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No. 26: Monument to early preservationist
2013-03-27
By Michelle Qiao

Rome wasn't built in a day, nor was the Bund. The willowy building No. 26 is linked to a man who had saved the beauty of the Bund.

Juxtaposed between No. 24 and No. 27, both on a much grander scale, No. 26's slim body features an austere style with refined details.

It was constructed between 1918 and 1920 for the Yangtze Insurance Association, one of the earliest and largest insurance companies in China.

Palmer & Turner had completed the design in 1916, but the project did not kick off until 1918 because Yangtze's shipping insurance business was at high risk during World War I, says Tongji University Professor Qian Zonghao.

Yangtze Insurance Association was founded in 1862 by American merchant Edward Cunningham to insure the cargoes and vessels of the American firm Russell Co's Shanghai Steam Navigation Co, which dominated shipping on the Yangtze River.

A Russell partner and US vice consul in Shanghai, Cunningham was one of the seven board members when the Shanghai Municipal Council of the International Settlement (SMCIC) was created in 1854. Elected chairman of the board for 1868-1869, the man is remembered today for his vision for the Bund.

Shanghai Archive Bureau researcher Jiang Longfei found a letter in the meeting minutes of SMCIC archives, in which Cunningham strongly opposed the plan to use the river frontage of the Bund for wharves.

"The sole beauty of Shanghai is the Bund ... It is the only place where the residents can get fresh air from the river in an evening promenade, the only place of the settlement where there is a free outlook," Cunningham wrote in the letter. It was dated on December 30, 1869, from Yokohama, Japan, shortly after he retired from the position of SMCIC chairman.

"Shipping is not the main element in commerce. It is one of the courses adjunct like pack-horses and drays. The Exchange, the Banks, the Counting houses hold the basics of commerce and where they are located there always is the best quarter, the greatest throng of commercial life," wrote this far-sighted man.

"In his opinion, the presence of shipping will bring only noise and dusts, which will scare off those financial institutions," researcher Jiang says. "Although retired, Cunningham was still influential and this four-page letter had affected opinion of the SMCIC board."

And SMCIC had carefully collected this four-page letter in meeting minutes in February 1870.

Russell & Co went bankrupt in 1891 but Yangtze Insurance was reorganized as an independent company. At its peak, the company had more than 30 branches in Chinese port cities, specializing in maritime and fire insurance.

Covering a land area of 639 square meters, the seven-story, steel-and-concrete No. 26 was reported as "another handsome structure that is being erected on the Bund" by the Far East Review.

The ground floor had been occupied by a bank while the Yangtze Insurance had taken the entire first floor for its offices. The second, third and fourth floors were divided for offices while the two upper stories were used as residential quarters. The edifice was topped by a roof garden that was 115 feet (34.5 meters) above the street level.

Yangtze Insurance Association was taken over by the Japanese after 1941 and resumed business after 1945. In the 1940s, No. 26 also attracted nearly 10 insurance firms that rented space, hence, it was known as the "plaza of insurance."

The nearly century-old insurance company ceased business in China in the 1950s after which state-owned companies including China Oil & Foodstuffs Corp moved in.

Today, No. 26 is used by the Agricultural Bank of China, which uses the ground floor as a banking hall and second to fourth floors for offices and a private banking club. The fifth to seventh floors house the Bund Art Center for the China National Academy of Painting, which regularly hosts art events for the bank's wealthy clients.

A recent renovation has changed the interiors of the ground floor but major rooms in the above floors have maintained the original style, "adorned with expensive imported teak wood" and "contrasting to the simple granite on the external walls," according to Far Eastern Review.

Back to more than a century ago, Bund aficionados like Cunningham continued to fight with powerful trade firms that wanted to use the Bund frontage as wharves and docks for ships and warehouses for cargo.

According to professor Qian, these arguments had arisen every several years until SMCIC chairman Edward Selby Little hosted a tax payers' meeting and made a persuasive proposal for preservation in the 1900s.

"Little was also a Bund lover, who had a habit of wandering on the promenade while working for the North China Daily News," Qian says. "After the meeting it was widely recognized that the Bund should maintain the promenade and sightseeing functions. No one proposed ship wharves any more."

In the book "Shanghai-China's Gateway to Modernity," French historian Marie-Claire Bergere describes the Bund area as a business quarter by 1900 where "banks, real estate companies, insurance companies, and luxury shops were located."

"In this quarter devoted to finance and services, where by 1900 density was already over 60,000 inhabitants per square kilometer, the population had ceased to grow, but land prices continued to soar. Along its avenues, stone or concrete buildings testified to the wealth and power of the great companies."

The 1900s Bund was exactly as Cunningham had imagined 30 years before while drafting that important, four-page letter during a sleepless night in Yokohama. No. 26 built for the company he had founded would join the ranks of Bund buildings showcasing the power of commerce.

Walking through the riverside promenade or breathing the fresh air on a windy balcony with a Bund view, we cannot help thank the two "Edwards" and those who had fought for the character of the city.

And the beauty of the Bund today might exceed their imaginations.

Yesterday: Yangtze Insurance Association Building

Today: The Agricultural Bank of China

Address: 26 Zhongshan Rd E1

Built: In 1918-1920

Architectural style: Eclectic

Architect: Palmer & Turner

Tips: The ground floor is open to the public. Please note the handsome marble entrance, contrasting with the severe granite exterior facade.

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