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.