Strolling Shanghai’s Bund
By Monique Burns
In Shanghai, China’s futuristic metropolis midway between Hong Kong and Beijing, stroll the Huangpu River promenade and marvel at supertall skyscrapers like the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-highest.
Then turn your gaze toward the west bank and marvel at the Bund, a 1.6-mile stretch of ornate Neoclassical, Greek Revival, Art Deco and Gothic Revival buildings, the largest and most splendid group of European–style buildings in the Far East.
Constructed from the mid-19th century through the 1920s and ’30s, the Bund’s riverside buildings showcase the financial might of the great shipping, trading and banking houses of Britain, the U.S. and continental Europe.
For nearly a half–century after the 1949 Communist Revolution, these elegant buildings languished, their majestic interiors hidden from the general public, their frescoes and mosaics obscured by layers of paint and plaster. Finally, in the 1990s, with normalized relations between East and West, foreign businesses returned to Shanghai and once again took up residence in the Bund.
The 52 heritage buildings, with their lofty columns, decorated facades, and elaborate bronze or wrought-iron gates, are not only a feast for the eye but a fascinating window on American and European trade and shipping in early Shanghai.
With grand hotels like Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund and the Fairmont Peace Hotel, as well as swanky restaurants and rooftop lounges, the Bund is also a great place to relax while soaking up views of skyscrapers along the opposite bank of the Huangpu River, an endlessly fascinating stream of barges and tankers, cruiseships and sightseeing boats.
On your 2 to 3-hour walk, take along the city’s free English-language brochure, Shanghai: The Bund Architectures. Even better, pick up a copy of Shanghai Bund Architecture by Michelle Qiao and Zhang Xuefei (Tongji University Press, 2015), filled with vintage photographs and local lore..
To start your tour at the beginning of Zhongshan Road, take the metro’s lavender Line 10 to the Yuyuan Garden stop, then walk north for about 15 minutes to Yan’an Road East. Formerly Avenue Edward VII, it’s on the edge of the Bund and the old French Concession where 19th-century French traders and bankers once luxuriated in splendid tree-shaded mansions.
On the opposite corner rises quirky Gutzlaff Signal Tower. Built in 1907, the red-and-white striped concrete tower is 164 feet tall and topped with an antenna resembling a ship’s mast. It’s across from No. 1 Zhongshan Road, or No. 1 on the Bund. The former Asiatic Petroleum Co. Building was a branch of the powerful Anglo-Dutch Shell Petroleum Company, which sold gas, kerosene and candles to the Chinese. Closed on my visit, its grand Neoclassical exterior is still stunning.
Next door, at No. 2, step inside five-star Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund http://www.hilton.com) in a six-story Baroque Revival building that once housed the Shanghai Club. For three decades–from 1911 until the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1941–it’s where Brits from top shipping, trading and banking houses met to relax over convivial games in the billiards room, enjoy cigars in the smoking room, peruse daily newspapers in the reading room, and lunch on steak-and-kidney pies and other British specialties in the sumptuous riverside dining salon.
Known as “taipans,” the powerful business leaders downed scotches, ales and grenadine-infused “pink gins” at the 110-foot mahogany Long Bar, still one of the Far East’s longest. Closed in 1949 by the Communists, the club underwent several incarnations. In 1988, it opened as a KFC fast-food outlet and the Long Bar was demolished. Fortunately, in 2011, on its 100th anniversary, the restored building reopened as Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund, complete with its signature 90-foot-long lobby featuring soaring Ionic columns, crystal chandeliers, and gleaming black-and-white marble floors. The Long Bar returned, too, painstakingly rebuilt using archival photographs.
The Union Building at No. 3 was one of the masterpieces of British company Palmer & Turner, Shanghai’s most important architectural firm in the 1920s and ’30s. A huge corner building with a tower topped by a gold weathervane in the shape of a ship, it’s renowned for its frame, the first time a steel skeleton was used in Shanghai construction. That early innovation made later skyscrapers possible and, interestingly enough, Shanghai is home to some of the world’s tallest.
Now known as Three on the Bund (http://www.threeonthebund.com), the Union Building houses more than a half-dozen upscale eateries and bars where you might run into Beyoncé, Tom Cruise or Halle Berry. Hotspots include Miami-styled POP Bar and New York-themed POP American Brasserie, the Chop Chop Club for craft cocktails, Canton Table for southern Chinese cuisine, and two outposts of celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten: Mercato for Italian and Jean-Georges for French with an Asian twist.
Continue past the Nishin Navigation Company Building at No. 5, built in 1921 by a major Japanese shipping company. Since 1999, it’s been home to M on the Bund (http://www.m-restaurantgroup.com), the historic strip’s first independently operated Western restaurant opened by Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut. Known for European-Middle Eastern fusion cuisine, it’s been patronized by the likes of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe and American supermodel Tyra Banks.
On the Bund, the China Merchants Bank Building, at No. 6, is unique for its dove -gray and white Gothic Revival facade with a Romanesque-style arcade and stout pillars. Built in 1897, it was headquarters for Russell & Co., once the largest American trading house in China.
Along with tea, silk and porcelain, Russell & Co. traded in opium, becoming the era’s biggest player in that booming business. Its executives included notables like Capt. Robert Bennet Forbes, great-granduncle of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; Warren Delano Jr., Franklin Roosevelt’s grandfather, and William Huntington Russell, founder of Yale’s prestigious secret society, Skull and Bones.
Later, the building housed the China Commercial Bank. Founded by Qing Dynasty minister Sheng Xuanhuai, who also established the China Merchants Steam Navigation Co., the bank granted loans to local businesses like Hua Sing Flour Factory and Long Zhang Paper Making Factory.
Renovated in 2006, the building now houses an HSBC branch as well as a couple of trendy eateries. CASANOVA Dining & Lounge, whose terrace overlooks the Huangpu River, serves up pizza, seafood and other stylish Italian fare. SUN with AQUA Japanese Dining (http://www.sunwithaqua.com), a subsidiary of the Suntory brewing and distilling group, offers sushi and sashimi; teppanyaki-style lobster, shrimp and Wagyu beef; tempura dishes and hot-pot stews, and seasonal “kappo” cuisine.
Stroll past No. 7, the Great Northern Telegraph Co. Building, former headquarters of the 19th-century Danish firm that provided Shanghai’s first telephone and telegraph services. Since 1995, the twin-domed Neoclassical building has housed Bankok Bank, its facade sporting a colorful sculpture of Garuda, the mythical winged creature that’s Thailand’s symbol.
One of only two red-brick structures on the Bund, the China Merchants Steam Navigation Co. Building at No. 9 is striking in a sea of granite-and-marble buildings. Constructed in 1908 in the Neoclassical “veranda style” of the late Victorian era, with columned second and third-floor balconies, it also looks more like a stately private villa than a corporate headquarters.
Five years after its 1872 founding, the China Merchants Steam Navigation Co. bought the fleet and property of Russell & Co.’s Shanghai Steam Navigation Co. After the Japanese invaded China in 1937, the China Merchants Steam Navigation Co. moved to Hong Kong. In 1998, the firm returned to Shanghai and once again set up offices at No. 9–but not before removing layers of cement from the red-brick facade and using special restorative solvents from Germany’s Remmers Co.
Continuing north along Zhongshan Road, you’ll soon reach the block-long HSBC Bank Building at No. 12, perhaps the Bund’s grandest structure. Former headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, it’s now home to Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. Established in Hong Kong, HSBC moved to Shanghai in April 1865. By the early 1920s, it was Asia’s premier financial institution and the British Empire’s strongest foreign bank.
To reflect its worldly might, HSBC hired Palmer & Turner to design its headquarters. Completed in 1923, it was considered the most luxurious building between the Suez Canal and the Bering Strait. Constructed of white Hong Kong granite, with a seven-story central section and a five-story section on each side, the monumental Neoclassical building boasted 62,000 square feet of floor space and was the world’s second-largest structure after the Bank of Scotland Building in Edinburgh.
Visit the Entrance Hall with its domed octagonal ceiling–eight is considered lucky in China–supported by eight Siena marble columns with bronze-tipped bases and capitals. Gaze at the ceiling, decorated with Venetian mosaics of gods and goddesses like Artemis, Ceres and Helios, and eight surrounding panels depicting banking centers around the world. Then stroll through the Banking Hall with seven-ton columns shipped from Italy. In the mid-1950s, when the building became Shanghai municipal government headquarters, the mosaics were covered with white plaster and paint. Thankfully, the 1977 restoration brought them back.
Before ending Part 1 of your Bund walking tour, continue to No. 13, the Customs House, a restrained eight-story Neoclassical building designed by Palmer & Turner, built in 1927 and costing a whopping 4.25 million taels of silver. Note the bronze entry gates with “CUSTOM HOUSE” emblazoned in gold, the Doric-style portico inspired by Athens’ Parthenon, and the 295-foot-high clock tower with a bronze bell modeled after Westminster Palace’s Big Ben.
Former home of the Chief Tide Surveyor’s Office, the Customs House also was the home of the Shanghai Peace Preservation Corps, which helped maintain order during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Today, it’s best known for its splendid Entrance Hall with marble-paneled walls and an octagonal ceiling adorned with mosaics of colorful Chinese junks riding the waves.
IF YOU GO
Pick up the free brochure, Shanghai: The Bund Architectures. For more information, buy the excellent Shanghai Bund Architecture by Michelle Qiao and Zhang Xuefei (Tongji University Press, 2015).
Continue to Strolling Shanghai’s Bund (Part 2)
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.