After falling in love with Shanghai in 1935, American writer Emily Hahn got her first Shanghai job at the North-China Daily News at No. 17 on the Bund.
No. 17, the former editorial office for the city's first English-language daily newspaper, the influential North-China Daily News, was designed in 1921 to be Shanghai's tallest office building at 10 stories. But when it was completed in 1924, there were taller buildings, as height records were broken one after another in fast-growing Shanghai.
The North-China Daily News (Tzu Lin Hsi Pao) was established in 1864 by British auctioneer Henry Shearman. It was the successor of the weekly North China Herald, which was founded in 1850. The paper, which published for just over a century, carried a lot of shipping and business news. It also reported on politics and the daily life of the foreign community. At its peak, daily circulation was 7,817.
In the 1920s, another English-language paper, the Far Eastern Review, described the North-China Daily News as "the most influential paper in China."
"It is the newspaper which is found in every office, consular or commercial; it is the newspaper most frequently quoted by both the foreign and vernacular press; and it is the one newspaper which combines a quality with a quantity circulation - being the largest both in size and circulation in China."
In her autobiography "China to Me" published in 1944, Hahn said the British-owned paper wanted a woman to write features and interviews, since their female reporter was quitting and moving away to get married.
Hahn, who already had lived an unconventional life of adventure and travel, took the job, rented a flat in the nearby district of Kiangse Road (today's Jiangxi Road M.) and began to live a full life in swinging Shanghai.
"My days were crowded. Usually my day's assignment could be polished off in the morning. It might be an interview with some retiring magnate or perhaps a swimming pool was being opened by an advertising club. Or I might dream up a piece myself, about a Chinese drugstore that hung cages of real Indo-Chinese sloths around to attract trade ... I could write it up in the office or at home," she wrote.
Hahn became the mistress of Chinese poet and publisher Sinmay Zau, who was one of the main attractions of her Shanghai stay.
"Once and only once Sinmay called for me in the North-China office: his pale face and long gown caused such excitement among the mild British reporters that he became self-conscious and after that made me meet him out on the Bund."
Tall and narrow
As the newspaper was expanding rapidly, a larger, modern office was required. The newsroom site on the Bund was quite small, around 900 square meters. Therefore, architects Lester, Johnson & Morriss designed a tall, narrow building to make full use of the land.
"At that time the Municipal Council forbade the erection of an edifice higher than one and a half times the width of the road. Thanks to the wider Bund road at that time, it was possible to build the 10-story building as high as 132 feet (40 meters)," says Professor Qian Zonghao with Tongji University.
Designed in a free Renaissance style, with Baroque towers and Neoclassical pillars and Renaissance relief sculpture, No. 17 is built of reinforced concrete with 1,200 tons of white Japanese granite facings.
The front presents a dignified, well-proportioned fa?ade with handsome fluted columns. Two towers rise form the roof and together with twin entrances in the facade, imply a Baroque influence.
No. 17 is so narrow that it's often easy to miss the eight dramatic man-size Atlantes, Atlas-like sculptures that appear to be supporting the roof beneath the cornice. It took Japanese craftsmen five months to carve each sculpture, each requiring three pieces of Italian granite. They are bent and their muscles bulging with apparent effort to hold up the roof. Installing them at such a height, around nine stories, was a major construction feat.
At the entrance three relief carvings depict symbols of art, science, literature, commerce, truth, journalism and printing - key words in the newspaper industry.
The editorial offices were on the fifth floor, other floors were leased and the rear seven stories were occupied by the printing press, Linotype machines and other equipment and supplies. A hollow double wall separated the front and rear of the building to muffle the roaring of the presses and clattering of the Linotypes.
King of Insurance
No. 17 is also famous for one of its tenants, the American insurance company AIG (American International Group Inc), which moved into the building in 1928 and used the northern door as its main entrance.
In 1919 young American Cornelius Vander Starr founded the American Asiatic Underwriters (AAU) in Shanghai, which became the largest insurance empire in Asia, the forerunner of AIG.
According to Shanghai banking historian Xin Jianrong from the Shanghai Archives, Starr, who was later nicknamed the "King of Insurance," came to Shanghai with only an old suitcase and at first had to live in an attic.
But the young entrepreneur soon found business opportunities among Chinese who lacked knowledge of the insurance industry. Later, he would win clients' trust by compensating for a fire loss, even before the insurance contract went into effect.
"Rumors said he was a cheat," says historian Xin, who later discovered the report of an independent credit investigation that described Starr's enterprise as "a prosperous business with trustworthy credit."
"After a thorough investigation, even the cautious Shanghai Commercial & Savings Bank had bought stocks of Starr's insurance company," he says.
According to the Huangpu District Archives, the Japanese army occupied No. 17 from 1941 to 1945 when the war ended, and AIG moved to Hong Kong in 1947. However, its former branch company AIA (American International Assurance), which also had an office in No. 17 in the 1930s, returned to the building in 1998, becoming one of the first original companies that returned to its old Bund office.
Zheng Xin Bank has rented the lower three floors since this year, while AIA retains the upper floors.
The North-China Daily News closed in March 1951. Thereafter, state-owned enterprises, including the China Silk Import & Export Co, occupied No. 17.
After extending what was initially to be a two-week trip to Shanghai, reporter Hanh, a famous character in old Shanghai, finally left the city and her married lover forever in 1940. She wrote her famous book, "The Soong Sisters" (1941), went on to have other adventures, marry, have children and write prolifically. She died at the age of 92.
From 1850 to 1951, the century recorded by the North-China Daily News was the most breathtaking in the city's history. Legendary figures like Hahn and Starr left their footprints and legends all over Shanghai - and No. 17 on the Bund.
Yesterday: The North-China Daily News Building
Today: The AIA Building (first 3 floors rented by Zheng Xin Bank)
Address: 17 Zhongshan Rd E1
Style: Free Renaissance
Designer: Lester, Johnson & Morriss
Tips: The ground floor is open. Crane your neck to appreciate the Atlantes sculptures "holding up" the roof.