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A wiry tale that shaped modern-day business
2013-01-07
By Michelle Qiao

Sometimes it took time to digest a new technology. Building No. 7 on the Bund tells the uneasy story of when the telegraph was introduced to China more than a century ago.

The building has four stories and is made of brick and concrete. The elevation is in a classic three-section both horizontally and vertically. Black domes contrast with white gables, both very Baroque. The elegant fa?ade features a late French renaissance style.

The building was built in 1906 on the former land of American trade company Russell & Co as an office for Great Northern Telegraph Company, a Danish business, Shanghai's first provider of telegraphs and telephones.

In the book "A Short History of Shanghai" published in 1928, F. L. Hawks Pott had described the failure of the first attempts to launch the new technology in China:

"In 1865 Mr E. A Reynolds undertook to establish telegraphic connection between Shanghai and Woosung (today's Wusong Port in Baoshan District), so that the people in the Settlements could be informed of the movement of shipping at the mouth of the river. The country people, with the connivance of the Chinese authorities, destroyed the poles, which they said had a bad effect on the feng shui (the influences of wind and water.)"

After Shanghai opened a port in 1843, the former peaceful ancient town inevitably became a hot spot for Eastern and Western cultures to mix.

The Chinese often opposed foreign gadgets and technology at first, but slowly and cautiously tested such things as rickshaws and railways.

In 1870, when Great Northern laid a cable between Shanghai and Hong Kong, the cable at the Shanghai end was not to be landed on shore but on vessels anchored outside the limits according to agreement.

But the cable at Woosung was brought ashore secretly, which was discovered by Chinese authorities and greatly protested.

However difficult the process was, the telegraphic links between Shanghai, Hong Kong and London in 1870 transformed the city's commercial import-export operations, making it possible to speed up orders, reduce stocks and diminish the risks run by buyers.

"The Chinese administration initially opposed the idea but soon became convinced of its usefulness and since 1881 proceeded to install lines on their own between Shanghai and Tianjin, between Shanghai and Canton and between Zhejiang and Hankou," says Ji Hongwei, a Shanghai Library researcher specializing in the history of the telegraph in Shanghai.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) minister Sheng Xuanhuai, a famous advocate of using Western technology to save the country from destitution, was in charge of the project. He cleverly employed technicians from Great Northern to purchase materials and lay the cables.

A network around China was built within a dozen years.

Later he used the same approach to open the first Chinese modern bank by learning from Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and employing the bank's staff.

"The telegraph greatly enhanced the speed of communication in China," says Ji, who raised an interesting example of how imperial examination results were sent from Beijing to Shanghai.

"Formerly it took seven to 10 days to carry the results to Shanghai by horses. After the Tianjin-Shanghai line was installed, it only took two days. The results were taken from Tianjin to Beijing by horse, then sent to Shanghai via telegraph."

French historian Marie-Claire Bergere says the general introduction of telegraphic communications in the early 1870s turned the structures of foreign firms in Shanghai upside down.
"The major hongs (trade companies) lost their monopoly, and the taipans were eclipsed by merchants who operated on a far smaller scale, on their own and with capital that they topped up with local loans from foreign banks ... The golden age of the taipans, financially self-sufficient and shouldering moral as well as economic responsibilities, was succeeded by the age of individualistic entrepreneurs, whose spirit of initiative was not always ruled by considerations of honesty," she wrote in the book "Shanghai ? China's Gateway to Modernity," published in 2009.

The Great Northern office building at No. 7 was designed by Atkinson & Dallas, a firm famous for creating classic European styles. A careful individual can still find its name here and there on name boards of historical buildings around the Bund.

The firm's Arthur Dallas had served in the Municipal Council and was once vice chairman of the China Architects Society and member of the British Royal Arts Society. As one of the most prolific architectural design institutions in Shanghai in the 1920s, Atkinson & Dallas had designed noteworthy works including No. 9 and No. 29 on the Bund. No. 7 was their first Western classic piece in the city.

"As business expanded, Great Northern moved to a new mansion at No. 4 Avenue Edward VII (now Yan'an Rd E.) in 1921, just behind the No. 1 Building on the Bund," says Professor Qian Zonghao from Shanghai Tongji University.

"They sold No. 7 to the first Chinese modern bank ? Commercial Bank of China, which was previously at No. 6 and they moved in the following year," says Qian.

After World War II, buildings No. 6, No. 7 and No. 9 on the Bund all belonged to China Merchants' Steam Navigation Co, the official shipping company founded by the imperial government.

According to Huangpu District archives, Yangtze River Shipping Co occupied No. 7 after 1949, which managed a restaurant and a hospital inside the grey building. Since 1995, Bangkok Bank moved in and put a statue of a mythical Garuda on top of the entrance, which is still there today.

NO. 7 on the bund

Yesterday: Great Northern Telegraph Co Building

Present: Bangkok Bank

Address: 7 Zhong-shan Rd E1

Built: in 1906

Style: Renaissance

Architect: Atkinson & Dallas

Tips: The building is only open to clients of the bank. However, I would suggest a visit to the Telegraph Museum at 34 Yan'an Rd E., located in the building where Great Northern relocated after selling No. 7 in 1921. The museum is free. It is open from 9:30am to noon and 1pm to 4:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

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