About Face

[The Bund]

In a recent, fragmented history of Shanghai, Jeffery Wasserstrom suggests that Shanghai is, in its current incarnation, a city of facades, of appearances, and above all of exhibition. This goes beyond the recent World Expo, which could be seen as a momentary acceleration and intensification of long-running threads of exhibitionism that run through the city’s history.

Though Shanghai was a prosperous and important trade node for centuries before the treaty port era, in the years before her colonization by European forces, the city was focused inward. The “old city” was surrounded by a circular wall and set back from the Huangpu, and acted primarily as a collection point for imports. Though the Ming Dynasty could not be called isolationist (see the epic maritime adventures of admiral Zheng He), the primary purpose of international trade during this era was the collection of tribute. The value of goods imported during this time (particularly silver) fueled the prosperity of the “middle kingdom,” and even the layouts of cities and government complexes reflected this centripetal force. (The Forbidden City, built during this period, is a prime example: the concentric, centralized layout emphasizes the hierarchy of the dynasty.)

If the Chinese city was characterized by centripetal forces, the colonial settlements in China were characterized by centrifugal ones. This reversal occurred after the Treaty of Nanking, when the British, French, and American settlements first developed linearly along the Huangpu banks, the waterfront now known as The Bund. This linear arrangement grew organically out of a western desire to maximize the profitability of their Chinese concessions: with more land along the waterfront, they could construct more docks, and do a greater volume in trade. The concessions grew west from The Bund, but the city’s primary economic focus remained this littoral space along the Huangpu.

[The Bund, 1990s]


The western settlements’ focus on economic might was reflected in the grand facades of The Bund, whose neoclassical and art deco edifices seem consciously styled after Wall Street or Thames Embankment. Though there are numerous noteworthy buildings along the waterfront, but as a whole the effect is that of a unified composition, the skyline of a dignified European city: representing an outpost of civilization to some, an imperial encroachment and affront to sovereignty to others.

The image of The Bund has been utilized by different governments and controlling powers for vastly different purposes, and it is useful to consider the Chinese concept of “face” as it applies to the literal (and littoral! ha!) face of the city from the mid-1800s until the late 1990s.

In Chinese culture, “face” is a socially codified valuation system of respect, dignity, and prestige; perceived as a kind of points system wherein one can gain or lose face through appropriate or inappropriate actions in a variety of social settings. To extend this to the scale of the city, the European facades of The Bund could be perceived by the Chinese as a collective loss of face, and in Wasserstrom’s analysis of Shanghai postcards and guidebooks over the years, we see how The Bund was presented, and we can guess what reactions it elicited at various points in Shanghai’s history.

Wasserstrom notes that photographs of ships along the Bund were popular subjects during the treaty-port era, with the buildings of the Bund as the primary focus, emphasized by framing and by captions. As China recovered from the Cultural Revolution and began the ongoing series of economic reforms, guidebooks began to reappear, and similar postcard views from the 1970s were focused on the ships in the harbor, with the prominent buildings of the Bund obscured or even out-of-frame, and not even named in captions or accompanying text.

In the years following the economic reforms, the Shanghai skyline became dynamic, undergoing more changes in 10 years than it had in the previous 50, but if China was to become a world power on its own merits, the influence of foreign powers had to be disregarded or at least downplayed, so the neoclassical facades of the Bund were no longer an appropriate image of the city. As Pudong was opened as a special economic zone, and increasingly taller towers began construction, we can imagine a postcard photographer turning 180 degrees, an about-face to catch the new city emerging from marshland and paddy fields.

While the tourist propaganda purports that the glittering skyline of Lujiazui has magically grown from farmland in 20 years, this is not entirely true. It’s worthwhile to note that maps from as early as 1930 showed Pudong as a diffuse collection of manufacturing plants and warehouses. Even J.G. Ballard’s evocative description of pre-war Shanghai acknowledges British interests across the river, as his father makes the occasional commute to production facilities there.

Both the party line emphasizing the instant city and the city itself can be seen as pure superlative exhibitionism. The “20 year” lie and the supertall skyscrapers are mutually-reinforcing, and the continued construction only serves to draw attention away from the relatively-ancient structures on the opposite bank of the river.

Punctuated by the Oriental Pearl, the Jin Mao, the World Financial Center, (and increasingly, photoshopped renderings of the under-construction Shanghai Tower), the Pudong skyline remains the public face of Shanghai, proof that this mainland city is every bit as modern and global as, say, Hong Kong. However, the 100-meter-wide boulevards and paucity of life in the streets surrounding the financial district seem to suggest that Pudong is a failed experiment, and recent trends suggest that The Bund may yet reemerge as the face of Shanghai.

During the World Expo, and continuing today, Shanghai’s self-congratulatory propaganda and advertisements seem to be embracing history to a surprising extent. The stone gateways of “shikumen” lane houses adorn liquor bottles and souvenirs, and appear as topiary in public parks, and as stylized icons on ad-wrapped construction fencing. The recent success of architect Ben Wood’s Xintiandi (re)development has proved that there is economic value in the historical fabric of the city, and numerous restoration projects can now be found around the city. In the run-up to the Expo, the city underwent a huge number of infrastructural improvements, the most public and visible of which was the reworking of the Bund’s waterfront promenade.

In initial designs, the stretch of land along the river was turned from an eight-lane thoroughfare with minimal public space to a lushly landscaped series of event spaces, fountains, copses of trees, PV-adorned canopies, subtle modulations of walkway widths to create intensification and rarefaction of space, to create a dynamic public venue for leisurely strolls, photo opportunities, tai chi in the morning and public karaoke and dancing at night (and, perhaps, public demonstrations and protest). In the end, the client/government stripped the design of almost all interest, removing trees and sunshades, smoothing out level changes and half-hidden niches, resulting in a wide, empty pedestrian waterfront with few opportunities for congregation or even rest. (One exception: a slight bulge at the northern end of the promenade, where the strip pushes out towards Pudong, suggesting the best spot for tourist photographs). Foliage is the most egregious omission, and suggests that the government was less concerned with the public utility of the space than it was with maintaining the image of the Bund as a postcard-perfect view of Shanghai: a city finally willing to turn back around and embrace (and, hey, profit from!) it’s tumultuous history.

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