"Shanghai is always changing," said American writer and New Yorker Magazine columnist Emily Hahn back in the 1930s. Enamored of the city's glamorous life, Hahn extended her stay from several weeks to six years - from 1935 to 1940. She even "married" a Chinese poet-publisher as her "mistress."
Back from six months' maternity leave in Beijing, I also found the city had changed. A visit to the new Shanghai Archives Bureau in a stylish historical building amazed me as the Bund today appeared to be dynamic and poetic, especially on a weekday morning.
Having lived in the city for 16 years, I had not visited the Bund often and thought it was a place for tourists. Walking back and forth down the road sweeping along the Huangpu River with so many examples of handsome architecture that windy morning, my earliest memory of the Bund was suddenly reawakened - I was again a 20-year-old university girl spending hours taking a perfect night photo of the emerald, pyramid-like Sassoon House roof. What was really behind each of the buildings, beyond the brief guidebook introductions? I felt a spark of curiosity in the conjured memories, in the fresh, warm air of the Bund.
Everyone knows a bit of the Bund's history, but few are aware of the speed of Bund's expansion at the very beginning. A 1843 map of the Bund was crisscrossed with farm fields, graveyards and even a cock fighting yard. Only six years later the land was dramatically transformed into the property of dozens of "hongs," the earliest foreign trade companies. Until the 1930s, the Bund was already the site of several "firsts" in China, including the first modern Chinese bank, the first modern Chinese hospital, the first telegraph company and the first elevator.
Also I have enjoyed recent intensive visits to the Bund. Apart from important history and powerful buildings, the Bund area concealed many fun places from restaurants with great views to secret lanes containing fascinating stories. The regular chiming of the Customs House Clock, the breeze from the river and the dreamy lights splashed on those century-old buildings make one want to linger. And almost every time, I met or saw interesting people.
Perhaps that was why vivacious Hahn would have chosen a life around the Bund. Her first Shanghai home was in a Chinese bank building on Jiangxi Road (Bund area). She worked as a reporter in the North China Daily News building on the Bund. As a close friend of Sir Victor Sassoon, she would sometimes party in the Cathay Hotel or meet her Chinese "husband" "Sinmay" on the Bund teeming with rickshaws.
So I decided to restart this column of urban and architectural history at the Bund, telling stories of buildings from No. 1 to No. 33, one by one, combining archival extracts and my field visits. What had kept Shanghai always changing since 1843 was unchanged. Our city is still a vessel of many dreams and desires.
Hahn once wrote that "Peking is a reward for the afterlife" but "Shanghai is for now, for the living me." Sometimes a legend that endures for more than a century endures for a reason. So, please follow her traces and follow me to enjoy the Bund and explore a bit more of our "billion-dollar skyline."
(This column is produced in cooperation with the Shanghai Archive Bureau, the Shanghai Library, Huangpu District Archive Bureau and Shanghai Tourism Bureau. The sources are mostly first-hand accounts in English or Chinese archives. The column has invited architect Zhang Xuefei to shoot some of the photos.)