Classic comeback

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am

The Bund, Shanghai's famous waterfront promenade, is among the most fabled in the world. Neo-classical buildings lining the banks of the Huangpu River evoke the glamour of pre-war Shanghai, when traders from around the world would gather to seek their fortunes. Now, many of the historic structures symbolise the city's drive to regain its place as a premier gateway to the enormous mainland markets.

Among the heritage makeovers on the Bund is the Waldorf Astoria Club. Built a century ago, the stately structure at the southern end of the Bund was home to the Shanghai Club, the most exclusive British gentlemen's club in China at the time. Now it forms the heritage wing of the luxury Waldorf Astoria hotel which opened last November. Connected to a newly built 252-room tower by a courtyard at the back, the original 40 rooms have been converted into 20 suites.

'Back then, the Bund itself was very much China's front door,' says Peter Hibbard, the president of the Royal Asiatic Society in Shanghai who advised on the restoration.

When Waldorf Astoria announced in 2009 that it would open its first Asian hotel at the site, work was already under way to restore the building to its former grandeur. The structure was in good condition, so the refurbishment was a relatively smooth operation.

'Restoring it was not hard as many of the original features, the ceiling and floors had merely been covered up and not destroyed,' says Hibbard. 'The interiors were largely untouched.'

The Shanghai Club opened at the site of No 2 on the Bund in 1864. It was later demolished and rebuilt as the current six-storey building. When the club reopened in January 1911, it featured a 34-metre bar - the longest in the world at the time - a smoking room, library, dining room, billiards room, bowling alley and guest rooms.

While the Long Bar was open to all members, seating was another matter. The bar was a showcase of the social pecking order. The east end, by the windows that looked out over the Huangpu River, was where the most respected and influential members of society hobnobbed. Newcomers were restricted to the west end, and advanced eastward as they rose in seniority and status.

In the 40s, the building became the premises of the Seaman's Club, and after 1949 it was reincarnated as the Dongfeng Hotel. The L-shaped bar counter was dismantled, and in the 1990s the space was turned over to Kentucky Fried Chicken's first outlet in Shanghai.

According to Dirk De Cuyper, general manager of the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai, the building remained unoccupied for 10 years after the Dongfeng Hotel vacated it in 1999, although many developers were eyeing the elegant site.

Using archive records and photographs, the Waldorf Astoria has recreated the Long Bar to its original specifications. The marble columns, stained-glass windows, and ornate wall panelling remain intact. When the bar began serving drinks last November, Waldorf Astoria brought some of its own heritage in the form of five classic cocktails from its New York parent, including the Waldorf Cocktail.

Named after William Waldorf Astor, who built the first Waldorf hotel in 1893, the cocktail is the most popular of the 69 mixes served in the New York hotel, says bartender Brett Clarke.

'Last year we had an old gentleman come in [who] was a member of the Seaman's Club - he walked me through the building and recounted exactly how each place used to look,' says De Cuyper. 'There is so much history and so many memories associated with this building.'

The hotel has an oyster bar, with a selection flown in from around the world, and offers a tableside martini service as well as nightly live jazz.

Still, old-world glamour is very much the order of the day for the decor in the suites, some of which afford sweeping views of the Bund. Most retain their original features such as fireplaces, but also include modern luxuries such as an LCD television in the living room, bedroom, study, and even the bathroom (where it is built into the mirror). There's also a Nespresso coffee machine and a pillow menu.

Suites in the heritage wing come with an assigned butler, each trained by a former butler to the Dutch royal family.

Its restaurant is named Pelham's - a nod to Sir Warren Pelham, the British consul general who launched the Shanghai Club - and run by a chef trained at the flagship hotel to ensure the authenticity of the century-old New York recipes.

The original dining hall is now a ballroom with a view of the Bund. The old library retains its old function; but in addition to modern tomes, it will house historical books and journals and antique volumes belonging to the Royal Asiatic Society.

Just next door, Three on the Bund was among the first heritage buildings to be given a makeover after the Shanghai government announced plans to redevelop the area around the Bund.

'Some of the banks on the Bund were built in such an opulent fashion that even the millionaires arriving from America to do business here found it hard to believe,' Hibbard says. 'You just didn't get this kind of opulence in business elsewhere in the world.'

Although the historical structures suffered damage and neglect through war and socialist transformation, many have regained their majesty. A fine example of restoration efforts along the Bund, Hibbard says, sits at No 18.

Formerly the premises of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, the refurbished classic neo-Greek building won the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in September 2006. The building's Taiwanese developers have transformed the building into a collection of high-end retail stores - Cartier and Zegna now take pride of place by the entrance and, in the former banking hall, there are restaurants and an art space.

And with Waldorf Astoria joining other rejuvenated hotels such as the Fairmont Peace Hotel and the Peninsula on the west bank of the Huangpu, Shanghai authorities' drive to revive the Bund as premier commercial and retail district edges towards completion.

The rebuild continues

Shanghai's riverfront was given a facelift as part of the multibillion-dollar makeover ahead of last year's World Expo. Many of the buildings that line the Bund have been or are undergoing renovation, including:

Peace Hotel. Built in 1929 in the art deco style, it reopened last year as the five-star Fairmont Peace Hotel after a 500 million yuan (HK$592 million) renovation.

Union Building. Dating back to 1916, the neo-Renaissance building was the first steel-framed structure on the Bund. In 2004, a team led by US architect Michael Graves transformed the building into Three on the Bund, which now houses world-class boutiques and restaurants.

Nishin Navigation Building. Built in 1925 incorporating Japanese design elements, it is now occupied by banks and restaurants, including Michelle Garnaut's M on the Bund.