By Peter Higgins
Mar. 30 – Once known as the “Wall Street of Asia,” Shanghai’s famous riverfront promenade, the Bund, finally reopened Sunday, March 28 after undergoing almost three years of extensive renovations. Costing an estimated US$732 million, the restoration project which began in April 2007 was aimed at making the famed section of Shanghai more pedestrian friendly.
Along with extending the popular quay to 2.6 kilometers, seven lanes of the busy highway that separated the riverfront from the historic buildings have been moved underground into a new two-tier tunnel. The other four lanes remain above ground, but the diversion of close to 70 percent of traffic below ground should make the area much more welcoming to the visitors who come to experience the history of Asia’s former financial hub.
The Bund grew in importance after the First Opium War ended in 1842, when the British signed a treaty with the Chinese government affording them extraterritorial land rights for a large swath of the city. In 1863, the British and American foreign concessions were combined to create the Shanghai International Settlement, which fronted the Huangpu River. Along the waterfront, passenger and commercial ships docked to drop off passengers and goods. The wall along the riverbank is where the Bund derives its name.
As war ravaged the countryside in the mid-1800s, thousands sought refuge in the relative calm of the International Settlement. The major population increase raised property values and the fortunes of the foreign landholders within the settlement, which led to a building boom. The extravagant structures housed some of the world’s most important financial institutions, which flooded to Shanghai as the economic importance of the city grew.
Of course, it was not all business on the Bund. It was also home to numerous entertainment venues and elegant hotels. The Cathay Hotel, now known as the Peace Hotel, saw visits from world famous celebrities and housed one of the city’s most important financiers: Victor Sassoon. The Shanghailanders, as foreign residents were called at the time, were enjoying the good life, and champagne flowed by the caseload.
The Bund’s glory days came to an abrupt end when the Japanese occupied the International Settlement in 1941, immediately following the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. For the next few decades, the extravagant buildings fell into neglect.
It was only in the 1990s that the Shanghai government began to envision a rebirth of the Bund and its architectural relics. However, the title of “Wall Street of Asia” seemed to be moved across the river to the Lujiazui Financial District, where glowing towers soon overshadowed the old stone buildings. While banks and other financial institutions did return to the Bund, restaurants, designer stores, and flashy bars and clubs were the favored new occupants.
Today, world-class chefs cook up the latest gastronomic delights, the city’s elite shop at some of the world’s most expensive shops, and tourists from all the world come to window shop.
Peter Hibbard, expert on the historical development of tourism in China and author of The Bund Shanghai: China Faces West, talked about some of the challenges the new Bund faces. “Not a lot of people actually go in the buildings,” Mr. Hibbard says. “[The Bund] is still dislocated from the heart of the city where many people go out and entertain themselves.” So while it may be one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, many people come to look at the stunning view across the river or admire the historic buildings without actually using them.
The Shanghai government is hoping that the area becomes more than just a pretty view. Part of the US$732 million construction project includes a 7,000 square meter financial square. The area features a bronze bull designed by Arturo Di Mondica, who is best known for his sculpture Charging Bull on Wall Street in New York. Large plasma screen television screens will be added, which will broadcast the share prices from the Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong stock exchanges. Their hope is to refocus the financial center of the city from Lujiazui back to the Bund, but it will not be an easy task.
The new pedestrian-friendly promenade, renovations of the Fairmont Peace Hotel, and developments of adjacent neighborhoods like the Waitanyuan Project are all helping bring back the glory days of the Bund.