Shanghai then and now

Interesting facts about Shanghai many might not know

Everybody has seen the photo comparison of Shanghai now and 20 years earlier: the city grew from the ground and became an attractive and booming financial and economical nod of China. Perhaps less people know that it all began in the 19th century.

After Shanghai became a county it evolved into a significant Chinese trading and cultural centre. As result, unfortunately it quickly became the target of Chinese pirates and Japanese marauding troops, too. In repose to the attacks a city wall was built, which remains to define the boundaries of the old city of Shanghai till today.

The annular wall reflected the city's relatively minor political status among China's larger imperial cities that was organized on linear street patterns and surrounded by rectangular walls. Shanghai's layout is rather irregular (originating in old-age methods of transportation): the footpaths and roads tended to follow the line of the waterways. This organic growth lacks the strict arrangement of individual components such as courtyard houses, temples and state buildings. These particularities of layout and building confirmed Shanghai's cultural and commercial diversity much before the foreigners arrived.

The Canton's monopoly of trade with the West got declared by the Emperor lead to corruption both on Chinese and British sides. Britain was filled up with Chinese goods and paid with opium for it. While the sides were trying to deal with the problems trade restrictions got loosened and a petition for private trading started. Not much longer Shanghai's suitability for trade was discovered and mostly by using violence and more advanced armory won the right to begin foreign settlements in Shanghai.

Interestingly most foreigner refused to live within the city wall due to unacceptable sanitary and living conditions.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century Shanghai's height limit was only 6 floors, because this is what the muddy soil could support. At that moment this meant the land value had reached its peak.

Later with the development of technologies, rafts were introduced as they were able to float with piles sunken deeper to prevent subsidence. Shanghai's land thus became too precious to 'waste' on public enjoyment besides the only park in the city at the time: the Public Garden..

The building regulation in the early 20th century prohibited the construction of buildings taller than 1.5x the width of the street they fronted. Nanjing Road and Zhongshan Road along the Bund were the widest roads in Shanghai,  thus all the miracles of the 21st century's Asian construction industry happened on these two locations. 

During the Japanese invasion at the beginning of the 1930s many big projects in Shanghai were abandoned or postponed indefinitely. However, the over-inflated land value remained the same. Moreover, the new Chinese government kept rising the land price, especially in the western districts which forced the foreign residents into apartment buildings. Despite of the deep depression the Shanghai building industry suffered from, the construction of  the Joint Savings Society building started and completed in 1934 (the tallest building in Asia, today also hosts the Park Hotel, designed by the Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec).

In 1935 the foreign part of the city was considered as overbuilt and overdone. The real estate experienced the dullest period of construction history in Shanghai. Households were forced to downgrade into apartments or smaller houses. On the contrary, the value of the Chinese areas of Shanghai were constantly increasing. This was more likely the result of the government's plan in 1929 to develop an entirely new city north from the Bund. This was the first time in history when Shanghai's streets, administrative, civic and residential areas were planned by the Planning Commission lead by Dr Shen Yi. It was a grandiose project with modern materials but traditional Chinese style and 60 meter wide roads.

To be continued...