The Bund has become something of an emblem for the city of Shanghai and is widely considered to be its most well-known tourist attraction. Its name serves as a testament to the city’s cosmopolitan nature, as it was coined by British expats and derives from the Persian word “band”, which means embankment or levee. As a harbour city, Shanghai has seen more foreign merchants, visitors, and residents over the years than some Chinese cities will see in their lifetime. Yet these expats weren’t just content to live in the city; they had to make their mark on it too!
Traditionally speaking, the Bund centres on a stretch of Zhongshan Road that runs alongside the Huangpu River, beginning at Yan’an Road in the south and ending at Waibaidu Bridge in the north. Futuristic skyscrapers belonging to the Pudong District rise up on the east bank, while the west bank is flanked by 52 buildings dating back to the 19th century. These distinctly colonial constructions adhere to a variety of architectural styles, including Eclecticist, Romanesque Revival, Gothic Revival, Renaissance Revival, Baroque Revival, Neo-Classical, Beaux-Arts, and a number in the Art Deco style. It’s a History of Art major’s paradise; or nightmare, depending upon their tastes!
After the First Opium War (1839-1842), China signed an agreement known as the Treaty of Nanking, which named Shanghai as one of five Chinese seaports to be opened up to unrestricted foreign trade. In 1846, Great Britain established its consulate on the Bund and, not long thereafter, several foreign countries followed suite. The area surrounding it became one of the first foreign concessions in Shanghai and, when the British concession was combined with the American one in 1863, it became known as the Shanghai International Settlement.
In the early 20th century, it swiftly evolved into Shanghai’s political, economic, and cultural centre, with numerous banks, businesses, hotels, newspaper offices, and luxurious gentleman’s clubs setting up on its expanse. Granite from Japan, marble from Italy, fixtures from England; all of the finest materials were imported into Shanghai in order to construct these lavish buildings. In short, no expense was spared! During the 1920s, it became the hottest piece of real estate in the city and companies from across the globe scrambled to make their mark on the place. From Belgium and France right through to Russia and Japan, foreign countries were eager to carve out their own little slice of the Bund.
Nowadays it hosts some of the most noteworthy buildings in Shanghai, including the Shanghai Club (No. 2), the HSBC Building (No. 12), the Customs House (no. 13), Sassoon House (No. 20), and the Bank of China Building (No. 23). The Shanghai Club was originally constructed in 1861 and was the principal social club for British expats living in Shanghai. However, it was torn down and replaced with a building of more neoclassical design in 1910. Its opulent interior incorporates black and white flooring made entirely of marble and an entrance staircase crafted from imported white Sicilian marble. Talk about extravagant! Its lavish décor meant it was easily converted into the Waldorf-Astoria Shanghai Hotel in 2010.
Although Building No. 12 now belongs to the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, it is better known for having once been the Shanghai headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC). It was built in 1923 according to the neoclassical style and was, at the time of its construction, the second largest building in the world. By some bizarre coincidence, it now faces the Shanghai Tower in the Pudong District, which is currently the world’s second tallest building. Hopefully the area isn’t always doomed to be second best!
Its central dome and six white columns are reminiscent of traditional Greek style architecture, and its interior has been lavishly decorated with marble and monel. According to a local saying at the time, it was known as “the most luxurious building between the Suez Canal and the Bering Strait”. It is perhaps most famous for its stunning ceiling mosaics, which have been fully restored and can be viewed from inside the entrance hall.
Alongside the HSBC Building, the Shanghai Customs House is perhaps the most iconic building on the Bund, as it features a large clock tower that was constructed in the style of England’s Big Ben. It was built in 1927 on the site of an older Chinese-style customs house and follows a neoclassical design. As with the HSBC Building, it features large stone columns stretching from the third to the sixth storey, which resemble those of traditional Greek style architecture.
The nearby Sassoon House was masterminded by Victor Sassoon in 1929, who had invested huge amounts of capital into Shanghai at the time. Known to many as the “Rothschilds of the East”, the Sassoon Family were an extraordinarily wealthy Iraqi merchant family whose business eventually extended from Central Asia all the way to China. This colossal 13-storey mansion features elaborately decorated eaves and a distinctively green pyramidal roof topping its eastern façade. It is now part of the Peace Hotel and is still renowned for the live jazz band in its café. With that in mind, a trip to the Sassoon House is sure to clear up those homesick blues!
Its next-door neighbour, the Bank of China Building, was rather unsurprisingly the original headquarters of the Bank of China. It was built in 1937 and is perhaps most well-known for its somewhat stunted appearance, which is often attributed to Victor Sassoon’s insistence that no other building on the Bund could be taller than his. Evidently Sassoon had what we’d like to call “short-building syndrome”!
Originally the Bund was flanked by numerous bronze statues of foreign dignitaries, but these were all removed when the Communist Party took over in 1949. Today only one statue remains, that of Chen Yi, the first Communist mayor of Shanghai. This statue and Huangpu Park, which lies at the Bund’s northernmost end, are frequented by locals of all ages and make for an ideal place to relax. A number of pleasure cruises still operate from the Bund’s wharves and typically take visitors down to an estuary of the Yangtze River, which altogether is about a 3 hour round trip. So if you want to experience what life was like for Shanghai’s wealthy expats, perhaps a luxury river cruise is on the cards!