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Rowing Club nearly lost to history
By Michelle Qiao

Shanghai Rowing Club, an important site for Bund history and also marking the cradle of Chinese swimming, was a derelict building slated to be torn down.

A silver key opened the new boathouse for the Shanghai Rowing Club on the afternoon of September 29, 1904. Then the throng of oarsmen, past and present, actual and potential, flowed into the vast boathouse and admired its brightness and the ample space for a large fleet of rowboats.

That marked the official opening of the fourth building of the Shanghai Rowing Club, part of which still stands on the Bund today.

While the boathouse was torn down in 1989, the remaining finely designed waterfront architecture was almost demolished years ago — and would have been if Tongji University professor Chang Qing hadn’t seen a set of late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) postcards.

The traditional British sport of rowing was one of the earliest forms of public recreation for British settlers after Shanghai opened its port in 1843. A report in the North China Daily News in 1867 dated the city’s first rowing competition to 1846, with the second to 1859, after which the Shanghai Rowing Club was inaugurated.

The first two boathouses were temporary buildings, more like sheds. The third one, a wooden structure designed by an architect named “Cory,” had a dressing room and a meeting room, but was small, less than 500 square meters.

The club quickly outgrew that facility, and members complained that the shortage of dressing rooms had delayed them before the annual regatta. So the club rented land in 1903 from the British Consulate and the Union Church for a new building comprised of a boathouse, a clubhouse and a new “swimming bath.”

In September 1904, the boathouse and the clubhouse were completed, which were designed by a well-known firm, Scott & Carter Architects, in Eclectic Style including British Victorian architecture with Baroque features. The new swimming pool was finished the following year.

North China Daily News described the new building as “a large, handsome and commodious structure of the Shanghai-Red-Brick order of architecture with dressing-room, lavatory, bathrooms, a large ball-room with convenient anterooms on the first floor, and a roof-garden, yet unplanted, over the actual boathouse.”

However, when Professor Chang was researching the Waitaiyuan project aimed at preserving culturally significant buildings and improving the area years ago, the “large and handsome” building showed up as the dilapidated, some would say ugly Huangpu Swimming Pool, which blemished the waterfront scenery.

“No one regarded it as a valuable heritage building, including myself,” Chang recalls. “But as my team dug deep into the work and life of those early Shanghailanders, we found a beautiful rowing club on a set of antique postcards which we thought must have been torn down long ago. To our surprise, later we discovered it was the dilapidated Huangpu Swimming Pool!”

According to their research, the Huangpu pool complex was composed of the original two-floor clubhouse, which had two more floors added to it in the 1960s, with the original swimming pool to one side. The old staircase also was still there. The former spacious boathouse had been torn down to build a police station.

In 2009, Professor Chang and another Tongji University professor, Ruan Yisan, an authority on historical structures, began persuading local government to drop the plan of demolishing the building.

“It is the city’s oldest surviving sports architecture,” Chang says. “Moreover, the rowing club, the former British Consulate and the Union Church was a historical architectural grouping that the early British settlers had planned for their life and work in Shanghai. The ‘Commercial Bund’ (Zhongshan Rd E1) lay to the southeast while the ‘Cultural Bund’ (Yuanmingyuan Rd) was to the west.”

He adds that the Huangpu Swimming Pool, as a national training center after 1953, was also the cradle of China’s first group of swimmers who later coached many Olympic champions.

The professors’ campaign had led to much media coverage and heated discussions among Chinese on the Internet. Some who had been trained at the pool shared vivid memories of “patterned, delicate mosaic tiles all over the swimming pool and the dressing room.” It is said famous Chinese swimmers from Huangpu District had all “soaked” in this century-old pool.

Thanks to the efforts of the professors and even a few 80-something retired “Huangpu swimmers,” the club building was finally saved and renovated.

The old swimming pool no longer has water in it but is preserved — part of it is hidden underneath a green lawn designed in shape of swimming lanes. Another portion is covered in glass and the original white-mosaic pool is visible and illuminated with blue light at night, as if it were filled with water. The clubhouse has been reconstructed as a chic coffeehouse and bar.

During an era when entertainment was scarce in the settlement, rowing and horse races attracted much attention and media coverage. Swimming as a modern sport in Shanghai can be pinpointed back to the opening of the Rowing Club’s pool in 1905. The club’s first swimming gala and aquatic sports events were staged the following year.

The English-language newspaper Social Shanghai reported in 1908 that the membership of the Shanghai Rowing Club was around 400 and the rowing fleet included “seven Light Eights, two Medium Eights, five Light Fours and four Heavy Fours,” but that “even this comprehensive fleet of boats is found to be insufficient, and the importation of some new pairs and fours is now under consideration of the Committee.”

The opening night of the club’s grand gala at the buildings on August 26, 1927 earned a vivid, detailed report in the North China Daily News:

“The bath building had been lavishly made gay with a profusion of national flags and bunting, the electric illuminations set in the fairy lanterns creating an exceedingly pleasing effect. Ceiling fans helped to temper any heaviness in the atmosphere that might have been remarked in an enclosed venue, where such a crowd had gathered as to occupy all the available seating accommodation, while the essential intervals between the various events were enlivened by a selection of popular music rendered in masterly style by the Revellers’ Orchestra.”

The night’s program ranged from 100-yard freestyle championship of Shanghai to the diving championship of Shanghai, and from the women members’ one-length handicap final heat to the relay race.

On a hot July day in 1905, another silver key opened the magnificent new swimming bathhouse at the club. Excited participants admired the energy of the architect, a Mr Christie of Messrs Scott and Carter, who “had worked like a slave,” according to the North China Daily News.

Club Captain EC Pearce expressed special thanks to their neighbor, the Union Church, which had granted permission to build the new complex on their shoreline.

“He need hardly say that one of the mottoes of the Rowing Club had always been ... Cleanliness is next to Godliness. In carrying this theory into practice the bath had been placed next to the good Church,” the paper reported.

Yesterday: Shanghai Rowing Club

Today: Shanghai Rose Bar

Address: 76 Suzhou Rd. S

Built: In 1904

Architectural style: Eclectic Style (British Victorian Architecture with Baroque features)

Architect: Messrs Scott and Carter

Tips: The first floor opens as a café bar from 12pm and the two floors will turn a bar at night. I would suggest you have a drink or peek at the century-old, white-mosaic swimming pond through the glass on the lawn. It’s more beautiful at night.

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