Signal tower harks back to an era of immense change
By Michelle Qiao
The Gutzlaff Signal Tower is like the first note of the Bund symphony, says Tongji University Vice President Wu Jiang.
“Traditionally, the Bund started from the tower, which was seen by all ships on the Huangpu River. When approaching from the south, the signal tower acts as the best starting note for the Bund symphony,” says Wu, a noted expert on the architectural history of Shanghai.
The lovely white tower, which has recently been restored, was originally erected in 1884 in the former French Bund to transmit weather forecast from the Xujiahui Observatory to the public.
The latter, founded in 1872 by the French, was one of the most famous observatories in the Far East, and is still in use today.
Wangqian Guozhong, a scholar with the Shanghai Archives Bureau and author of “Missionaries and the Xujiahui Observatory,” says the observatory had two branches — the semaphore tower on the Bund and an observatory atop Sheshan Hill in suburban Songjiang District.
“The three stations were all managed by the then French Municipal Council. That’s why several chiefs of the Bund tower were French,” he says.
Perched at the crossroads of the Bund and Yang Ching Bang (today’s Yan’an Road E.), the white tower was also used to tell the time. Initially it reported time only once daily at noon, but in 1909 it began using flash signals to indicate it was 9pm. It began using a new technique to report the time after 1914.
“Sailing on the high seas, ships back then had to rely on a chronometer and the location of objects in the sky to determine location and sailing direction. Therefore accurate time was important in determining a precise location and ensuring the safety of ships,” says Wangqian.
“At a time when radio broadcasting wasn’t in use, the Xujiahui Observatory learned from Greenwich Observatory in London to use a black ball on the Bund tower to give the time to the hundreds of ships sailing in and out of the Huangpu River,” he says.
According to Chen Boxi’s 1924 book “A Comprehensive View of Shanghai Anecdotes,” the big iron ball would be lifted to half the height of the pole at 11:45am, to the peak at 11:50am and fall for the first time at 11:55am. It was then lifted to the peak again and fell at exactly noon. In this way, sailors would prepare and adjust their navigation clocks to the correct time.
“This advanced method was first used by London’s Greenwich Observatory in 1833 and was copied by Japan’s Yokohama, Kobe and other port cities,” Wangqian adds.
“Actually I think this is a very scientific, direct way to spread information regarding weather and time, although ancient in today’s world. The tower on the Bund was so high that people in most parts of downtown Shanghai could see it easily. The tower not only made the daily lives of Shanghai people more convenient, but also helped foreign military vessels on the Huangpu River. It was highly admired by the commander of the French navy,” the expert says.
In the summer of 1906, the pole of the old wooden tower broke during a strong typhoon. The Xujiahui Observatory used bricks and reinforced concrete to repair it. But one year later the tower was rebuilt as a 50-meter-high concrete-and-steel structure.
According to Chen’s book, the tower had also used meteorological flags to report the wind speed and direction.
In 1927, a podium was added alongside the tower. Until then the tower was almost identical to its appearance today.
In 1993, the signal tower was moved 20 meters southeast when the Bund was renovated. Today the ground floor is an exhibition room while the second floor serves as a meeting room that is used by the Shanghai City Planning Exhibition Hall.
Professor Wu says the perfect silhouette of the 1.5-kilomter-long Bund is like a beautiful symphony, with the former HSBC Building (No. 12) and the Customs House (No. 13) as the first climax and the Fairmont Peace Hotel (No. 20) and the Bank of China (No. 23) as the second.
“The nice ending is Broadway Mansion fronting the Huangpu River,” he adds.
Last week the Bund was included on a new list of the country’s historical streets. The group of 30 streets was jointly announced by the State Bureau of Cultural Relics and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Construction. It is Shanghai’s only street on the list.
While the French may have erected the signal tower solely for practical reasons, it has remained a prominent part of the Bund through the decades and links the city to its illustrious past.
Yesterday: The Gutzlaff Signal Tower
Today: The Signal Tower on the Bund
Built: In 1907
Designer: A foreigner named Marti
Tips: There is a plan to open the ground floor to the public, but no timetable has been announced as if yet. Please note its crucial location on the Bund.