East Meets West in Shanghai

Along the Bund China’s history comes alive

By: Norman Sklarewitz

If your clients visit Shanghai expecting to be immersed in colorful old China, they’re likely to be disappointed. The city is 21st-century, with skyscrapers, not pagodas, dominating the skyline.

Yet one of the city’s more popular attractions is a stretch along the Huangpu River waterfront known as the Bund. Strangely enough, it is not in any way Chinese, but entirely Western, and not of this era at all, but unlike any other.

The name comes from an Indian word meaning “embankment” where, a century ago, laborers tied up junks, sampans and other watercraft. This was during the period after the infamous Opium War of 1842, in which the British forced the weaker Imperial Chinese government to “open up” five Chinese port cities to foreign commerce. Shanghai was one of them.

What had been a relatively obscure fishing village soon became a trading center of growing importance. With questionable legal authority, a large section of the city was divided in two by foreigners; one quarter became the French Concession, the other the International Settlement. The latter was settled by Japanese, Germans, British and Americans bankers, traders, missionaries, soldiers of fortune and gun runners as well as White Russian refugees fleeing the Communist Revolution of 1917 and a bustling Chinese population.

Before long, international investors and prestigious financial institutions from the U.K. as well as Asia began to build their banks and office buildings along the Bund. Designs were impressive; architectural details of the latest style, including art deco.

All that ended with the Japanese invasion and occupation of Shanghai. When the Communist Revolution took place in 1949, private property was confiscated and most commercial activities nationalized. The elaborate wrought-iron gates of the buildings along the Bund were padlocked shut, and that colorful but strange era in modern China’s life ended.

Yet something strange happened, or more specifically, did not happen. The new Communist regime did nothing to remove these symbols of foreign intervention, even national humiliation. Some of the now-empty buildings were taken over by squatters; others were used by local municipal offices or state-owned entities. Upkeep was poor, but to their credit, Red Chinese officials destroyed nothing.

As a result, that portion of Zhongshan No. 1 Road that edges the Huangpu River still known simply as “the Bund,” has become one of Shanghai’s must-see attractions.

By no means are these just silent relics of another time, either. At night, their improving facades are bathed in floodlights. Wise to the economic value of these properties, the local Communist government is increasingly moving out and leasing redevelopment rights to enterprising Chinese and foreign entrepreneurs and investors. In turn, investors are renovating run-down buildings and turning once-staid financial and commercial institutions into restaurants, shops, galleries, clubs and bars. The new operators, however, must maintain intact their structure’s exteriors. Each has been designated by the Shanghai Municipal Government as a Heritage Architecture structure. Inside, however, freewheeling capitalism and modern (at times hedonistic) Western lifestyles increasingly reign.

Nowhere is this demonstrated more spectacularly than with Three on the Bund. It inhabits a neoclassical, seven-story building originally built in 1915 for the Union Assurance Company of Guangdong. Its address, as with all other structures on the Bund, was, and is, a simple number, 3 in this case.

Nearly 10 years ago, the House of Three (a Hong Kong investment holding company) became the first privately owned company to own a Bund structure and to develop it. It took some $70 million to pull it off, but within the seven floors of the building today are spaces so at odds with the China of the rampaging Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution, it is as if those events had taken place centuries ago. Occupying the main floor is an Armani flagship store, including a Giorgio Armani boutique, Emporio Armani and Armani Dolci.

Apparel and accessories are found on separate floors, in Three for Men and Three for Women, where Yves Saint Laurent collections are featured. Moving up, visitors will find the Shanghai Gallery of Art, which is clearly intended to introduce local Shanghaiese to the latest examples of modern art all done by Chinese artists. Admission is free.

For women seeking physical rejuvenation, there’s the chic Evian Spa, the only such day-spa outside of France. There are 14 treatment rooms, going full tilt seven days a week, with highly trained staffers providing French beauty treatments, Eastern holistic therapies and advanced color and water therapies.

The good life New York-style is reflected in Jean George, Shanghai, where the cuisine of Jean-Georges Vongerichten is presented in a setting as elegant and sophisticated as anywhere. And the list just goes on and on. The Whampoa Club where Shanghaiese cuisine takes center stage; Laris is where chef David Laris showcases his New World dining style; New Heights on the top floor provides its patrons with a panoramic view of the Pudong across the Huangpu River and the Bund outside. The former bell tower of the building has been converted into two private dining rooms one of which seats just two diners. Recent guests include Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

Beyond Number 3

While Three on the Bund is certainly the most eye-popping example of the area’s rebirth as a center of Shanghai’s social life, it’s not the only one. Number 5, built in 1925 as the Mercantile Bank of India, London & China, is taking its place among Shanghai’s younger set. The seventh floor is home to the trendy M on the Bund restaurant and Glamour.

Next door at Number 6 is the former China Merchants’ Bank building, built in 1897. According to the developer, the structure is being totally renovated inside to create a flagship store, which will include fashion apparel, entertainment and business.

Number 18, once the Chartered Bank of India & Australia, built in 1923, renovated all of its seven stories at a cost of $15 million after which tenants spent another $15 million on the interior design of their spaces. The list of stores here is a “Who’s Who” of exclusive retail outlets. On the premises are Cartier, Patek Philippe, Aquascutum of London, Ermenegildo Xegna and more.

For the dining and drinking pleasure of its patrons, 18 Bund offers Tan Wai Lou for Cantonese dining, Sens & Bund for French cuisine, the Bar Rouge described by one local as a “very hot place” along with Swank Sibilla for Italian coffee and panini sandwiches.

All this in the city that was the birthplace of the Communist Party of China and the former home of Chairman Mao Zedong.