RED or gray? A fierce debate arose in 2001 over the wall color before renovating No. 9 on the Bund, the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company Building.
"This delicate villa is the only surviving Neo-Classical veranda architecture of the late Victorian era with a little bit of an Indian tropical character. On the Bund, where land is so expensive, it's luxurious to build a building in this style with only three floors," says Professor Chang Qing, dean of Shanghai Tongji University's architecture school and chief architect for the renovation project.
"If it was owned by a private company, the building may have been built much higher to make full use of the golden land," he adds.
Designed by the British architecture firm Morrison, the building showcased a colonial style of the 19th century that was once popular in hot, humid South Asian colonies. Covering an area of 1,460 square meters, the main structure is made of brick, stone, timber and steel and supported by eight steel columns. The second and third floors feature beautiful balconies graced by Tuscan and Corinthian orders, on top of which sit giant carved gables.
However, when Chang took over the renovation project in 2001, "it was almost the ugliest building on the Bund and was not even listed as a 'Shanghai Excellent Historical Building'," he recalls.
All the gables and sloping roof sections on the eastern elevation were dismantled. The Neo-Classical balconies were sealed by metal-framed glass windows and the original red bricks had been covered by cement mortar. Juxtaposed between the exquisite former Great Northern Telegraph Co building at No. 7 and the gorgeous former HSBC Building at No. 12, No. 9 resembled a shabby factory office.
According to F. L. Hawks Pott's "A Short History of Shanghai" published in 1928, US-based Russell Co founded the Shanghai Steam Navigation Company for shipping on the Yangtze River in 1867.
"The Chinese merchants saw the importance of Shanghai as a port and in order to secure a large share of its shipping, the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company was founded in 1872 under the initiative of Li Hung-chang. The old P&O steamer Aden was purchased and for the first time the Chinese flag was flown over a merchant steamer. In 1877, the fleet and property of the Shanghai Steam Navigation Company was purchased by the China Merchants," Pott wrote.
In the garden that formerly belonged to the neighboring Russell & Co building, China Merchants Steam Navigation Company built the red-brick building. The Russell & Co building was built in 1857 and is the only first-generation (1840s-1850s) building to survive on the Bund.
As the principal architect of the Foreign Affairs Movement, imperial official Li was lucky enough to rely on an excellent administrator, Sheng Xuanhuai, who became his principal collaborator on economic matters.
Sheng was involved as a promoter, shareholder, or manager in nearly all the official business ventures set up in Shanghai from 1871 to 1895, including the Imperial Bank of China at No. 6 on the Bund. He became the head of China Merchants in 1873, which remained under his control for 18 years.
"Sheng was a very smart man," says researcher Gao Hongxing from Shanghai Library. He found a record of communication between Sheng and Qing Empress Dowager Cixi in 1899 in the library's archives.
"The empress questioned if Sheng understood a foreign language because he was doing work related to a foreign movement and sometimes translators were untrustworthy," Gao says. "Sheng replied that he used only upright translators. And to be extra cautious, he told her he always used two translators and compared the translations to prevent being cheated. The empress admired his answer."
China Merchants kept its headquarters at the No. 9 building until it moved to Hong Kong in 1937 after Japan invadedd China. Some shipping companies moved in from 1937 to 1949, after which the building was used by several state-owned organizations. In 1998, it finally returned to China Merchants as its Shanghai office, who decided to renovate the building.
"There were no original drawings or documents left so we could only study archive photos carefully to revive the original look," says professor Chang.
This sparked the debate over the wall color. During meetings some experts suggested "obeying the old look," which was to maintain the already gray color to keep it uniform with the other Bund buildings. Other experts supported "obeying the original look," which was to restore the red-brick wall when it was built.
According to the book "A Story of Bund No. 9" published by China Merchants Steam Navigation, an effect drawing with red walls ended the debate. The drawing showed the harmony of the Bund was not destroyed, but actually improved with red walls. Famous Tongji University professor Luo Xiaowei concluded that Bund buildings do not need to have a uniform color as their beauty lied in variety. She was right.
Once that decision was made, the renovation project continued.
Although the building is small compared with its Bund counterparts, the surgery required to revamp it was big.
"To recreate the original gables, we studied cartouche patterns during the British Neo-Classical period and made models to compare the depth, lines and texture of the patterns again and again. Each gable could only be produced with my approved signature," says Chang.
The most difficult part was to restore the original red-brick wall that had been covered with grey cement mortar.
"If we removed the mortar improperly, the building would look like a man's face dotted by smallpox," Chang says, chuckling.
To minimize the damage, workers carefully removed the cement mortar bit by bit and tenderly ground the remaining traces. Special techniques from Germany-based Remmers Company were used to restore the red bricks.
After the "back-breaking surgery," No. 9 was restored to its original look in the autumn of 2004.
The former gray "factory office" now resembles the colonial-style house with lovely verandas and grand gables that it was designed to be. It is one of only two red-brick waterfront buildings, Palace Hotel at No. 19 is the other, now proudly standing amid the line of gray structures on the Bund.
NO. 9 on the bund
Yesterday: China Merchants Steam Navigation Company
Present: First floor rented by Taiwan fashion brand Shiatzy Chen. The second and third floors house the Shanghai office of China Merchants Steam Navigation Company
Address: 9 Zhong-shan Rd E1
Style: Neo-Classical veranda architecture
Tips: Free admission to first floor. Visit the former Russell & Co building at 17 Fuzhou Road. The two buildings are connected by a tiny corridor, which shows their historical relevance.