THE "golden" 1920s witnessed a building boom on the Bund when some of the grandest architecture rose along the Huangpu River.
No. 5 on the Bund, the former NKK Building constructed in 1921, was the first Bund building born in the decade of great prosperity.
The first owner NKK was Nisshin Kisen Kaisha, the Japan-China Steamship Co, a major Japanese shipping company that opened a Shanghai branch in 1907 to handle business on the Yangtze River and some inland waterways.
The six-story remises with a simply cut facade of gray granite stands at the corner of the Bund and Guangdong Road, between No. 3 and No. 6. Several floors are unoccupied, adding a dark-toned mystery to this severe piece of architecture. However, the top floors house M on the Bund, the Bund's first independently operated Western restaurant in contemporary times and its rainbow-hued Glamour Bar.
"There were lovely wooden floors and molded ceilings, still fantastic," recalls Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut, owwner of M on the Bund, on her first visit to the building in the freezing January of 1998.
"We had to walk up seven flights of stairs because there was no lift. I opened a tiny door and there was the terrace. I was like 'oh my god!' In 1998 the lane ways were all small and compact and very few people in the city could stand on the top floor to look outside at the whole river, to get such a sort of vista. It was a remarkable position and remarkable opportunity to be doing something interesting."
Despite the warnings that "no sophisticated people" go to the Bund or one could only open a restaurant no more than five minutes' from the triangle of the Portman, Hilton and Garden hotels, she opened M on the Bund on the roof and the vista terrace the next year. It was a huge success.
The 1,280 square-meter structure is built in an eclectic style, observes Shanghai Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao.
"The elevation is in a classic three section both horizontally and vertically with patterned gables and Ionic Orders, a typical work of Lester, Johnson and Morriss, one of the city's most famed architectural firms in early last century," says Qian.
The firm was co-founded by legendary British architect Henry Lester who followed a doctor's advice and embarked on a journey to Shanghai after an unknown disease took the lives of his three brothers.
After working on the Municipal Council and for a real estate company, Lester founded the firm in 1913 with architect G. A. Johnson which was later joined by G. Morriss.
(Their other signature works on the Bund, No. 16 and No. 17, will be introduced later in the column.)
After opening its Shanghai branch in 1907, NKK's capital doubled within 10 years, enabling it in 1918 to purchase the land on which No. 5 stands. NKK's presence on the Bund, alongside the Japanese-invested Nos. 16 and 24, demonstrated the growing influence of Japan in China since the 1900s. In 1921, when No. 5 was built, Japan's share of Shanghai's external trade rose to 23 percent, almost equal to Britain's share.
French scholar Marie-Claire Bergere interestingly cited the number of textile spindles to describe Japan's growing industrial investment in Shanghai. "The number of Japanese spindles installed in Shanghai rose from 112,000 in 1913 to 939,000 in 1925. They were now five times as numerous as the British spindles and greatly exceeded the 677,000 spindles backed by Chinese capital," she wrote in the 2009 book "Shanghai - China's Gateway to Modernity."
The Bund is a vivid waterfront showcase of multiple styles of architecture and businesses from various countries. In the 23 waterfront buildings alone can we find original elements from Britain, the United States, Japan, France, Russia and China, almost all the leading powers active in Shanghai in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
NKK stopped business when China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945) broke out. China Merchants Steam Navigation Co took over the building in 1945 after the Japanese surrender. The building was later used by the Shanghai Shipping Management Bureau. Huaxia Bank once operated a branch on the ground floor.
Back to the legendary architect Lester. The value of the land he had purchased at a low price in Shanghai in the late 19th century soared dramatically in the building boom of the 1920s.
F.L Hawks Pott recorded the increased cost of living in Shanghai at that time in "A Short History of Shanghai" published in 1928.
"The residents of Shanghai began to feel the increased cost of living, and the dearer price of food caused by the general unsettled conditions of the world. The housing problem became quite acute, especially for those living on moderate salaries. This was due to high rents ..."
But unlike extravagant rich men of his time, Lester lived in an ordinary house and took the bus. He never married and died in 1926, leaving no heirs but a large sum of assets, most of which he bequeathed to philanthropic causes in Shanghai.
Among the string of architectural gems on the Bund, No. 5 may not be the most dazzling, but it kicked off a new decade, the "golden" 1920s during which important architecture arose and the Bund that we see today began to take shape.
NO. 5 on the bund
Yesterday: NKK Building
Today: Venue of several restaurants including M on the Bund. Some floors unoccupied.
Address: 5 Zhongshan Road E1
Architectural style: Eclectic
Architect: Lester, Johnson & Morriss Co
Tips: Have a drink on the beautiful balcony of M on the Bund to appreciate the whole river and the famous 1920s buildings at the northern end. They include the former HSBC Building, the Customs House and the Sassoon House. Pick a windy day when the skies are clear and red flags are fluttering.
Enamored of the city's glamorous life, American writer Emily Hahn extended her stay from several weeks to six years - from 1935 to 1940.
Vivacious Hahn had chosen a life around the Bund. She lived in a Chinese bank building on Jiangxi Road, worked as a reporter in the North China Daily News building on the Bund and partied in the Sassoon House.
A recent visit to the Bund amazed me as the Bund today appeared to be dynamic and poetic. Walking back and forth down the waterfront road with so many examples of handsome architecture, my earliest memory of the Bund was suddenly reawakened. What was really behind each of the buildings, beyond the brief guidebook introductions? I felt a spark of curiosity.
So I decided to restart this column at the Bund, telling stories of the buildings from No. 1 to No. 33, one by one, combining archival extracts and my field visits.
Now please follow Hahn's traces and follow me to explore a bit more of the "billion-dollar skyline."