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Working to keep precious public spaces for the people
By Michelle Qiao

Much is made of the historic buildings along the Bund, but less is known about efforts to open the area to the public over the decades.

If the public is unable to enjoy the views and the history along the Huangpu River, meaning is lost. Fortunately, Shanghai has been blessed with people, past and present, who care about the city and its residents.

In the 1902 book “Shanghai By Night and Day,” a British missionary new to the city was asked what struck him as being most worthy of notice in the foreign settlement. He said, “the children in the Public Garden.”

Now known as Huangpu Park, this little oasis is indeed a joyous sight whenever children are seen playing, laughing and running about.

F. L. Hawks Pott’s 1928 book, “A Short History of Shanghai,” reveals how the Public Garden became a place for leisure and recreation.

“Originally the land it now occupies was known as the Consular Mud-flat, being formed by the silt deposited by the meeting of the waters of the Whangpoo (Huangpu) River and Soochow (Suzhou) Creek. And the foundering of an old brig close to the Bund led to the further accumulation of silt.”

At the advice of engineer J. Clark, a member of the Shanghai Municipal Council at the time, and at considerable expense, the land was filled in. A beautiful park was developed gradually out of what had been an unsightly mud flat.

Shanghai historian Hong Chong’en, who dated his first girlfriend in the park in the 1970s, says it was Clark’s vision that made it possible.

“In short, expatriates had used a mud-flat to build a garden to breathe fresh air and enjoy a moment of romance. A garden is often a place to bridge material and spiritual worlds.”

Hong says he has seen blueprints for Public Garden revamps in 1909, 1935 and 1937.

“It was a small but well-designed English garden, with nice plants, delicate architectural details and thoughtful facilities, such as benches fronting the river,” he says.

The central lawn had fences and flowers surrounding it. Tall trees and thick shrubs were also planted to make the garden more secluded.

The 1902 book gave a more detailed description about the garden’s plants.

“In it you will see the earliest of snowdrops, the most beautiful of hyacinths, the richest of tulips, the finest of roses and the best of everything else in season ... Numbers of people don’t know that there are plants in the garden that are not indigenous to this part of the world. There is a horse-chestnut for example from home, and a bunch of hazels, but the most magnificent trees are the beautiful magnolias in front of the Masonic Hall.”

While plants provided a leisurely setting, music was the park’s soul. In 1881, the Municipal Council founded Shanghai Public Orchestra, which performed concerts in a wooden pavilion in the garden, as well as in other public parks around the city.

The orchestra didn’t sell tickets, but rented out canvas chairs to those who wanted to watch the performances. Numbers grew so much that the orchestra committee had to provide more than 1,200 chairs instead of the initial 600.

Wen Tan, a former viola player, says he had enjoyed the orchestra’s concerts in several parks during the 1940s.

“They performed difficult repertoires at a very high level,” the 90-year-old says.

Later it was renamed Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

“Around 16 expatriate musicians chose to stay after 1949, most of whom were Russians,” says Wen, who joined the orchestra in 1953. “I remember those white canvas chairs for the Public Garden concerts. The cloth was old but the wood used to make the chairs was excellent quality. At some point, the wood was used to make hammers. It’s a pity that my hammer was stolen.”

Lesser-known story

Meanwhile, Hong stresses that various expatriates contributed to the Bund’s development. Aside from Clark, Robert Hart, inspector-general of China’s Imperial Maritime Custom Service, and Italian Maro Paci, the Public Orchestra’s long-time conductor, also left lasting footprints on the Bund.

But the most noteworthy, yet lesser known story was the contribution of American Edward Cunningham, a merchant and vice consul.

In 1869, Cunningham wrote a 4-page letter to the Shanghai Municipal Council from Yokohama, Japan. He strongly opposed the use of the river frontage from Yang King Pang (today’s Yan’an Road E.) to the Public Garden for ship wharves.

“The sole beauty of Shanghai is the Bund ... It is the only place where the residents can get fresh air from the river in an evening promenade, the only place of the settlement where there is a free outlook,” he wrote.

A visionary at the time, Cunningham also stressed that the banking industry, instead of shipping, would be better for the economy over the long term.

“Where they (banks) are located there always is the best quarter, the greatest throng of commercial life,” he wrote.

The council changed its decision due to Cunningham’s letter and the promenade was saved.

Mark Twain once said: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

True indeed.

About 141 years after Cunningham had written that letter, Shanghai completed its 3-year revamp of the Bund in 2010.

The elevated highway to the Bund was demolished decades earlier than its designed service time. A tunnel was built beneath the Bund to reduce the number of lanes from 10 to four.

The biggest impact of the project, however, was not on traffic.

It made the Bund more “human,” opening the area to pedestrians and greatly increasing the space for public activities.

Renowned Beijing journalist and author of “Beijing Record,” Wang Jun compared the Bund project with Boston’s “Big Dig” in a lecture at America’s Bryant University in 2010. Boston rerouted Central Artery, the chief highway through the heart of the city, into a 5.6km tunnel in the 1990s.

“It was formerly an exciting experience to drive to the Bund through ‘Asia’s No. 1 Curve’,” says Wang of the elevated road that linked to the Bund. “But it was an experience designed for vehicles, not pedestrians. It essentially cut the promenade off from the streets of Puxi.”

The Bund project was only 3,720 meters compared to Boston’s 13km “Big Dig” scheme, which took 15 years to complete.

“But both were located in the city center along the waterfront, both demolished an elevated highway, built underground tunnels and placed an emphasis on people,” Wang says.

Shanghai Tongji University Vice President Wu Jiang, who worked as head of the Shanghai Urban Planning Bureau during the Bund project, says China’s urban projects had previously paid more attention to economic interests than returning space to the people. “But this time we are really keeping up with the world,” Wu says. “The Bund revamp showed a spirit to care more about people and public life instead of only GDP.”

Now the area is linked with Huangpu Park via the promenade.

In the 1902 book, the anonymous writer described a band playing in Public Garden.

“Therein under the starry canopy of an Eastern summer night, which of itself alone is something to live for, the worries, the cares, the sorrows, and the fears of the past, the present, and the future are for two brief hours, under the magic wand of the musician, wafted to the limbo of forgetfulness.”

The writer probably didn’t know how many people or how much effort went into making the Bund what it was and still is today. Nevertheless, it’s still there for all to enjoy.

Yesterday: Public Garden

Today: Huangpu Park

Built: In 1868

Tips: Wander on the spacious waterfront promenade while contemplating the city's history.

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