The Bund Shanghai: History & Facts

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you will learn about the history of the Bund Shanghai. You will learn where and how the Bund was established and how it rose to prominence, making Shanghai the Paris of the East before its fall and subsequent revitalization.

The Location

The Bund is a legendary waterfront located on the western bank of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, China. 'Bund' means embankment. The Bund is also known as the Wai Tan, and it's about ¾ of a mile long. Originally the Bund ran from Suzhou Creek in the north down to Jinling Lu.

Map of Shanghai and The Bund
Map of Shanghai and The Bund

The Bund is famous for its grand, Western-style buildings that were built in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The buildings feature architectural styles from Neoclassical to Beaux-Arts to Gothic to Baroque.

Early Days

The Bund has a controversial history of Western colonialism. China had tried to block Western powers from settling and trading in China, but Shanghai was forced open under the Treaty of Nanking after the Chinese lost the first Opium War in 1842. In the treaty, the Western powers demanded trading rights in China, and they were granted settlements or concessions. Soon wharves and trading houses were set up along the Huangpu river. At this time, the area was little more than farmland and wetlands. The treaty was a humiliation for the Chinese, but a triumph for the British who came to dominate the area. The British and American settlements merged in 1863 to create the International Settlement, and the Bund grew out of this.

Early Days of the Bund
Early Days of the Bund

The first decades of the Bund saw modest offices built. Then in the late 19th century, larger neo-classical and British colonial style buildings were erected. At first trading companies dominated the Bund, but soon they gave way to financial institutions as trade in Shanghai ramped up. By the early 20th century, financial institutions were the biggest industry in the Bund. Banks like the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) set up shop on the Bund. The first Chinese-run bank, the Imperial Bank of China, opened its doors in 1897.

The HSBC building in 1928
The HSBC building in 1928

Victor Sassoon

The Bund's skyline owes much to the many Jews who left Baghdad for Shanghai in the mid-1800s and invested in the Bund. The most notable of these was Victor Sassoon. Victor Sassoon built the Cathay Hotel in 1929, which remains one of the most famous buildings on the Bund although it has since been renamed the Peace Hotel. It was opulent and luxurious with butler service and Lalique glass windows, and the building is capped with a green pyramid that glows at night.

The Peace Hotel
The Cathay Hotel

Sassoon also influenced Shanghai architecture when he founded an aerated concrete company that constructed tall New York-style buildings in the swampy Shanghai soil.

The Bund's Heyday

From 1920-1937, the architectural style was grander and gaudier, and the Bund reached its peak. Alongside the banks, social clubs like the highly exclusive Shanghai Club and glamorous hotels were built to accommodate wealthy tourists. The Bund became synonymous with alcohol, jazz, celebrity, and capitalism. Artists and writers came there to be inspired. The rich and famous would flock to Shanghai and dance the night away with fancy cocktails in the luxurious clubs and hotels on the Bund. Shanghai became the Paris of the Orient.

But it wasn't all glamor. The Bund and Shanghai also earned the title 'Whore of the Orient' for its prostitution, opium dens, and overall air of corruption.

The Bund in its heyday
The Bund in its Heyday

Decline and Resurgence

During WWII, the Japanese invaded and occupied the city. After the war, the new Communist government cleared out the Bund. It was a symbol of Western colonialism, greed, and capitalism, so the government kicked out many of the banks and put government ministries into these buildings instead.

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