Home > iDEAL Focus > Features > No. 13: Customs House bell still tolls
No. 13: Customs House bell still tolls
By Michelle Qiao

Listening to the hourly chiming of the Customs House Clock is one of the most romantic experiences on the Bund, but I never imagined I would have a chance to climb the majestic clock tower - containing a clock and bell replica of London's Big Ben, which was also nicknamed "Big Ching."

Covering one city block, the Customs House at No. 13 on the Bund features a clock tower nearly 300 feet (90 meters) above street level, which made the massive structure the tallest building on the Bund when it was completed in 1927.

"The bell tower was so high that it was separated from the hustle and bustle of the Bund, overlooking the ships coming and going on the Huangpu River," says Professor Qian Zonghao from the Shanghai Tongji University. "It was a huge investment of 4.25 million taels of silver and was built on a grand scale with a large number of architectural details. It was truly a visible landmark, like the Customs tower in Boston."

The eight-story Customs House, topped by the clock tower standing 90 meters high, was designed by Palmer & Turner architects and took 30 months to construct.

3 houses, 3 styles

No building on the Bund tells the city's architectural history like the Customs House, which was built three times.

The first Customs House on Hankou Road was designed like a Chinese temple with a large roof and upturned eaves. It was built after the city opened its port in 1843 and was necessary to collect customs duty.

Built in 1891 on the same site, the second Customs House appeared to be a red-brick, Victorian building with a six-story clock tower as the centerpiece.

And No. 13 on the Bund, the third version completed in 1927, was treated in a restrained classical style. The entrance portico is in pure Doric style, the inspiration being taken from the Parthenon in Athens. The entire eastern section is faced with granite.

No. 12 and 13 in harmony

Vertical lines predominate from the third to the seventh floor to accentuate the height. The lines are a pleasant contrast to the long, horizontal lines of the former HSBC building at No. 12, which has a much greater frontage on the Bund. Both buildings are creations of Palmer & Turner, designer of eight waterfront Bund buildings.

According to English newspaper Far Eastern Review in 1927, the early Modernism deeply stamped by European influences began to give way to the vertiginous, pure lines of skyscrapers with exuberant Art Deco ornamentation after 1925.

"This dynamic style, inspired by the New World, was nicely in keeping with Shanghai's vitality. The new Customs House marked the transition. It preserved a Doric doorway, but its clock tower, a replica of London's Big Ben, rose to a height of 85 meters," it said.

The bustling, complicated building is filled with staircases and rooms and today houses more than a dozen organizations and companies, including Shanghai Customs, Shanghai Extry-Exit Inspection and the Quarantine Bureau and China Ocean Shipping Agency. It is easy to get lost and hard to get directions because even the staff are not familiar with all the rooms.

Gigantic maze

Archives show that No. 13 housed numerous officials and departments, including the chief tide surveyor's office, box holders, transport officers, carpenters' shop and car garages. There were flats for senior staff and their servants. The Whangpoo Conservatory and the Bank of China also maintained offices.

Among the dozen Bund buildings I had visited so far, the Customs House is one of the best preserved. It has some messy spaces because some rooms are, surprisingly, still used as residences.

Families had moved in after 1949 and refused to move out. Along with the odd dirty kitchen and laundry poles, there are quite a few intact original architectural elements, since the building's basic function hasn't changed since 1927.

The vast entrance hall is filled with maritime patterns. The walls are paneled in various selected marbles and the piers are covered with the same material inlaid at the corners with mosaics.

In the center of the hall is an octagonal ceiling containing eight vivid, multi-colored mosaics of Chinese junks and sea waves.

Originally a magnificent crystal lamp stood as the centerpiece of the hall, illuminating the mosaics on the ceiling, according to Huang Shangshang, an officer at Shanghai Customs. He released a plan to replicate the lamp late this year.

Clock tower

However beautiful the mosaics, the most breathtaking part of exploring the Customs House was climbing a long, steep, spiral iron staircase to the top of the clock and bell tower. It was a hot, sunny day when I visited and there were no fans or air-conditioning. The journey upward was dizzying, suffocating and a bit terrifying. I was almost melting.

After climbing countless stairs, I finally reached the top, where a breeze from the river was blowing my hair. I was sweating and my heart was throbbing, but my mind was cool and crystal-clear in the breeze at this height.

I had never seen the Bund from this position, so high and in the center. The grand buildings seemed short and small in a harmonious gray conglomeration. They were created by various architects in different styles. There was no time for the Municipal Council to enforce harmony in construction, yet the buildings in their diversity blend beautifully. The Bund is a gift.

At 11am the familiar melody "The East Is Red" (instead of Westminster) rang out from four speakers and then the bronze bell next to me tolled 11 times.

It was so loud that my ears and my heart were shaken. What an extreme experience! Remember, the bell toll was the same sound that marked time along the Bund for 85 years. 

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164