"There are people riding or gyrating daily on the race course. Those who prefer gossip to exercise frequent the Bund, a broad quay which extends the whole length of the Settlement, and which is crowded with Chinese porters all the morning and sprinkled with European ladies and gentlemen in the afternoon. The harmony and hospitality of Shanghai make it infinitely the most agreeable place of residence in China."
Mr. Laurrence Oliphant, 1856
I would agree with that. In fact Shanghai has become my favourite place to visit in Asia. I loved my time in Thailand and India, two unique cultures to be sure, but Shanghai was so user-friendly. The weather wasn't crippling, the infrastructure modern, the sights were evocative and the whole city had bags of atmosphere.
Nowhere is this better evidence then at the famous 'Bund'. The riverside promenade which stretches for miles along the western side of the Huangpu. The Bund was the most famous and spectacular street in Asia in the days of Old Shanghai, a symbol of its central role as a financial centre and the headquarters of all the major firms involved in the China trade. The buildings overlooking the river date from colonial days when the taipansruled the roost. They overlook a marble promenade complete with parks and communist statues. Tourist Shanghai comes and goes with boats down the murky Huangpu and magnificent views of the Pearl TV Tower across the water in Pu Dong.
All roads in Shanghai lead to 'The Bund'. The Huangpu river cuts the city in two east and west. The Bund covers the entire western bank. The streets from Renmin (Peoples) Square to the river create a grid, the most famous of these is Nanjing Lu which emerges at the Bund between the 'Palace' and 'Peace' hotels. The nearest subway station is Henan Lu which is 400ft way from 'The Bund' along the busy shopping street of Nanjing Lu. Boats doing trips along the Huangpu tie up at docks on the promenade and the bridge crossing Suzhou Creek enters 'The Bund' from the north.
Before crossing the eight lanes of traffic which separate the colonial buildings from the promenade it is worth taking a look at these buildings themselves. When I first saw them, lit up at night, one word jumped out at me.
I spent my student days in the Manchester/Liverpool area and these huge buildings irresistably brought back memories. Here was huge Victorian bombast in the middle of the most decadent port in the Orient. There were made out of brown granite with a sort of sturdy West European functionality that featured domes, collonnades and statues almost as afterthoughts. One after the other was an art deco treasure housing such esteemed companies as 'The China Merchants Seaship Company", "The Agricultural Bank of China" and the "Shanghai Gold Exchange". Of course they were the headquarters of the great British jewish trading dynasties of Victor Sassoon and Silas Hardoon. Men who controlled trade as far away as Ceylon and Polynesia. The image of the great taipans of the 1920s in their immaculate white suits being ferried around by pig-tailed Chinaman on the way to 'the club' for their gin and tonics is so redolent of Old Shanghai. Of course it couldn't last and when the communists took over the city in1949 these great capitalists were ruined. What saved the 'Bund' from demolition was the fact that many of the buildings were taken over by communist city authorities.
The red flag of the peoples republic still flutters above each of the buildings. But things are becoming full circle again. Buildings that have been ignored during the fifty plus years of communist management are now being rented out to international companies. Restaurants are springing up along the 'Bund' catering for tourists and business travellers alike, and "old companies" like Jardine-Mathieson are asking for their property back.
But for now its a nice place to wander and enjoy the crowds of domestic tourists before heading across the zebra crossings to the promenade. I looked back while I was doing this and the clocktower of the Foreign Trade Building reminded me of Merseysides Liver Building.
The marble promenade on the edge of the Hungpu is pure tourist Shanghai. Its an important Chinese domestic destination and couples lined up along the balaustrade with the great Pearl TV tower as a backdrop. The riverwalk runs for two miles from Suzhou Creek to Shilipu. Its a very pleasant place with parkland, statues, viewpoints, riverboats and excited crowds. The hawkers were the politest I have ever encountered, a firm "no" dissuades them from selling you postcards and watches. In the evening as darkness falls they arrive like an army clutching cheap plastic imitations of the Pearl TV Tower which light up and play tinkling music.
One sight caught my attention - the statue of Communist Marshall Chen Yi. He stands glaring in full Mao uniform looking towards the 'Bund' almost daring those one-time capitalist buildings to jump back to life. Unfortunately, the Marshall has been sleeping, and the "imperialist running dogs" have sneaked in the back way. Shanghai is back to being the port of opportunity it always was...