No. 27: From powerful trading house to luxury club
By Michelle Qiao
THE Bund has always been a gallery showcasing power and wealth. No. 27 has housed two historic family enterprises of immense power and wealth, from yesterday until the present.
Today, No. 27 on the Bund is The House of Roosevelt, a commercial property managed by Roosevelt China Investments Corp. Portraits of both Roosevelt presidents (Theodore and Franklin D.) and Teddy bears (named after Theodore) are everywhere in the building, a reminder of the legendary American family.
Back in 1922, five-story No. 27 was erected as the new office for Jardine, Matheson & Co or EWO (Yi He) in Chinese, at one time the largest trading company in China and the East.
Co-founded by Scotsmen William Jardine and James Matheson in Canton (today's Guangzhou) in 1832, the company profited from tea, silk and cotton but its profits came overwhelmingly from the smuggling opium from India into China, where opium was banned.
In 1842 the company ironically received the Chinese name EWO, meaning the "state of happy harmony." The company had lobbied for years to force China to open up the opium trade, and finally succeeded in persuading Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston to wage two Opium Wars in the name of free trade.
With a network of wharves and warehouses in major port cities, the company's business expanded to insurance and shipping and in the early 20th century Jardine Matheson became an empire.
In 1876, the company constructed China's first railway line, a narrow-gauge line in Shanghai, between the edge of the former American concession and Wusong in Baoshan District. It had been built illegally and was dismantled after only a year because of Chinese protests that the white man's gadget would upset the local feng shui.
Historians often compare Jardine Matheson with the equally wealthy Sassoon family. Both had similar backgrounds and were flourishing in Shanghai early last century. The latter also had a monumental building on the Bund, which is No. 20, today's Fairmont Peace Hotel.
"They diversified into industry, real estate and anything else a bright Jardine nephew or Sassoon son thought interesting. Operations, however daring and far-flung, remained under family control. Both saw nepotism as a virtue," British historian Harriet Sergeant writes in her 1991 book "Shanghai."
After purchasing Lot No. 1 on the Bund, Jardine Matheson constructed an office building in 1851. It was a landmark in its day and listed as one of the only 15 Shanghai heritage buildings in the "architectural bible" - Sir Banister Fletcher's "A History of Architecture."
The old building with an inviting porch was demolished in 1920 to make way for No. 27, designed by Messrs Stewardson and Spence.
The premise had a Bund frontage of 173 feet (51 meters); in terms of frontage, it was second only to the former HSBC Building at No. 12, among 23 waterfront heritage buildings. It demonstrates the idea that length of a building's frontage on the Bund signaled the owner's importance in the old days.
Today No. 27 gives the impression of a powerful structure, built of reinforced concrete and faced with granite.
Past a black cast iron gate, visitors enter the lobby where a chamber music ensemble may be playing Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," as during a recent visit. This leads through an elegant hall to a very large and stately main staircase. The music echoes with the architecture and makes it especially pleasant to explore the building.
Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao has defined the style of No. 27 as "free rendering of modern Renaissance." The facades consist of dignified colonnades running through three stories supporting a heavy entablature, the whole resting on a heavily rusticated base.
It was the continued arched windows on the rusticated base that inspired the Roosevelt team to create a cellar in the century-old structure.
"I visited the building day and night, on sunny days, cloudy days and rainy days," says Tim T.L. Tse, president of Roosevelt China Investments Corp, recalling the days he racked his brains to decide how to use the second floor. "One morning I looked at the arches of the building. For me it was like one cellar. That day I determined to make it the biggest cellar in town."
The idea was realized and the cellar now contains more than 4,000 labels of wine in a wide price range. Noteworthy features are the original partly damaged walls, that reveal the history and work nicely in a modern cellar. The gigantic arched windows offer sweeping Bund views.
No. 27 is now a complex of diversified businesses, including a Rolex flagship timepiece store, Roosevelt's private members-only club, high-end dining and even a wedding banquet venue graced by crystal chandeliers.
Some floors are rented by American law firm Jones Day, which provides shower facilities for its lawyers who jog along the Bund before work.
However, Roosevelt's original plan was different. It aimed to establish Saks Fifth Avenue store on the Bund in building No. 27 and nearby Yifeng Galleria on Beijing Road E. Saks withdrew from the cooperation, due to the change in its corporate direction.
"We thought it was appropriate to represent the Roosevelt brand here with the premier building from the old days and it was in a condition that could be renovated into its original grandeur," says Tweed Roosevelt, great-grandson of former President Theodore Roosevelt and chairman of Roosevelt China Investments Corp.
He says No. 27 is the right building despite its large and inefficient rooms.
"To our eyes, it was the most beautiful building both inside and outside. We love the kind of construction and architecture, the enormous windows, the sun and everything. It's like parents who would always think their children are the best," he says.
While Roosevelt is enjoying the Bund's sunlight through the arched windows, the former host of No. 27 is not far away. As the only surviving foreign enterprise founded in China before the Opium Wars, the Jardine Matheson Group returned to the Chinese mainland in 1979 after an absence of 25 years.
Now a multinational group in insurance, real estate, autos and retail, the group's Shanghai office is in the Bund Center, just 10 minutes' walk from the former headquarters of the trading company.
"In Chinese history, no foreign companies like Jardine Matheson had so deeply influenced the country's politics and foreign affairs. EWO people are active in every period of modern China, from the opium war in the 1840s to swarming of foreign enterprises after 1978," scholar and journalist Liu Shiping writes in book "The King of Foreign Hongs."
When Jardine Matheson announced it would build a new office, the Far Eastern Review printed the blueprint in January 1920.
That report also recorded memories of the old 1851 building, where the plans for China's first railway were formulated, shipping lines expanded and the Shanghai branch had grown from half-a-dozen employees to a huge organization.
"The firm which has played so great a part in the progress of Shanghai and will continue to hold its place in the future of China will fittingly be housed in the monumental structure which is now under way, although many China residents will view with regret the demolition of the stately old building which has meant so much to Shanghai of the past," the newspaper wrote.
Times flies and it is hard to believe that nearly a century had slipped away since this sentimental news item was written. Twists and turns, retreats and returns, as well as relics of the two foreign family enterprises, all crystallized in the stone building with huge arched windows.
Yesterday: The Jardine Matheson Building
Today: The House of Roosevelt
Address: 27 Zhongshan Rd E1
Built: In 1922
Architectural style: Modern Renaissance
Architect: Stewardson and Spence
Tips: I would suggest you have a drink behind the arched windows at the cellar or climb rooftop to enjoy a breathtaking view.