No. 1 on the Bund, the Asiatic Petroleum Co Building, has a prominent address that none of the more famous Bund buildings would have, whether the luxurious former HSBC Building or the imposing Fairmont Peace Hotel.
Back in 1916 when construction just completed, it was called the No. 1 Building on the Bund, not only because of the address, but also due to its stunning scale. Covering more than 10,000 square meters, it was indeed the grandest building on the Bund of its time, a noteworthy start of the "billion-dollar skyline."
According to Shanghai historian Xue Liyong's book "The History and Architecture of the Bund," the land for No. 1 on the Bund belonged to a couple of British brothers, James and Hayes Hogg, whose trading company, Hogg Brothers, opened in Shanghai in 1861. The wealth they earned from trading in Chinese herbal medicines allowed them to purchase a lot of land, including the land for later construction of the Shanghai Race Club, St John's College and Zhongshan Park.
In 1899 the aging brothers decided to close their business in Shanghai and go home. They sold their Bund property to British merchant George McBain, whose company had built the McBain Building by that time. McBain had come to Shanghai in the 1870s and later amassed a fortune in shipping, tobacco and oil production.
"The McBain building sits in a very eye-catching location, beautifully spreading on the corner of the newly constructed Avenue Eduard VII (today's Yan'an Road E.) and the Bund," says Professor Qian Zonghao with Shanghai Tongji University and author of "The Historical Change of Architecture and Scenes on the Bund."
"Just more than one year before the building was completed, Yang Ching Bang was still a small river heavily retarded by silt that divided the former French concession and the former British Settlement. The surrounding area had improved dramatically after the river was filled up and turned into a road (Avenue Eduard VII). That attracted many tenants for the new building," Qian adds.
Bordering the former French concession to the south, the building was designed by Moorhead & Halse, who had designed many important projects including the Shanghai Club and the Shanghai Race Club. The elevation is in three sections, both horizontally and vertically, in Neoclassical style with Baroque decorations. Two lines of up to 10 Ionic columns grace each facade on Yan'an Road E. and the Bund.
"It is widely known today for one of its earliest occupants, the Asiatic Petroleum Co, a branch of Shell Petroleum, which sold kerosene and candles that Chinese used for lighting before electric lights were invented," Professor Qian says.
According to American correspondent Earnest O. Hauser's book "Shanghai: City for Sale" published in 1940, the lamps of China burned brighter with kerosene and early last century China consumed 6.5 million barrels of oil every year. Shell's Asiatic Petroleum Co shared the control of the market with Rockefeller's Standard Oil Chinese division known as "Mei Foo."
"At No. 1 on the Bund were the offices of the Asiatic Petroleum Co, the Oriental sales division of the powerful Anglo-Dutch Shell group. Besides its gasoline department, it had an important aviation section, sections for the sale of lubricants, candles and technical products. It had its own engineering department, its statistical and advertising divisions, its shipping department and its workshop. It owned wharves and had a large 'floating staff.' Its compradore was Mr Dow Ding Yao," Hauser wrote in the book.
In order to dominate the Chinese market, the companies had sold kerosene at a very cheap price, even cheaper than its actual cost and cheaper than Chinese vegetable oil. The strategy succeeded and the price was later raised. Before 1949 the company had more than 7,000 employees all around China and had put its logo on the column of the No. 1 building.
Nien Cheng, author of the best-selling book "Life and Death in Shanghai," had been assistant to the British general manager from 1957 to 1966. Her husband, a former Kuomintang diplomat, had been general manager of the office before he died of cancer in 1957.
"Shell was one of the few British firms of international standing - such as Imperial Chemical Industries, Hong Kong-Shanghai Banking Corp, and Jardines - that tried to maintain an office in Shanghai," she says in the book, recalling her personal experience during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) - she was put into prison and lost her only daughter.
"I thought myself fortunate to have a job I could do well and enjoyed the distinction of being the only woman in Shanghai occupying a senior position in a company of world renown," Cheng wrote.
According to local historian author Song Luxia's book "Ups and Downs of Foreign Houses," a group of Chinese Communists had also worked in the building during World War II under the name of a trade company.
The Asiatic Petroleum Co continued its operation in China until 1966, after which the building became the office for state-owned organizations, including the Shanghai Metallurgical Design & Research Institute and the Shanghai Silk Co. The former residence for Asiatic Petroleum's high-ranked employees, a rainbow of garden villas on Julu Road, has been renovated into a boutique hotel.
Today the former No. 1 building on the Bund is mysteriously empty, one of the few empty buildings on the Bund waterfront. Looking through the half-closed grand gate, an unfinished renovation project is visible.
Fortunately, a paragraph in the Huangpu District Archives Bureau describes the interior of No. 1:
"The ceiling was high, the open room was spacious and the corridor was wide. The floor was paved with mosaics. Some corridor walls were decorated with white ceramic tiles. All the gates were equipped with hardwood revolving doors. The windows soared an astonishing two meters high, so the rooms were all very sunny and bright."
Tales of Tiles Bund Series No.1
Yesterday: The Asiatic Petroleum Co Building
Present: Under Renovation for a project named "Harmonyone," which appears to have stopped half-way.
Built: in 1916
Designer: Moorhead & Halse
Tips: Pay attention to the important location of the building near the border of the former International Settlement and the former French concession; You can also visit the former residence for APC employees, a rainbow of garden villas at 889 Julu Rd, renovated into a boutique hotel, Julu Garden.