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No. 23 - Art Deco with Chinese characteristics
2013-02-27
By Michelle Qiao

No. 23 on the Bund, the Bank of China building, stands out as a rare example of Chinese Art Deco on the mile-long Bund dominated by a range of Western-style architecture.

Completed in 1937, it is the only heritage building on the waterfront that was invested by Chinese, co-designed by Chinese and adorned with abundant Chinese elements.

"In the 1930s, the Bund that we see today was completed and the Bank of China was one of the last few strokes on the beautiful skyline," says Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao.

It was powerful architecture, representing a powerful bank. The white building was originally designed to stand 34 stories, around 100 meters, which would be China's tallest building at the time. But the plan had shrank drastically to a 17-story, 70-meter-high structure, which remained one of the most famous myths lingering on the Bund.

It is widely said that magnate Victor Sassoon, owner of the 77-meter-high No. 20 next door, insisted that the new building should not be taller than his Sassoon House.

The Bank of China was founded in 1912 by the Kuomintang in Shanghai as the continuation of the former Da Ching Bank, the Qing Dynasty's (1644-1911) royal bank, which closed soon after the 1911 Revolution.

Initially, the Bank of China used the Da Ching Bank office at 50 Hankou Road. The head office now was formally established in August 1912 in Beijing where it remained until 1928 when it was moved back to Shanghai to the Club Concordia at No. 23 on the Bund.

Formerly a club for the German community, the Club Concordia was designed in 1907 in Gothic revival style by German architect Heinrich Becker, the man behind No. 15. The club closed in 1917 due to World War I. However, images of the fairytale castle-style club often appeared in newspaper advertising for the bank in the 1920s.

As the bank expanded swiftly along with Shanghai's booming economy, the club building could no longer accommodate all the business.

"The power of the Bank of China could compete with American and European banks. We had to build a new-style building to symbolize the modernization of the bank, to showcase our solid foundation and superb credit to China and the world," the bank's president Zhang Jia'ao (Chang Kia-ngau) said at the time.

The original and ambitious blueprint called for a powerful, soaring structure, similar to the American Radiator Co Building in New York designed by Raymond Hood (1881-1934).

It would have towered over Sassoon House and the tycoon is believed to have influenced the Shanghai Municipal Council to deny a building permit for such a tall structure.

The record of a bank meeting in 1934 indicated that top managers were concerned the council might oppose the height.

Citing an issue of The Building magazine in 1935, Professor Qian has uncovered details behind the changed height of what was to be "the first skyscraper to dominate the Shanghai Bund."

To explain the reduced height, the magazine said, "It was not urgent business to build a skyscraper so the later reduction of floors was likely also for the sake of budget saving."

"And if the 'dominant' skyscraper had been built, its height and impeding style would have ruined the harmony of buildings along the Bund. The revised plan is a better one, which has added more Chinese characters for this Chinese bank and looked compatible with its neighbors on the Bund."

The revised East-meets-West blueprint was also an East-West cooperation co-drafted by George Wilson of Palmer & Turner and British-trained Chinese architect H. S. Luke (Lu Qianshou).

Built on a 55,000-square-foot (5,110-square-meter) plot, the 17-floor structure is a Western Art Deco skyscraper graced by Chinese elements inside and out. It has a simple, square Art Deco body and a slightly overhanging Chinese roof of glazed tiles supported by stone dou gong or typical Chinese supporting brackets.

The main body of Chinese granite is dotted with lattice windows, similar to lattice windows in traditional Chinese wooden structures. Chinese cloud patterns are repeated here and there on beams and columns.

The building was a well-equipped modern office, fully air-conditioned and serviced by 13 elevators. It contained a grand banking hall lined by 16 black marble fluted columns.

Despite the reduction in scale, No. 23 stands out proudly among the Neoclassic and Gothic revival Bund architecture as a powerful and stylish statement of China.

Building the banking hall was difficult, given the height reduction, but managing a modern bank in politically unstable old China was more difficult.

According to Shanghai banking historian Xin Jianrong, bank manager Song Hanzhang was abducted in March 1912, soon after the bank's founding. At that time officials often "borrowed" money from Chinese banks for their own use.

Song was abducted by Shanghai military governor Chen Qimei who tried to extort funds. Song was held for 20 days in a private villa on the edge of the International Settlement and Suzhou Creek. He did not relinquish bank funds, however, and he was finally released due to pressure from public opinion.

"The event revealed an independent spirit of the new-generation Chinese bankers, who did not surrender to the authorities," says Xin. "Song started his career in an old-style Chinese money shop but he had the spirit and talent of a modern banker. That's why he was not eliminated by the new era."

As the oldest surviving bank in China, the 101-year-old Bank of China has continuously used the building, which it occupies today. The bank specialized in foreign exchange and international trade after 1949. Today it is one of the four large state-owned banks. It was renovated in 2006.

Back on October 10, 1936, the corner stone of No. 23 was laid in ceremony attended by many Chinese dignitaries and foreign guests. The ceremony took place in a temporary structure, decorated with flags and closely guarded by police. Security was tight.

T. V. Soong, chairman of the bank's board, presided and called for cooperation among all banks in China.

General manager Song Hanzhang, the courageous banker who refused to capitulate when he was abducted, delivered an inspiring speech.

"In February 1912 the Bank of China was organized with our Head Office at 50 Hankow Road, Shanghai ... Two years ago, when the old building here was about to be demolished, the Head Office and the Shanghai Branch were re-transferred to 50 Hankow Road, thus completing a perfect cycle in less than a quarter of a century. The erection of a new building seems to indicate that the Bank is about to close one chapter and open another," he said.

Yesterday: The Bank of China

Present: The Bank of China

Address: 23 Zhongshan Rd E1

Completed: In 1937

Architectural style: Art Deco with Chinese elements

Architect: Palmer & Turner and H. S. Luke (Lu Qianshou)

Tips: The bank is open to the public, and I would suggest visiting the bank's history museum at No. 23, which is free but requires reservation at 6329-2618 (Chinese only).

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