In 1972 I had waited two years to receive an invitation to visit China and then four days to get a seat on the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. The travel time to Guangzhou, via Hong Kong, by commercial airline and train, was about twenty-six hours. In the years that followed I made many trips to China. Each time the visits became easier, there was no waiting for invitations to visit the country. In the 1980s tourism became a major source of income for China as the country opened up to the western world. It had a lot to show and visitors became enthralled with the country’s natural beauty and its history. Business was still difficult, foreign investment and joint ventures within China carried a high risk. It was easier to buy from rather than sell to China, and its exports of manufactured goods grew exponentially.
In late 2013, almost forty-two years after my first and most memorable visit to China, I decided to have “another last look.” Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou had become popular stopover cities for flights from Australia to Europe, rivalling Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Tokyo. I decided to stop in Shanghai although August was not the best month of the year because of the high temperatures, humidity and rainfall. I thought a few days would be endurable as long as I had air conditioned comfort at night and cold Tsing Tao beer during the day. A visa was not required for the 72 hour stopover and total travel time from my house to the Shanghai Hyatt Hotel was less than fourteen hours.
I flew non-stop on an aircraft full of noisy Chinese tourists and business people returning home with their “duty free” goods and cell phones full of pictures. They didn’t notice me sitting quietly in seat 1A and paid little attention to the cabin attendant’s instructions to turn off their cell phones, not walk around the cabin, and to fasten their seatbelts for take-off. I thought the crew could have handed the passengers a demo seatbelt to hold as they walked around the cabin.
Thirty-five years had passed since my first visit to Shanghai and twenty seven years since my last so I expected Shanghai would be a very different city to the one I once knew. In 1986, the population of Shanghai was about 12 million. In 2013 it had doubled to 24 million and the population density had increased to 10,000 people per square mile. The city that long ago was referred to as the Paris of the East, Pearl of the Orient, Paradise of the Adventurers and by some Whore of the Orient had become China’s most populous city and the largest city in the world. But I had heard that much of Old Shanghai remained, especially along The Bund, so with limited time and forecast stormy weather I decided to focus my attention there and the old French Concession area where I could once again walk the streets looking at old Shanghai. Across the river Pudong, a poor residential, small factory and “swampy” area in 1978, had become a modern high-rise financial center. There was nothing of old Shanghai to be found there.
After an uncomfortable flight, due to severe turbulence, we landed at the new Pudong International Airport and were quickly processed through immigration and customs. I had nothing to declare and, unlike 1972, no one was interested in what money I carried. The Hyatt Hotel driver held up a sign with my name on it and we walked quickly to the carpark and a large new Mercedes limousine. The car sped along the eight lane Huaxie elevated road, across Lu Pu Bridge to the north-south elevated road, the Yanan elevated road, and along part of The Bund to the Hyatt Hotel on Huang Pu Road (newly named North Bund). The large modern room in the E Tower overlooked the Huang Pu River, The Bund and Pudong. It was a magnificent sight with the lights along The Bund, the brightly lit buildings in Pudong and the colorful tourist boats cruising the Huang Pu River, weaving in and out of the barges. After a visit to the rooftop Vue Bar I decided to sleep and get up early to explore old Shanghai.
Hoping to catch people cycling to work in the early morning, I left the hotel before 6am and walked past the old Astor Hotel, Russian Consulate, Waibaidu (Garden) Bridge and Broadway Mansions before crossing the Suzhou Creek to walk back past the former Shanghai Rowing Club and the site of the old British Consulate building to The Bund. There was no one cycling but the buzz of motor scooters filled the air. The former British Consulate building was still there and the guard on the gate let me thru to take a photograph of the old building now used as a private dining facility for the government. In the grounds where the Friendship Store was located the Peninsula Hotel Group had built its flagship Shanghai hotel.
It was hot and humid as I headed for Huang Pu Park, formerly the Public Gardens infamously known for the “no dogs or Chinese” sign during the British Settlement period. In 1978 I saw elderly Chinese couples there waltzing to loud music from speakers attached to long poles. Now all I could see was the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a large concrete memorial to those who died during the revolution. There was no dancing but there were buskers with guitars and portable speakers, and upturned hats on the ground for donations.
The Bund was very different to the area I visited in 1978. The old colonial style buildings were still there, now marked by bronze plaques identifying their original owners, and a thirty foot levee bank with an unattractive concrete walkway had been built along the edge of the river. The walkway provided a view of old Shanghai along The Bund and the new Shanghai, the Pudong Financial Center, across the Huangpu River. The road had been widened and raised so the old buildings were just below street level, necessitating new entrances. The original Bund was only one mile long running from Yan’an Road (formerly Edward VII Avenue) in the south to the Waibaidu Bridge (formerly Garden Bridge) in the north before it crossed Suzhou Creek. Now it had been extended to include the North Bund to promote tourism and land values.
I walked slowly along the walkway to photograph some of the old buildings on The Bund. The Chinese tourists were photographing themselves in front of the panorama of new buildings across the river in Pudong. I was interested in the old, they in the new. There were about twenty-four grand old colonial style buildings along The Bund but I was interested in the old Shanghai Club (now the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai Hotel), the HSBC Building, Customs House, Palace Hotel (now the Peace Hotel), Sassoon House (later the Cathay Hotel and now part of the Peace Hotel) and the Jardine Matheson Building (now a Rolex store, offices, The House of Roosevelt, a bar and restaurant). The oppressive humidity forced me to turn around and walk back to the hotel to re-hydrate and watch the barge traffic on the Huang Pu River. At 12 noon, the hottest time of day, I walked again along The Bund to the southern end. The Pepsi Cola vendors were doing steady business and crowds of people were lined up to cool themselves from the “fresh air” machines, powered by generators, located along the walkway. When I reached the Ferry Terminal I saw a line of motorized rickshaws so decided it was hot enough to ride back to the hotel. The temperature had reached 110F and the humidity was above 90 percent. After a wild ride along The Bund, weaving in and out of the traffic and avoiding pedestrians who ignored the traffic lights, we crossed the Waibaidu Bridge to the hotel. The sky had become dark as a huge thunderstorm moved in so I returned to my room to watch The Bund and Pudong disappear as the rain and wind lashed Shanghai. The tourist boats had stopped but the long dark barges continued their slow progress up the river. It was the Shanghai I remembered – colorless, gray and people moving slowly. I returned to the Vue Bar.
It was still raining early the following morning when I left the hotel to walk The Bund one last time. The temperature had dropped to 85F and the breeze from the Huang Pu made walking more comfortable. The relentless parade of empty barges heading upstream, high in the water, easily passing the fully laden barges with a loud blast on the horn reminded me of the nights I could not sleep at the Broadway Mansions Hotel in 1978. Now the barge traffic can’t enter or leave Suzhou Creek, with new flood gates blocking entry, so there is no flashing red light and shouting between the crew and on-shore traffic controller. The restored Waibaidu Bridge now silently changes color from red to green to red.
The cruise boats were still asleep but there were many Chinese tourists walking The Bund sheltering under umbrellas. The Bund was dismal and colorless so I left it behind and walked along Nanjing Lu (Nanking Road) to the art deco Park Hotel and the People’s Park (formerly the Shanghai Race Course). I was constantly harassed by peddlers selling “original” Rolex watches, designer leather bags and jewelry; and young people wanting to talk to me in English, have me take their photo and go with them to a “traditional tea ceremony.” I declined the persistent offers and walked on to Nanjing Xi Lu (formerly Bubbling Well Road, a name I loved) and turned back following some of the back streets to The Bund where I had similar experiences with different young people inviting me to “tea” in a well-rehearsed approach.
At The Bund I sought out the former HSBC Building, now occupied by the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, to see its magnificent mosaic dome ceiling. The lions had been replaced outside the building and the banking hall had been restored to its original splendor. When I raised my camera to photograph the ceiling I was politely advised by the security guard that photography inside the bank was prohibited. It was reminiscent of 1978 when I was refused entry to the old Shanghai Club as I tried to photograph the legendary Long Bar. The huge dome on top of the old HSBC building was covered in scaffolding so I photographed the new lions guarding the building and left to visit the other old buildings along The Bund.
After a day of being harassed by peddlers and jostled by the crowds I returned to the hotel and the Vue Bar to watch the river traffic and enjoy a cold Tsing Tao beer. It was more satisfying than tea. I had not explored the back streets of the old French Concession again but had experienced some of the new Shanghai. No longer did I need to “get out” to Hong Kong, it was here.