The People of the Bund

On The Street — By on June 18, 2011 10:13 am

By Nimshi Perera
For ChinaInFocus

Located on the western bank of the Huangpu River, Shanghai’s stately old promenade, the Bund, has long marked the cosmopolitan crossroads of China. Beginning in the 19th century, its elegant European-style façades came to symbolize the heights of colonial style and wealth after the Western powers forced China to open its doors to trade and made Shanghai into a booming commercial capital. Today the Bund marks a newer divide. The older buildings on the river’s western bank, the so-called Puxi side, still house banks and hotels and newer additions like boutiques and nightclubs. On the Huangpu’s eastern side lies Pudong, where fantastical skyscrapers and office towers have sprouted to symbolize China’s future in a globalizing economy in which Chinese entrepreneurs are likely to call more of the shots. And if the Bund is a dividing line between past and future, its people are the ones who best tell its story.

Wang Ming, 44

Wang fancies himself something of a history buff and his job as security guard for the turn-of-the-20th-Century AIA insurance building at Bund 19 gives him ample time to reflect on the area’s past. Working the night shift, scanning today’s colorful tourist crowds as they pass by the old façades, the former computer engineer marvels that toward the end of the 19th Century, Shanghai was still a sleepy fishing village with a population under one million.

While gazing across the river toward Pudong and the space-age towers rising into the night sky, Wang takes pride in his view that Shanghai has something that few other cities have—the old that makes the new work its magic. “All the growing cities of the world have a Pudong area, but I don’t think they will ever have [Shanghai's] Bund.”

Andy Zhang, 29 and Rachel Guo, 25

As the clock on the Bund’s Custom House chimes 8 p.m., two family friends are walking off their dinner from Lao Beijing, a popular Peking duck restaurant just a few minutes walk from the Huangpu’s western bank, while enjoying the view of the lights in Pudong. Zhang, a precision instruments technician from Shanghai, recalls the Bund has been under renovation for some time, the renewed façades of the Puxi-side buildings impressing him: “I think Shanghai wants to preserve its history,” Zhang says.

Guo, a Beijing banker, says, “the buildings of the Puxi side are unique in that they are all depictions of architecture from various European countries.” However, she is a fan of the Pudong side, especially Zhengda plaza, which is a shoppers’ Mecca. “In the past three times I have come to the Bund it was just for dinner and maybe some shopping on Nanjing Road,” Guo says. She believes the old buildings are a a bit out of place in comparison to the skyscrapers across the river.

Laughingly, Zhang admits, “My favorite place in Pudong is Hooters. It fits right in with Pudong, the new Shanghai.”

Zhao Shan Rong, 58

Zhao is a collector of antique stock certificates issued by the Bund’s 13 original banks. During the high days of colonial commerce, the Bund housed a host of European and Asian banks including proud names such as the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China as well as the German Asiatic Bank and the Russo-Asiatic Bank. Though now long since gone, Zhao is able to keep their memory alive through his collection. He hopes that those that view his collection will be reminded of the importance of the Western influence on China.

“I believe history connects everything,” he says. “Old buildings have old stories and I tell their stories through my collection.”

His oldest stock certificate dates back a century, to the age when China welcomed both foreign chartered and standard banks including the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China and the Standard Bank of British South Africa. Zhao said he believes in the preservation of history, a value he tries to instill in his children.

“I hope that one day my children will come to love the Bund as I have, and know how important it is to their lives.” Zhao explains that the Bund was where people of many nationalities exchanged not only goods, but ideas and beliefs.

Peter Carabi, 57

On his was to the M Bar at Bund 5, Peter Carabi, an American citizen who is now a resident of Stockholm and frequent visitor to Shanghai says, “When I come to Shanghai, I always visit the Bund. There is no place like it in the world.”

Carabi is a business development consultant for Scientific Learning, a California-based company with seven learning centers in China. A modern-day trader who has found his way to the Bund in search of a new market, he says that, like others before him, he finds the Bund welcoming to the foreign businessman. Without China opening its doors to foreign business, the Bund would cease to be the gateway it has been for centuries.

“The Brain Maps center [open to young Chinese ages 6-12 who need to rapidly learn English] is not too far from here [the Bund],” Carabi says. “It’s nice to know that we are in a great location near such a historic place in Shanghai.

Jolin Gu, 30

A resident of Pudong and a stay-at-home mother of two, Gu is a former sales agent for Johnson & Johnson in Shanghai, on the Puxi side, where she sold household products. This afternoon, she was shopping at the Super Brand Mall in Pudong, one of the largest shopping malls in Asia. Like in her home of Pudong, Gu says she shops at the Super Brand Mall, “because you can buy nearly anything here from clothing to groceries.”

Describing her life as a sales agent, Gu says, “In Puxi, I felt everyone was always rushing, it was noisy everywhere I went and there were too many people, not a place to raise a family.” Gu says, “though I enjoyed the shopping in Puxi, after moving to Pudong I feel I have everything I need here.”

Gu says she’s not alone in this opinion: “Many of my friends have come to realize that Pudong is a place where they can take care of their families in a clean and safe environment.”

Future of the Bund

How will the Bund fare in a society as relentlessly focused on the future as China? Wu Lifeng, 28, a manager of an antique shop on the Pudong side, says, “My generation usually doesn’t know much [about] or care for the history.” What they care about, says Wu, is making money and getting ahead in the world and that world is firmly rooted in Pudong, not the past.

Given this change of heart, whether the Bund survives as anything more than a stylish tourist theme park is anybody’s guess. As for Zhao, that ardent preserver of history, his hope for his children is that they will follow his example and recognize the importance of safeguarding the past. ”I help them with their collections, but it is up to them to carry them on long after I am gone.”

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