By Gan Shijia
To my mind, there exist two Bunds. One is located at East Zhongshan No. 1 Road, and the other is behind the very same road. The former Bund belongs to every postcard related to Shanghai, to bustling tourists, to ships’ shrieking whistles above Huangpu River and huge crowds of cars and people on broad streets; while the latter Bund, belongs more to the real Shanghai lifestyle.
The Other Bund
The other Bund, who hides itself behind the Display of International Buildings, is overlooked by tourists and cars. It is a quiet, even slightly tatty spot. The sun shines in through the narrow space between those archaic and magnificent buildings, drawing a shiny trail, narrowly and faintly. But most of the places are shady and wet. It is a place where dustbins stand along the roadsides in disorder, sweepers quietly push dust carts over the streets, a rambling parking lot is stuffed with tourist buses whose passengers are eager to see the facade of the Bund, and vans and motorcycles zoom past each other recklessly. To be honest, it is not resplendent at all. Those in the relevant government departments, as they always do, wish genuinely that it is invisible to all of us. But it does exist, for real. The wonderfulness behind the Bund will not be accessible to your eyes unless you have been to many other places and have spend quite a few days in Shanghai. Compared with the tumultuous East Zhongshan No. 1 Road, the lanes in this Bund may make you think of London in the 19th century, or some exquisitely preserved European towns. It is quiet but secular, with sunlight streaming through the cramped space. It’s the vicissitudes of life, full of history in folds, unable to be refitted yet. Well, it resembles more of the original Bund, the city tried to be established as a pure European one in the ancient Oriental. The names of the roads here are connected to several beautiful scenic spots in China, and somewhat becoming free and easy, like Dianchi Road, Huqiu Road and Yuanmingyuan Road. I looked up the information and found out that the oldest building existing at the Bund hides in such a corner along Suzhou River. No. 33 of the Bund is a garden, completed in 1849 and reconstructed in 1873, was the former British Consulate. It’s the most typical 19th century British colonial architecture, with the cross-shaped structure and arched facade doors and windows, even the Romanesque rails. The united church built in 1866 is being reconstructed because it was damaged by a big fire the year before last. The brick timberwork of it is Gothic, and the 33-meter-high bell tower once was the commanding height around the south bank of Suzhou River. On Yuanmingyuan Road, there stands a queue of unrecognized buildings that are as good, if not better, than their compatriots located along Huangpu River, either in their history or in their glamour, for instance, Building of Anpei Foreign Firm, Yuanmingyuan Apartment, Hami Building, Young Women’s Christian Association Building, World Council of Churches Building, Lanxin Building, Zhenguang Building… Buildings here, so to speak, are more close to the Bund in its origin. They were the commercial heartlands of Shanghai back in the 19th century to early 20th century, as well as the channel and the carrier of international culture and art communication then. Seriously, the current Bund is still grand and attractive, but does not carry a poetic flavor at all. People wear baseball caps from a multitude of tour groups, with their guides waving small red flags, may bring in much money, but also take away the most essential style and features of the Oriental Europe. It is the Bund hiding behind all of these that remains the strong memory of that ancient and prosperous age.
There is much to discuss concerning how to keep the “spirit” of the intrinsic building when it is being reconstructed. Luckily, the RockBund made very good example in this regard. It may be a paradigm of commerce defeating culture, if simply turns the Bund into a fashion base or a first-class restaurant, selling grotesque so-called creative artwork or even famous brand ready-to-wear all over the world? Fortunately, the RockBund went a different path. There is a non-profit arts institution that serves for art, the RockBund Art Museum. The most elementary truism in reconstructing ancient buildings is the continuity of and the respect for history. The “RockBund” is an extensive area, roughly estimated, about 17,000 square meters, surrounded by Suzhou River, East Zhongshan No. 1 Road, Huqiu Road and East Beijing Road. This area bears the poetic origin of the Bund in its five score years of history, so the reconstruction project of it worth more attention than any Shikumen (literary “stone gate”) in southern districts or old warehouses in Zhabei District. Cultural heritages will perish at a gallop, if the reconstruction is conducted with less prudence. To tell you the truth, I will shudder with fear if the word “fashion” or “high-end” pops up. The word “fashion” reminds me of the chaotic scene that a group of noisy “after 90s generation” turning the Starbucks upside down. And as for “high-end”, the ridiculous scene of coal bosses from Shanxi Province, carry vest bags full of cash, spending money lavishly. Setting up an art museum is an advisable first move. Then, I, a cultural worker with no authority nor capital, can’t do anything except anticipating the next steps with a little nervous. Anyway, prudence is indispensable in this matter. Because, remember, it’s not any nameless town, it’s SHANGHAI; and it’s not any Shikumen or old warehouse, it’s the BUND.
The RockBund Art Museum: an Intimate Contact with Art
The building of the RockBund Art Museum, previously known as the Asiatic Society, located in Huqiu Road (former Museum Road). Though not very large in size, the building was the famous Shanghai Museum, common predecessor of current Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Museum of Natural History and Shanghai Library. In 1847, supported by the concession government, the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society raised funds from the public and built a permanent site, equipped with a library, a museum and lecture halls, on No. 20 Up Yuanmingyuan Road (A.K.A Huqiu Road). The museum in the building also known as “Shanghai Museum”, and that’s the reason why Huqiu Road be called as “Museum Road”. It’s one of the earliest museums in China, and was the most influential, most versatile institution for social education and cultural exchange in the Far East with the most abundant collection of Chinese samples and cultural relics. From mid 19th century to mid 20th century, it remained to be the public cultural center and academic exchange center in Shanghai and even the Far East. The current Asiatic Society Building was a new one reconstructed in 1932, designed by the English architect Tug Wilson. It’s exquisite and classical, compromising a variety of elements in Chinese and western cultures. The lecture halls in the second floor, the library in the third, and the exhibition hall in the forth and fifth, reflected different architectural features respectively as well as combined perfectly with their designed functions. In 1952, the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society was shut, leaving its collections in the museum and the library behind as the basic collections in Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Natural Museum and Shanghai Library.
Huqiu Road: Witness of Street Life in the Bund Origin
You can’t simply mark the origin of the Bund on the mark, for it’s the definition of a certain lifestyle. Ironically, the typical lifestyle of the Bund was dismissed while the concept of the Bund Origin being put forward.
Ask anyone who was raised here about the lifestyle of the Bund, and he will satisfy you with every detail of how the life of “living in the Bund” begins. In the morning, you wake up not by the morning call, but by the cries of the vendor hawking sweet fermented rice in some alley. Your breakfast is not made of delicacies from a cafeteria, but of the fried fritter cakes, numberless as the sand, sold at East Beijing Road. The cake costs five fen each, including a crispy. You go for a stroll not on the uninhabited Yuanmingyuan Road, but to the west, across the Zhapu Road Bridge, the Sichuan Road Bridge and the Henan Road Bridge, all the way to Sihang Warehouse, turn to the east, and cross Huangpu Road. You walk into the waste shop of the sugar wrappers factory, looking for any imperfections that you can take back and put in the betweens of the pages of your notebook. Or you sneak into the Naval Club, admiring big vessels shipped from Russia. With luck, you can even get the badge given by a Russian sailor. You go home at sunset. The elevator in the ancient apartment always appears in a listless look, slowly running down. Air inside the apartment is much cooler compared with the tropical weather outside. On the first floor, you say hello to the old barber in the barbershop, or take a stone and carve something on the two big columns beside the gate, like xxx is a fool, or who loves who. After the pastime, the elevator, I’m afraid, hasn’t arrived yet. That doesn’t matter, however. Hastiness hasn’t intruded into our life yet, even living at the Bund. We have plenty of time at our disposal, which, by today’s standards, seems to be a mortal sin. Luckily, when everything at the Bund has been deprived of the right of living slowly, people in some places still live a slow life stubbornly. Because of the reconstruction of the Bund Origin, almost every apartment here has been pulled down or rebuild. The only survived one is Huqiu Apartment. It stands there clumsily. The sign of Convenience Barbershop has been shifted from the inside to the outside. Even though the equipment in the barbershop has been removed, the big swivel chair with the white porcelain handle survived. In those days, the old barber would take the haircut box to nearby lanes, providing door-to-door service to kids who didn’t want a haircut. Locks of hair were cut, falling down to the white sheet, with disappointing tears. The old barber had retired years before, but his successor was not young at all. Was the successor willing to take the haircut box to nearby lanes and cut kids’ hair? Even if he was, those lanes are no where to be found again.
That’s why people who love Shanghai heart and soul become obsessed with photos taken in the 80s. At that time, the city offered everyone an opportunity to be an artist. Wherever you pressed the shutter, a photo full of Shanghai style came out. It’s a strange feeling of mixed origin. Think about relevant shots about Shanghai in the Italian director Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo-Cina. There were charming skylines, and warm winds that seemed blowing in from the screen. What about artists now? Perhaps they’ll be inspired only by the art center in Fairmont Peace Hotel and driven crazy about the contracted design style, which used ancient building’s rough parts, with lots of white space and a super-big operating platform. Of course, the most delightful scene is the real Bund outside the windows of the art center. At a glance of it, you may be surprised at how shots about Shanghai in Chung Kuo-Cina revived. (The artist hotel in the art center of the Fairmont Peace Hotel is completely free to artists. You want check-in? Please call 23298500 for further information.)
The Bund is changing and perishing. Nostalgia remembers us of the disappeared feelings in front of the reconstructed material substances that were once perished. However, everything has changed. Reconstruction is just another disguise of vanish.