“Under a sunset-mottled sky, the towering framework of Garden Bridge was mantled in a gathering mist. Whenever a tram passed over the bridge, the overhead cable suspended below the top of the steel frame threw off bright, greenish sparks.”
That was an excerpt from the first paragraph of the famous Chinese novel “Midnight,” written by Mao Dun in the 1930s.
The Garden Bridge, today’s Waibaidu Bridge, has been a showpiece of Shanghai since the day it opened in January 1908.
The bridge has played a part in numerous Shanghai-themed books and movies, especially postcards on which locals perform tai chi in front of its double hunchback-shaped silhouette of iron in the morning sunlight.
History of the city’s most famous bridge is long and eventful. According to Shanghai Archives Bureau researcher Zhang Yaojun, the first bridge across the Suzhou River was a floating bridge above a dam built in 1570 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). After the dam was abandoned in the 18th century, locals had to rely on ferries to cross the river.
“Seeing the anxiety and boredom on the faces of travelers waiting for slow ferries, a British man named Wills, a Jardine & Matheson employee, hit upon an idea to build a bridge to make money,” says Zhang, author of the book “The Stories of Shanghai’s Rivers and Bridges.”
F.L. Hawks Pott’s 1928 book “A Short History of Shanghai” recorded that Wills organized the Soochow Creek Bridge Company to build the Wills Bridge in 1856, which was “not a very sightly structure” but “the company made a great profit from the tolls collected from those using the bridge.” There were complaints from the public about the bridge being a profit-making enterprise.
In the 1870s, the company started to construct a new steel bridge as the wooden one was rotting away. But “one blow from the small pile-driver employed buried the pilings out of sight in the silt,” according to Rhoads Murphey’s 1953 book “Shanghai — Key to Modern China.” The failure, blamed in part on “the totally unconsolidated material” on which Shanghai rests, also gave foreigners pause about Shanghai’s future.
Finally the then Shanghai Municipal Council obtained control. They first erect a free bridge by the side of the company’s and later purchased Wills’ company. As the era of trams arrived and they needed to get across the bridge, the council in 1907 built the steel-frame Garden Bridge, which is what we see today. It is one of the earliest examples of a camelback truss bridge in China.
The English-language “Social Shanghai” paper reported in 1908 that the abutments and pier of the new Garden Bridge were being made with Portland cement and it had granite cornerstones.
“Handsome granite structures are being built at each end at the sides of the abutments. The bridge is being painted light grey with the exception of the railing, which will be dark green. All the paint has been specially ordered from home,” the report said.
Perched at such a crucial location, it was always a busy bridge. According to an official 1926 survey, 50,823 people, 14,600 rickshaws, 4,999 cars, 172 buses and 922 trams had passed through the bridge from 7am to 7pm on May 17-18.
The bridge also served as a perfect platform to appreciate the beauty of the Bund. Famous Chinese poet/architect Lin Huiyin had written subtle lines about the bridge’s night scene, depicting the tiny lights on the bridge as “lotus lights on West Lake on the night of June 18 that gently move in the breeze.”
The bridge also witnessed frightening moments. A typhoon on July 27, 1915 killed a person walking across the bridge by dashing him to the ground and blew several people into the Huangpu River.
Later that year, the city’s top military officer, Zheng Rucheng, was assassinated by two revolutionaries while his car was driving on the bridge to attend a ceremony at the Japanese Consulate.
In 1907, Messrs Howarth Erskine, Ltd of Singapore obtained the contract for the supply erection of the steel work for the bridge, which was manufactured for them by the Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company Co of England.
Time for repairs
Official Zeng Ming, who used to work for the Shanghai Municipal Engineering Administration Bureau, says they received a letter from the century-old contractor reminding them to repair the bridge, which was nearly 100 years old in 2007.
The letter not only prompted a large-scale repair project in 2009 but also led to discussions among Chinese netizens about how the company followed up on a product it had delivered a century ago.
The bridge did need significant repair since “the load-bearing capacity of the Waibaidu Bridge indeed had decreased due to corrosion,” says bridge expert Pan Zhentao, consultant for the project.
For its repairs, the bridge was removed and taken to a shipyard in the Pudong New Area for repair. It also needed to be moved for underground work to be done for the Bund Renovation Project before the World Expo 2010 Shanghai.
Pan is proud that the repair had been done the right way, with respect for history.
The old decking and the “character of the bridge” was maintained, with the load transferred from stringer structural elements to the floor beam and then to the main truss. The original curved bracket on the cross frame, which had been straightened during previous renovations, was restored to its nice, old curves. The beloved wooden sidewalk, which had been replaced with concrete, was restored, too.
“With today’s technology, it’s easy to rebuild a modern, new bridge across the Suzhou Creek. But this is Shanghai’s ‘grandma bridge,’ which had witnessed the sorrow and happiness of the city for so many years,” says Pan, 85, a graduate of the city’s historical St John’s College, recalling a painful memory of Chinese having to show respect to Japanese guards while passing the bridge after the Japanese invasion of the 1930s.
“It’s a national relic, but it’s not only a national relic. It’s a bridge that people and cars are still traveling through it. It’s an evergreen bridge,” Pan says.
In Mao Dun’s novel “Midnight,” the Waibaidu Bridge was the first thing that Old Mr Wu saw after he arrived in Shanghai by boat and met his industrialist son at the wharf. The old man, who had not left his house in the country for 25 years, was forced to flee his home by bandits. As he got into his son’s car and it departed, the old man suddenly opened his eyes and cried out with startling vehemence.
“To the west, one saw with a shock of wonder on the roof of a building, a gigantic neon sign in flaming red and phosphorescent green: LIGHT, HEAT, POWER!”
Perturbed and shocked by the “light, heat and power” of Shanghai, “the Paris of the East,” Old Mr Wu died.
But the century-old Waibaidu Bridge still lives and Pan is optimistic that it will be in use for at least another 50 happy years, until 2057, lending its historical perspective to the city.
Yesterday: The Garden Bridge
Today: The Waibaidu Bridge
Built: In 1907
Type: Camelback truss
Constructor: Messrs Howarth Erskine, Ltd of Singapore
Tips: It’s pleasant to simply walk back and forth on the wooden deck of this old bridge, which shows different kinds of beauty during different hours of the day, especially in the dawn or at dusk.