Forget subsidence, the real cracks in Shanghai's Bund lie behind its veneer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am

Shanghai's Bund is sinking. Of itself, this is hardly news. The city's most famous street has been slowly settling into its foundations since the row of colonial architecture was first built. Shanghai sits, after all, on a plain of ancient river sludge with the consistency of cold porridge.

In recent weeks, however, the issue has been in focus following local newspaper reports about major cracks appearing on three 'historic buildings' on the Bund, the structures in need of emergency repairs due to subsidence.

At first, the headlines appeared alarming, and threw up images of the city's most recognisable landmark crumbling and being swallowed up by the sludge.

Last March, the city completed a massive three-year renovation of the riverfront, including a major expansion of the pedestrian promenade and a 3.3-kilometre double-deck road tunnel running underneath the length of the street.

Engineers working on the tunnel project spoke about the technical difficulties involved in digging under a stretch of old and in some cases unstable buildings on a soil structure prone to subsidence even when left undisturbed.

Rotting wooden foundation piles were known to extend beneath the buildings, but to unknown depths. Disturbing these, the worry was, could bring the entire house of cards down. It was quite a gamble to take with the city's most marketable tourist attraction.

Talk of Bund buildings cracking up so soon after the project's completion was ominous to say the least. In fact, the three endangered buildings are not part of the iconic strip that features on postcards and promotional materials. Instead, they sit further to the south, bordering a huge swathe of ground flattened as part of the city's seemingly endless urban redevelopment drive.

The largest of the three 'historic' structures is an office building that dates back to the 1920s. Externally, it may look immaculate, but cracks big enough to slide a hand into have opened in its basement parking lot.

The other two buildings, hidden in alleys behind the main road, are even older, red-brick apartment blocks. Residents, many of whom had lived there for decades, have been moved out while a two-year effort gets under way to stop the structures falling apart.

The contrast couldn't be more stark between the tumbledown look of these old apartments - grimy, dishevelled rabbit warrens crammed full with generations of possessions and detritus - and the chic fashion stores and stylish restaurants a stone's throw away. But it perfectly embodies the myth that is the Bund, and by extension Shanghai itself.

Tourists and new arrivals to the city naturally assume the Bund to be the cultural and social hub of Shanghai. Majestic colonial stone pillars stand next to chic art deco masterpieces all overlooking the bustling Huangpu River and the towering skyscrapers of Pudong's financial zone - what's not to love?

The buildings are certainly grand, and in recent years renovation projects have breathed new life into the once-forgotten structures. If so inclined, one can buy a watch for the price of a small apartment, savour a dinner at the cost of an average mortgage payment or perhaps just sip on a supremely pricey cocktail.

The only problem is that no one really bothers. What should be one of the city's most vibrant nightspots barely features on locals' radar.

The municipal government when announcing the Bund's facelift last year proudly boasted it would be 'as charming as the Champs Elysees in Paris' once finished. It is debatable whether the author of that statement had ever visited the French capital, but despite rows of white and purple ornamental cabbages, the new-look Bund has little in the way of joie de vivre. There is a strange empty, unreal feel to the place - even when the waterfront promenade is swimming with summer tourists. Step away from the imposing facade and the picture is even more surreal.

Barely half a block behind the Bund, there is little evidence of the city's supposedly booming economy. Instantly, the designer labels are replaced by tawdry knick-knacks and garish bargain-basement clothes on show in tiny, grimy shops interspersed with a handful of cheap eateries and the odd boarded-up unit. It's like being trapped in the land that economics forgot - nothing looks to have been renovated or repaired in decades.

Forget subsidence: that is where the real cracks appear in the Bund's opulent veneer.