Once in an exhibition at the now defunct Mill/Short Gallery in San Francisco, I attended the photographic show of a well-known Hong Kong artist named Fan Ho. The work was done decades before the gallery even existed, and the subject was Shanghai. The play of light and shadow in those black and white photographs remained permanently etched in the deepest pocket of memory. I dreamed that one day I would be able to see the architecture by the river that was immortalized by his camera.
That dream became a reality this morning as I went to see the Western-influenced architecture of the Bund by the Huang Pu (Wang Pu) River. I was originally planning to walk from my hotel to the site, but the concierge told me that it would take an hour by foot. Also, I was constantly reminded by the guidebook that Shanghai was not really a walking town the way Tokyo, London, and Paris were. Indeed, the taxi ride took some time but the traffic going to the Bund was not bad at all. While gobbling his breakfast, the enthusiastic driver slowed down to show me the vista as we approached the area. This caused the other drivers behind us to start honking like mad. I was delivered right in the middle of the Bund stretch, in front of the historic Peace Hotel (formerly the Cathay), whose ground floor currently housed the Citibank, the very institution I happened to need to visit.
According to the Lonely Planet Shanghai guidebook, the Bund got its Anglo-Indian name from the embankments built up to discourage flooding (in Hindi, “band” means embankment.) Bund buildings were first built on concrete rafts that were fixed onto wood pilings, which were allowed to sink into the mud. Thus, the bottom entrance step usually originated 2m in the air and sank to ground level with the weight of the building (Lonely Planet Shanghai, p. 30.) The architecture firm of Palmer and Turner was responsible for most of the buildings that became the famous façade of this mile-long stretch.
The area has changed drastically since the days the Cantonese photographer took his pictures of the Bund: The image of a solitary old man pulling a cart has been replaced by a mixture of noises coming from the creaking buses, screeching cars, and squeaking bikes. Across the Bund, right by the bank of the river, the city built a raised platform, parallel to the stretch, from which one could view the Bund on the one side, and the Pudong area on the other side. Pudong, the area East of the river, is the new development area of Shanghai where most of the new buildings took place. People say that the real Shanghai or the Old Shanghai is Puxi (the area west of the river) where the Bund is. Pudong is also the site of the Oriental Pearl Tower, a sight not unfamiliar in many of Shanghai’s souvenir postcards.
Unfortunately, throughout my visit today, the haze never left the area. There was the sun peeking from behind the clouds, but this thin veil never really lifted up, leaving a gauzy impression of the Pudong cityscape. The angle of the sun also made it difficult to shoot a good picture, and as the name implied, “photography” depends very much on proper lighting. When I had my fill of shooting pictures, I crossed over the street by way of an overpass, and arrived at the side of the architecture. Aided by my guidebook and a culinary recommendation from a friend, I headed for the “M on the Bund” restaurant. I did not have a reservation, but I thought I would give it a try. As luck would have it, the famous restaurant, with a great vista from the balcony, was not full at all. I was seated not too far from the window. During the cold weather season, they closed the balcony, but the window provided a sneak peek at how charming it would have been to sit outdoors in a milder weather.
I ordered the set menu and set on reading my guidebook. Then I reviewed my pictures inside the camera, as well as took some shots from where I sat. By then, no one sat in the non-smoking area except for myself, so I had complete privacy. I took my time in that place, and when I finally felt satisfied, I left. I went on a second walking trip, this time along a stretch a block away from the main drag, but still running parallel to the Bund. I looked mainly at buildings that held some significance back in the heyday of Shanghai, around the 1930s, like the matching Hamilton House and the Metropole Hotel; and a Tudor building that used to house the former offices of the company that catered to Martini & Rossi. Although in general these areas are clean, the sidewalks are really grimy. They could benefit from some cleaning, but that may not be a priority in this city. The city is too busy focusing on building the skyscrapers across the river. I am just glad that they had the wisdom to keep this nostalgic façade of the Bund.
I shot some 145 pictures, although I sincerely doubted that any one of them would match any photograph of Fan Ho’s, that Cantonese photographer.