Back to the future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2007, 12:00am

Shanghai's most famous piece of real estate is getting bigger, spilling over to the west and jumping across the water to the north. The popular image of the Bund, the iconic row of historical buildings along the waterfront, will change forever with several projects scheduled for completion before Shanghai hosts the World Expo in 2010.

To some, the development is another step in the over-branding of the Bund, a marketing ploy to profit from the famous name. To others, the changes will restore the Bund to its role in the first half of the 20th century as the heart of Shanghai and an international centre of commerce.

The changes are steadily taking shape. The city just finished maintenance on the bell tower of the Customs House at number 13. Shanghai is considering plans to divert traffic on the Bund underground and enlarge the riverfront promenade, Chen Bo , deputy head of the foreign economic commission of Huangpu district, which administers the Bund, recently told a talk organised by Three on the Bund.

Two hotel projects - renovation of the ageing Peace and construction of the new Peninsula, which will mark the return of Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels to the Bund after decades - are generating excitement.

But although Shanghai has regulations banning the alteration of the exteriors of buildings on the Bund, the city lacks an overarching vision for developing the area, which has caused consternation among preservationists.

'In terms of the selling off - or leasing off - of the Bund, it's in various hands. What do you do with these buildings? How do you bring back that colour, that life? There certainly isn't a comprehensive plan,' said Peter Hibbard, historian and author of The Bund Shanghai.

Despite the exterior regulations, renovation of protected buildings ranges from the award-winning - such as restaurant and retail complex Bund 18, the former headquarters of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China - to a building described as 'covered in bathroom tiles'. Bund 18 brought in a Venetian architect to restore the neoclassical building and an Italian restoration artist to clean the stonework as part of a US$15 million renovation, earning it an award of distinction from a UN agency.

Mr Hibbard said he supported careful research for renovation of old buildings, but at the same time cautioned against developers slavishly reproducing the past style of the Bund for new buildings, seeing the need for modern structures. 'In many ways, that offers the prospect to restore commercial viability to the area and bring back more people,' he said.

The Peace Hotel - formerly the Cathay and Palace hotels - shut earlier this year for a planned two-year, US$50 million renovation. The designer, Hirsch Bedner Associates, has run ads seeking historical material to help in the restoration.

The Peninsula Shanghai, due to open in 2009, will draw its inspiration from art deco of the 1920s and 30s for its interior, suggesting the exterior of the building will match its surroundings. The 15-storey hotel, which is subject to height restrictions, will have 250 rooms.

Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels has been tight-lipped about its plans but after months of inactivity the base of the building is visible behind scaffolding at the end of the Bund near Suzhou creek.

Behind the Peninsula to the west of the Bund, a project to redevelop an area called Waitanyuan is on the drawing board. The first phase was originally scheduled for completion in 2009, although the status of the project was unclear amid rumours it had run into trouble, property industry sources said.

As originally envisioned, the first phase of the project covers more than one million sq ft of mixed-use development including luxury housing, shops and office space. The area boasts several historic buildings, including the art deco Capitol Building and the YWCA.

With the focus on luxury, development of the Bund is threatening to shut many out, like the exclusive clubs and parks reserved for foreigners in pre-1949 Shanghai. 'Most Chinese stay on the elevated promenade. They don't shop. They don't do anything there,' Mr Hibbard said.

Development around the Bund is also displacing residents from their homes. Huangpu evicted more than 9,900 families last year, the second highest total for a city district, although the government hasn't revealed how many evictions were directly linked to Bund redevelopment.

With typical boldness, Shanghai has created the 'North Bund', an area only a few hundred metres up the Huangpu river from the original Bund. The grand vision is slowly being realised but despite the short geographic distance, a vast psychological gap separates the Bund from its poorer cousin.

'Anything after the Waibaidu bridge is like another zone altogether. This site is up and coming,' said Ronald Kang, general manager of the Hyatt on the Bund, referring to the bridge which links it to the North Bund.

The Hyatt, which formally opened last month, is among the first to take the commercial risk in the North Bund. Although the area is home to several hotels, this is the first international luxury hotel in

the district.

The new Hyatt is unabashedly modern, a deliberate attempt by developer Shimao Group to set it apart from the buildings on the Bund. With twin towers each over 30 storeys high, it dwarfs the nearby 19-storey Shanghai Mansions, formerly known as Broadway Mansions, which was among the tallest and most modern buildings in the city when it opened as a hotel-apartment block in 1934.

'We don't want to have Roman columns. We don't want to have another big chandelier in the lobby. For the North Bund, they actually let loose and said, 'Come up with something modern and new','

Mr Kang said.

Along the river, a new cruise ship terminal is taking modernity to the limit. Nicknamed 'the bubble' for its bulbous glass roof, the nearly 900-metre-long terminal will be able to accommodate three ships at once.

'I am confident it will be the best in the Far East,' said He Binwu , general manager of the Shanghai Port International Cruise Development Co. The more than 1.8 billion yuan project is due for completion next year.

Some of the ambitions for the North Bund have foundered. The Shanghai government abandoned plans to build the world's biggest Ferris wheel - larger than the London Eye - on the waterfront in the wake of a corruption scandal which claimed the job of the city's highest leader.

A plan to install a 2km landscaped walkway along the water has apparently been blocked by the navy, which is reluctant to surrender its ownership of the land and access to deep-water berths.

Part of the challenge is rejuvenating the surrounding Hongkou district, traditionally considered a working-class area. Since it was part of Shanghai's former International Settlement, however, the district combined shanty towns with mansions for foreigners.

During the late 1930s, around 15,000 European Jews fleeing the Nazis found refuge in Hongkou. Japanese forces occupying Shanghai later forced Jewish refugees into a ghetto in the district.

Former refugee Michael Blumenthal, who later became US treasury secretary, remembers the area as 'dangerous and dirty'. 'Many people died on the streets and nobody cared,' he recalled in a speech two years ago. There has been discussion of a massive renovation and modernisation project for the ghetto area, but one government official said the intention is to start small, in part by refurbishing an old synagogue, now a memorial.

The Ohel Moishe Synagogue at 62 Changyang Road reopened to the public in late October after several months of renovations. The work sought to return the building to its original appearance circa 1928 by restoring the second-floor balcony, adding two wooden columns and cleaning the brickwork.

The project will eventually include a new building for historical exhibits and a small garden. However, there are no plans to allow the synagogue to be used for religious worship again.

'The government is starting from here,' said Wang Yaohua , an official at the memorial. 'It's too much money to restore the whole area. There are several generations of Chinese living here. The relocation costs would be high.'

Elsewhere in the district, another lovingly restored building will be ready next year: a 1930s-era abattoir which once kept Shanghai fed. The distinctive, British-designed industrial building will house companies in the creative industries and space for art exhibits and performances. It is a circular building surrounded by a square one with a massive art deco facade.

The old wine cellar of the British engineers, which was found filled with bottles after the city fell to the communists, will likely be incorporated into a private club. A steakhouse will be the main restaurant, complete with a steer carcass hanging behind glass in view of diners.

The developer has concerns about luring people into the Hongkou district, but the Bund is only 10 minutes away by car and its buildings can be seen from the top floor of the old slaughterhouse.

'The good thing is that the Bund is advancing northwards. What we have to do now is have our project spread southwards and the two sides will converge,' said Paul Liu, chairman of Axons Concepts, developer of the project which is named 1933 after the year of completion. He compares Hongkou to Brooklyn's relationship with Manhattan.

'It's part of the old city. It has history. Lots of things happened here: culture, arts, even revolutionary activity. But you're crossing the river,' he said.