Huangpu River is to Shanghai what the Seine is to Paris; it divides and defines the city, from its humble origins to its glittering golden age. West of the river lies Puxi, the embodiment of old Shanghai; its central waterfront district, the Bund, is lined with the relics of banks and trading companies from when the ‘Paris of the East’ boomed in the early 20th century. East of the river lies Pudong, China’s modern-day economic miracle, a forest of skyscrapers risen from swampy land in under three decades.
Any day of the year, the Bund heaves with visitors marvelling at this juxtaposition of architecture, old and new eyeing each other across the body of water. The 2.6km-long stretch was redeveloped into its current tourist-friendly design showcase for the Shanghai World Expo 2010. Since then, other parts of the Huangpu riverfront have undergone regeneration.
Old factory complexes, harbours and even parts of a decommissioned airport have been repurposed into public spaces, art centres and entertainment zones. By the end of 2017, the Shanghai government had installed over 40km of new riverside walkways to link these areas, opening up more of the riverfront to the public than at any other time in the city’s history.
In Shanghai, art and urban regeneration often go hand in hand – whether it’s because cavernous old industrial spaces make excellent galleries or (if you’re feeling cynical) because art drives up real estate prices. The West Bund Cultural Corridor is a case in point.
On a January morning with sub-zero temperatures, I venture out to this recent riverside development 10km south-west of the Bund. Mid-winter in the city is not the natural season for riverside romps; the cold seeps into your bones. Which makes it all the more surprising when I come across a few joggers braving the chill along a freshly laid and landscaped running track.
I walk further in the direction they came from, towards a cluster of 15m-tall industrial tanks by the water that make up the new (and not fully open) Tank Shanghai (above), a gallery housing the collection of its unlikely founder, karaoke-club-owner-turned-art-collector Qiao Zhibing.
He’s got Tracey Emins and Andy Warhols, and by the summer of 2018, they’ll be on display in the five tanks that used to store aviation fuel for Longhua Airport, which ceased commercial operations in the ’60s. Somewhere nearby, I’m told, is a patch of its single runway and tiny Art Deco terminal building, now hemmed in by apartments.
The airport’s hangar, located farther north inland, is now home to the splendid Yuz Museum (above), one of the first galleries to crop up along the West Bund in 2014. Thankfully, it’s open and soon, I’m sipping wine in the warm space and watching Los Angeles-based American artist Joshua Nathanson pondering the placement of a towering blue sculpture that looks like it escaped from a Nintendo game; it’s being displayed at the museum till April 4.
Behind him, through a dramatic glass wall, I see the waters of Huangpu River sluicing past. My master plan had been to walk or cycle the new riverfront paths all the way downriver on the Puxi side, pass the outpost of art gallery Long Museum (above) and along to the Power Station of Art: a huge riverside box crested with a 165m-tall chimney that is Shanghai’s homage to London’s Tate Modern and the host of the 12th edition of the Shanghai Biennale (November 10, 2018, to March 3, 2019). But the cold defeats me. Instead, I skip both and take a taxi to the South Bund, which is confusingly north of the West Bund.
The stroll along the South Bund presents a stark contrast to the much-photographed real estate rising from either side of the Bund. A block of dilapidated, grime-covered brick tenements clings to existence beside a deep void overhung by construction cranes.
It will soon give way to high-rise luxury apartments and once ready, the residents will likely be spotted at South Bund’s Cool Docks (above), a lifestyle enclave of restaurants, bars and cafes by the water. Among these is Kebabs on the Grille, an upmarket Indian grill restaurant where spice-laden meat skewers are roasted tableside and served with mouth-watering Punjabi curries.
I’m told Cool Docks was previously the location of the Shanghai Grease Factory, so by anyone’s measure, the development has to count as an improvement. Nearby, boutique hotel The Waterhouse at South Bund (above) is carved from a former warehouse, its facade purposely left in a state of stylish disrepair. But I’m here for the new riverside walkway, which, a security guard tells me, opened just two months earlier.
Here, a wide, curving embankment overhung with flower beds hugs the water. A barge drifts by, framed by new, towering apartments and offices on the opposite bank. From here, it’s an icy stroll to the redeveloped Shiliupu (Dock 16), formerly Quai de France (French Bund), where French merchant ships loaded up their wares in the 1920s. Today, a handful of Huangpu River cruise boats idle away the hours until the evening shift. Ahead, Shiliupu gives way to the architectural jewel of old Shanghai: the Bund itself.
Approaching the Bund from the south, along the river, presents a different aspect of Shanghai’s most historical stretch of real estate. The grand frontage of concession-era buildings – in Baroque Revival, Neoclassical, Art Deco and Beaux-Arts styles – built by European and American investments in the late 19th and early 20th century stretches towards the famous clock tower that crowns Custom House, where some of the city’s swankiest restaurants, bars and boutiques await.
But it wasn’t always this way. Before its 2010 renovations, the Bund had no less than 13 choked lanes of traffic in front of it and a much narrower promenade. Restaurateur Michelle Garnaut, founder of landmark establishment M on the Bund (below), recalls what Shanghai’s most famous waterfront area was like in the 1990s.
“Nobody went to the Bund,” she says, “and certainly not to eat. People told me I’d fail if I opened a restaurant there. But when I first looked at our property, taking seven flights of stairs up, entering through a tiny door and seeing that view of the Bund and the water for the first time, I knew it was special.”
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. After M on the Bund opened, a tidal wave of fine-dining and lifestyle establishments popped up, earning international acclaim and Michelin stars. Much to the credit of this well-preserved strip, Shanghai once again boasts a reputation for glamour, much as it did in days gone by.
Crossing China’s first all-steel bridge (below) over the Suzhou Creek, I veer from the waterfront for the first time.
The former Russian consulate appears before the historic Astor House Hotel, where up until several months ago, you could still book threadbare rooms that once housed the likes of Charlie Chaplin. The hotel is currently closed for renovations.
Rather more modern is the glitzy Shanghai Port International Cruise Terminal that marks the start of the North Bund, a corporate enclave of glass office towers, forested riverfront parks and stunning views of the Pudong skyscrapers across the water. The new walkways here are split into colour-coded lanes, for cycling, jogging and strolling. There’s a surprising abundance of green belt by the water, with retail and dining establishments cleverly hidden in subterranean malls below.
From the marina, the paths continue onwards to the mighty Yangpu Bridge in the distance, a cable-stayed structure that’s more than 8km long. There, yet more riverside real estate is opening up, with a further 5km of former harbour zone slated to be made available in 2019. This will offer yet more heritage conversions of former factories and dock workers’ homes, which are to be transformed into public entertainment spaces and sports facilities.
But with light failing, my journey is coming to an end. The final vista, across the river to Pudong, is Shanghai’s old grain silo at Minsheng Wharf (above). Once the largest structure of its kind in Asia, the steampunk-style dinosaur recently reopened to host an urban planning exhibition. It will be repurposed, sometime in the future, to house grand exhibition spaces and upscale offices. It is yet another monument to Shanghai’s industrial past, which is all geared up for a sleek, urban future.
– TEXT BY TOM O’MALLEY
PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES, ALAMY (CLICK PHOTOS), HYATT ON THE BUND, LONG MUSEUM, YUZ MUSEUM, THE WATERHOUSE AT SOUTH BUND, FLICKR USER DAVID LEO VEKSLER (COOL DOCKS), M ON THE BUND, SHANGHAI, TANK SHANGHAI
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.