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Bund II: Astor House and beyond
2014-02-09
By Michelle Qiao

Last summer I followed the traces of legendary American writer Emily Hahn and kicked off the “Bund Series” to tell the stories of waterfront buildings one by one — from No. 1 to No. 33 — combining archival extracts and field visits. It was such a journey. Having being a genuine “M on the Bund” for quite some time, I feel reluctant to leave the Bund so soon when the column was coming to an end. At that moment I happened to read the autobiography of another American writer, Helen Foster Snow (1907-1997). Part One was “Shanghai” in which she compared herself to Anna Leonowens from “Anna and the King of Siam.”

Dreaming of becoming a writer, this ambitious young American traveled 5,065 miles (8,104 kilometers) and landed in Shanghai in the summer of 1931. She was immediately taken to the city’s oldest hotel, the Astor House, by a rickshaw.

Like Hahn, whose Shanghai stay extended from only weeks, as first intended, to six years (1935-1940), Snow had intended to stay at most for one year. She did not leave Asia until the end of 1941.

“Shanghai is a marvelous place for an enterprising young person with ideas. It is a total loss for many things, but I see so many opportunities that I can hardly decide what to do ...” she wrote in her book.

This upbeat and attractive 23-year-old met American journalist Edgar P. Snow (1905-1972) on her first day in Shanghai and married him one year later. Over the next decade Edgar P. Snow became the first to interview top Chinese Communist leaders in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province, and wrote his famous “Red Star Over China” (1937).

Helen Snow herself became a famous journalist and writer, publishing her own “Inside Red China” (1939) and “Red Dust” (1952). While teaching in Beijing, she and Edgar P. Snow were friends with many patriotic students and intellectuals.

Enchanted by Helen Foster Snow’s vivid memories of the Bund and how she strove for her dreams in the “most fascinating city in the world,” I want to launch “Bund II,” a series that begins where Helen began her China journey, the former Astor House.

In 20 stories, I plan to explore historic buildings and other “relics” in the north Bund area around this hotel, places Helen Snow might have visited.

Although the Snows later moved to Beijing, Shanghai was the first China stop for both of them and where they fell in love. And it was in the sweeping river breeze of the Bund that Edgar proposed to Helen. It was so sad to read this part, knowing that they divorced in 1949.

Buildings in this series are in a variety of architectural styles, including the very old Union Church (built in 1864), Shanghai’s first rowing club and the city’s “mascots” such as the Waibaidu Bridge and the “Public Garden.”

The series will also introduce cultural and religious buildings on Yuanmingyuan Road, which has been called the “Cultural Bund” by Tongji University professor Chang Qing. He says it “echoes” with the commercial and financial Bund on Zhongshan Road E1.

Shanghai government had launched “Waitanyuan Project” in 2003 to renovate dozens of heritage buildings in the neighborhood of the “Cultural Bund” for commercial use, which is still ongoing.

In my first Bund series, the 23 waterfront buildings lined the Huangpu River. In this new series, my stops form an irregular circle as shown on the map.

“Bund II” buildings cannot outclass the 23 waterfront structures in terms of fame and scale, but many reflect a more simple-cut beauty and functional quality of modern architecture.

Some were designed by famous architects such as Palmer & Turner and L.E. Hudec. Two demolished buildings will also be featured, the Synagogue and the Masonic Hall.

Japanese architect and historian Fujimori Terunobu believes architecture is the largest container of memories. If so, then the Bund is a huge container of Shanghai’s urban memories.

So let’s head out on this new journey from what was many Americans’ favorite stop, the Astor House, also the first stop of an American girl who had traveled thousands of kilometers for a dream that did come true in the Orient.

 (This column is produced in cooperation with the Shanghai Archives Bureau, the Shanghai Library, the Xujiahui Library, the Huangpu District Archives Bureau, the Shanghai Tourism Bureau, the Shanghai Bund Investment (Group) Co Ltd and Rockbund. The sources are mostly from exclusive interviews and first-hand accounts in English and Chinese archives. Architect Zhang Xuefei has been invited to shoot most of the photos.)

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