly. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. Once inside, I was told off by security for taking photos. Still, I stole some shots at the hotel lobby redolent of the swinging Shanghai in the 1930s when this was the most prestigious hotel in the city.
The lobby was not as grand as I had expected, but it was bathed in soft sunlight from the yellow glass dome ceiling of the atrium. The walls and marble floor glowed with a golden hue. I surreptitiously had my photo taken in front of a silver relief mural of Nanjing Road that dominated one atrium wall. The artist had gotten the view outside down pat, of course without the modern skyline that formed a silhouette at a distance. In my momentary reverie, I thought I heard live jazz music and glimpsed a group of flappers, but it was just hotel security shooing me away.
The old Shanghai ambiance was not confined to the Bund. Streets around Zhongshan Road, notably Najing Road and Fuzhou Road, revealed their own fascinating finds: art galleries and jazz clubs, reminiscent of the roaring twenties in Shanghai, housed in extant colonial buildings.
The Bund truly captured the spirit of Shanghai, not only its ambition and addictions, but also its openness and worldliness, embracing the foreign into its fold. Although I had not been to Europe, it was comforting to see the vestiges of these concessions. I felt that I, too, could forge a niche in the city and call it mine.