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1908 building a reminder of firm’s land investing
By Michelle Qiao

A 1906 book published exquisite plans of the Shanghai Land Investment Company’s new building, then “in course of erection in Peking and Jinkee Roads.”

Two years later, the beautifully drawn edifice in the book, “Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong, Shanghai and other Treaty Ports of China,” came to life. It was built at 120 Dianchi Road for the city’s one-time top developer, which later erected the Broadway Mansions (today’s Shanghai Plaza on the Bund) beside the Waibaidu Bridge in the 1930s.

“It’s a typical Veranda Colonial style building in the late Queen Ann Renaissance style, which was popular in the city early last century,” says Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao, noting that this was an early work of the prolific Atkinson & Dallas, creator of both No. 7 and No. 29 on the Bund.

Today the brick-and-wood structure juxtaposes with another Atkinson & Dallas work in similar style, the Gibb Livingston & Co. Building.

Filled with numerous families and a bunch of shops, the building is graced by a variety of arches, columns and keystones, with refined brickwork. Probably owing to an impeccable historical ambience created by the two red-bricks, Chinese director Chen Kaige chose Dianchi Road to imitate a New York avenue for his award-winning movie “Mei Lan Fang.” The scene was to recreate the Peking Opera master’s famous visit to the U.S. in 1930.

Shanghai historian Wu Zhiwei traced the early history of the company to 1888, when the city’s land price hit an ebb after a series of ups and downs. Real estate in Shanghai had flourished for the first time after a great influx of Chinese into the settlements owing to the troubled conditions in the vicinity of Shanghai caused by the “Small Sword” Rebels in 1853.

In the 1928 book “A Short History of Shanghai,” F.L. Hawks Pott wrote about great differences of opinion between foreign residents at that time.

“Those who profited by building houses and renting them to Chinese naturally were in favor of allowing them to reside in the settlements, but some saw the difficulties and dangers that might arise by departing from the terms of the treaty.”

However the refugees showed no disposition to move and foreigners continued to build tenements for them. The right of the Chinese to reside in the settlement gradually became established by usage, which kicked off the long-time boom of the local real estate market.

Foreign developers played the leading role for a long time. They included E.D. Sassoon & Co., S.A. Hardoon Co. and Shanghai Land Investment Company.

The latter was co-founded by a group of eminent merchants, including Edward Jenner Hogg (of Hogg Brothers & Co.), Alexander George Wood (of Gibb, Livingston & Co.) and John Graeme Purdon (of Maitland & Co.), to conduct business in land investment, land mortgage, and building estates.

“They quickly purchased a 6.42-mow (about 4,280 square meters) land plot near Zhapu Road in 1889. The company bought more second-hand lands from expatriate owners than original lands from Chinese landlords,” says historian Wu from the Shanghai History Museum, who had studied 95 surviving title deeds of this history-rich company.

He notes that most land owned by the company was waste ground in Hongkou. The firm strongly believed in the assured and permanent nature of investments in property situated within a reasonable distance of great centers, such as the international settlement around the Bund.

Under this investment philosophy, the main object was “to acquire such land in favorable situations at reasonable prices and develop it.”

The first bucket of gold came from the purchase of land that was later used to build the Broadway Mansions and a vast tract of farmland near Wusong Road. The company profited handsomely from building residences for rent on these lands. The price of the properties soared amid the city’s dramatic urban development.

Shanghai was nicknamed “paradise for adventurers” but historian Wu defined the company’s investment style as “very traditional” because its major business relied on building “Shikumen” — traditional Chinese houses jamming together in Western townhouse layouts — to rent to Chinese.

While it was in vogue to build high-rises as land prices skyrocketed during “the golden age” (1920s-1930s), the company invested in only two high-rises, the Broadway Mansions and Pearce Apartment (today’s Puxi Apartment on Panlong Street).

“Shanghai’s property market hit a crisis in 1935. But the company survived it owing to the support of HSBC bank and its signature prudent management style,” Wu says.

The 1906 book listed the company’s noteworthy projects, including a number of large foreign offices on Jinkee Road (today’s Dianchi Road) “in place of the old, unattractive buildings that formerly existed there” and the Hongkew Creek estate “which was nothing but waste land a few years ago” then “had been covered with Chinese houses.” To sum up, “This enterprise has totally changed the appearance of some quarters of the town, and it says much for the foresight with which the directors have conducted their business, that portions of land, which they purchased for Tls. 300 a mow, have risen in value during the last ten years to such a remarkable extent that a mow could not now be purchased for less than Tls. 5,000.”

According to Fudan University researcher Jia Caiyan’s 2007 book, “Urban Land Management in Modern Shanghai (1843-1949),” land prices in the former international settlement and French concession ascended continuously with the construction of public facilities.

In the 69 years from 1865 to 1933, the average land price per mow increased 24.7 times.

Wall Street pundits say, “The trend is your friend.” The century-old red-brick erected by a top developer strongly proved that fortune is with those who ride the right trend but in a prudent way.

Yesterday: Shanghai Land Investment Company Building

Today: Shanghai Land Investment Company Building for mixed use

Address: 120 Dianchi Road

Built in: 1908

Architectural Style: Queen Anne style

Architect: Atkinson & Dallas

Tips: The building is often locked by an iron gate. However the door of neighboring Gibb Livingston & Co. Building is often open. The interior gives a touch of traditional Shanghai lifestlye with original steep wooden staircase, dusty public areas, a British cat and delicate architectural details.

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