The Bund in Shanghai, once among the most cosmopolitan and vibrant streets in the world, has got its mojo back again, says Steve King
WHEN NOEL COWARD pressed his cheek to the mahogany at one end of the Long Bar in the Shanghai Club at No 2 the Bund and squinted along its seemingly endless surface, he thought he could see the curvature of the earth. At 110ft 7in it was the longest bar in the world. According to another early-20th-century visitor, ‘there were probably few places in the world where per capita consumption of alcoholic drinks was greater than at the Shanghai Club during the tiffin hour, nor few places that presented a more perfect picture of decorous conviviality’. (Decorous and convivial, no doubt — just no women or Chinese allowed.)
The Shanghai Club is not the Shanghai Club any more — it reopened last year as a Waldorf Astoria hotel. And the Long Bar is not the world’s longest bar any more — though it is surely quite long enough. The bar itself is a pleasingly wacky Shanghainese hybrid of Art Deco and mock-Jacobean elements. It remains enticingly gloomy, even at noon, unless, like the toffs and taipans of the good old bad old days, you claim pole position next to the window. It has been lovingly and thoughtfully restored, so that it retains, for instance, the same languidly circulating ceiling fans that are visible in old photographs, even as brand-new air conditioners, cunningly hidden, do the hard work of keeping the place cool in summertime.
The refurb is all the more impressive when you realise that, for a depressing little while in the Nineties, the Long Bar had been pressed into service as the site of Shanghai’s first branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The transformation of the old Shanghai Club is typical of a larger process of restoration that is occurring all over Shanghai. The Art Deco villas of the French Concession, the synagogues of the Jewish ghetto, the warehouses and textile mills on Suzhou Creek, the traditional shikumen houses of the Xiantandi district — all have been propped up and fixed up, with varying degrees of success, since the late Nineties. But nowhere in the city has the process been more conspicuous than on the Bund.
The Bund is a mile-long stretch of waterfront on the western side of the Huangpu River. It comprises 52 historic buildings that amount to a unique showcase of madly eclectic late-19th- and early-20th-century architecture. Despite being one of the most famous addresses in the Far East for at least a century, most people mispronounce its name, apparently assuming that the word must be German. It is not. It derives from the Hindi for embankment and rhymes with ‘fund’.
The Bund began to take its present shape following the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The treaty ended the Opium Wars and granted British residents the right to live and trade in Shanghai and four other Chinese ports. A similar agreement was reached with the Americans and French a couple of years later. Subsequently these concessions were given ‘extraterritorial’ status, putting them beyond the reach of Chinese law.
Illustration by Simon Fieldhouse
UNTIL THE SECOND World War, the Bund served not only as the social and commercial centre of Shanghai’s expat community but also as China’s front door to the world. Passengers alighted from their ships at the Customs House jetty. Some were baffled, even disappointed by the modernity and familiarity of the view that greeted them. The thrusting towers and four-square mansions of the Bund seemed so much like the Europe they had left, and there was nary a pagoda or a temple in sight.
The effect on first-time visitors can still be striking. ‘Arriving by boat in Shanghai in 2011 is not that much different from 80 or 90 years ago,’ says Shanghai historian Peter Hibbard. ‘Boats still dock in the same place on the river. You arrive here and you look out and think, “Where am I? What is this place?” It doesn’t really look like a Chinese city, and not really like a Western one either. It’s one of the most difficult cities in the world to interpret visually, let alone historically. It’s hard to get a handle on Shanghai.’
It was during the Twenties and Thirties that the city earned its reputation as ‘the Paris of the East’ or, less politely, ‘the whore of the Orient’ — a sleepless wonderland of high finance and low morals, populated by warlords, wheeler-dealers, spies and gangsters, reeking of corruption, opium, perfume and cash. It was also during this time that the Bund grew to its grandest proportions, with the completion of the splendidly domed Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building in 1923, the bell-towered Customs House in 1925, and the sublime Art Deco ziggurat of the Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel) in 1929.
An article published in a 1935 number of Fortune magazine breathlessly describes Shanghai as ‘the fifth city of the earth, the megalopolis of continental Asia, inheritor of ancient Baghdad, of pre-War Constantinople, of 19th-century London, of 20th-century Manhattan’. The author had perhaps paid a visit to the HSBC building at No. 12 the Bund, where this perception of the city’s global status was (and still is) spelled out in thousands of mosaic tiles. The city’s vast fortunes, Fortune’s correspondent adds, are ‘justly claimed’ by ‘a few thousand white men’.
And so, by and large, they were — which partly accounts for the strong and lingering ambivalence, if not hostility, felt by many Chinese towards the Bund. Its imposing array of banks, insurance companies, import-export firms and swishy hotels was a symbol of Shanghai’s cosmopolitanism and commercial clout. But it was also an agonising reminder of how, in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, Shanghai had been summarily flogged off to foreigners, who turned it into a profit-making powerhouse while carrying on as if it were a playground. This at a time when the average life expectancy of a local resident was less than 30 years.
The party ended suddenly and brutally when the Japanese invaded in 1937 — a moment brilliantly dramatised in JG Ballard’s novel Empire of the Sun. The Second Sino-Japanese War segued into the Second World War, and after the Communist Party took over in 1949 old Shanghai was left to rot.
BY THE END of the Nineties the Bund was going through something of an identity crisis. Its buildings were partially occupied by loss-making state-owned businesses. A scheme to sell off the Bund was hatched. The government invited former occupants of the now decrepit buildings to move back in, but few could be tempted. Peter Hibbard points out that as long ago as the Thirties tenants had complained that many of the Bund’s outwardly impressive buildings were in reality desperately unsuitable places in which to run modern businesses. Many of those previous tenants — including HSBC — set up shop across the river in the gleaming new skyscrapers of Lujiazui, in Pudong, which is now the city’s main financial district.
Nevertheless, things were starting to change on the Bund. The tipping point was the city’s successful bid to host the 2010 Expo. Though the Expo concept, like the Bund itself, had faded, the government lavished vast sums on the event — more, it is said, than on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Much of the money was spent on restoring old Shanghai, and in particular the Bund.
Meanwhile, a host of high-end hotels, bars, restaurants, galleries and boutiques had begun to pop up along the Bund. Today they are once again abuzz with the idle and not so idle rich. This time, though, women and Chinese are definitely allowed. ‘Little more than five years ago the government was talking about getting rid of the very name of the Bund,’ says Peter Hibbard. ‘Now it’s seen as a very valuable brand. Everything’s “the Bund this”, “the Bund that”. It’s all about wealth, luxury, prestige, and not just for Westerners but for Chinese as well.’
Sipping 100-year-old Moët & Chandon champagne on a Bund rooftop while gazing at the fireworks-bright skyline of Pudong — as the present writer was fortunate enough to do recently, in the company of Scarlett Johansson and countless giggling Chinese hipsters, before retiring to the Waldorf Astoria and laying his cheek gently down on the Long Bar — this optimistic assessment seems credible enough.
Steve King is a contributing editor at Spears and works for Vanity Fair in London