Shanghai World Expo 2010>History
UPDATED: June 30, 2010 Web Exclusive
Recording Shanghai's Bittersweet Memories
What the Waibaidu Bridge means to Shanghai and its people


Shanghai has been experiencing unprecedented development over the past 20 years. The city evokes images of high rises like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the bullet-speed magnetic levitation train, and bridges soaring high above the Huangpu River. Of course, you can never forget Shanghai's two most famous landmarks, the Bund and Nanjing Road. Two places that might be overlooked, however, are Suzhou Creek and the 103-year-old Waibaidu Bridge.

My memories of Shanghai start with this bridge. My aunt moved to Shanghai after marrying her husband, who was then engaged in the fur business. She lived along Suzhou Creek, very close to the Waibaidu Bridge. When I was little, I went to Shanghai very often. One of my leisure activities during the dull daily life was walking along Suzhou Creek, crossing the Waibaidu Bridge to the Bund and then spending who-knows-how-long watching ships on the Huangpu River come and go with their sirens blaring. I still keep a photo of my sister and me standing in front of the Waibaidu Bridge. To people living in Shanghai, the Waibaidu Bridge is Grandma's bridge, just as we all sing in the popular song. But most of the time we ignore her existence. I doubt many people can answer questions like, why do we call it the Waibaidu Bridge? Who built it? And why was there such a modern bridge back in the early 1900s?

The Waibaidu Bridge was built downstream from the estuary of Suzhou Creek, near its confluence with the Huangpu River and adjacent to the Bund in central Shanghai. It connects the Huangpu and Hongkou districts. The present bridge opened in 1908. Before this, there were two wooden bridges built at the same location but in different years.

Before bridges were built over Suzhou Creek, citizens had to use ferries and sluice gates to cross it. With Shanghai becoming an international trade port through the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, and foreign countries being granted concessions in the city, traffic between both sides of Suzhou Creek soared in the 1850s, increasing the need for a bridge close to the mouth of the river.

In October 1856, a British businessman named Charles Wills and an American named Edward R. Cunningham, with the finances provided by a consortium of 20 investors, established the Soochow Creek Bridge Company, the first company in China focusing mainly on bridge construction. They constructed the first bridge across Suzhou Creek, which soon became known as the Wills' Bridge. This bridge was made entirely of wood. It had a "draw" on the Hongkou side to allow larger boats to enter or exit Suzhou Creek. Since this bridge was built by personal investment, a toll was collected from passengers and cars using it. Even though Wills and his company made a fortune from this bridge, they didn't properly maintain it. By 1870, the Wills' Bridge was in bad shape.

In October 1873, the Shanghai Municipal Council bought out the owners of the Wills' Bridge and eliminated the toll. The Wills' Bridge was destroyed, and a new bridge was constructed. This bridge was completed in August 1876. Since it was close to the garden on the Bund, it was called the Garden Bridge. But people in Shanghai preferred to call it the "Waibaidu Bridge."

The wooden bridge was demolished in 1906, and a new steel bridge was constructed to accommodate both trams and automobiles. This bridge was built under the supervision of the Shanghai Municipal Council, with steel imported from England. The Waibadu Bridge was designed by the British firm Howarth Erskine Ltd. When it opened in 1907, it was the first steel bridge in China.

There is considerable debate about the exact meaning of Waibaidu, the name given to the wooden bridge erected by the Shanghai Municipal Council in 1873. According to one source, "The upper stream of any river was called li (internal, inside); the lower stream was called wai (external, outside)." In his book on the history of the Bund, Xue Liyong writes: "In several cases, the Chinese used the terms li (internal) and wai (external) to indicate the greater (nei) or lesser (wai) degree of proximity of a location. There was even an intermediate degree with the use of zhong (middle) for places located between these two extremes. There remain several place names in Shanghai that are linked to this practice. The Chinese name of the Garden Bridge – Waibaidu Qiao – is such a case. The name makes sense only in relation with another bridge called Libaidu Qiao that was located further inside Suzhou Creek, whereas the Garden Bridge was located at the mouth of the creek where it merges into the Huangpu River."

Another source indicates that in the dialect of Shanghai, baidu means passing through the bridge without paying, because there was no longer any toll collected to cross the bridge. The character bai means free.

Around the Waibaidu Bridge there were three high rises at that time: the Astor House Hotel (or Richard's Hotel as it was known at the time), the Broadway Mansions Hotel (or Shanghai Mansions as it is locally called) and the General Post Office Building (now the Shanghai Post Building). Together with the Waibaidu Bridge, they are the symbols of Shanghai in that era, among which the Astor House Hotel tops the list with many firsts in Chinese history. Coal gas was first used to artificially illuminate the streets of Shanghai, earning the city the nickname "the city without nights." In 1867, the Astor House Hotel was the first in Shanghai to use coal gas to provide lighting. The first public display of electric lights was made in Shanghai in 1882. When Shanghai lit its first 15 electric street lamps, seven were installed in the Astor House Hotel, making it the first building in China to be lit by electricity. The Astor House Hotel was also the first building in Shanghai to install running water. Thus, the Astor House Hotel became one of the best hotels not only in Shanghai but also in the Far East. Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, many world-famous people stayed in this hotel, including Bertrand Russell (the British philosopher), Albert Einstein and Charles Chaplin. Ordinary people could only dream about the luxurious life inside through the ever-bright windows of the Astor House Hotel while walking on the Waibaidu Bridge.

In the eyes of many Shanghai people, the Waibaidu Bridge has significance beyond its own, becoming part of the city's history. During the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-1945), tens of thousands of people fled the Japanese-occupied north side of Suzhou Creek via this bridge to foreign concessions on the south side. In other words, the bridge has saved many people's lives. After the war, the bridge became a symbol of humiliation, because people had to bow and say hello to Japanese soldiers while crossing the bridge, or else they were tortured.

Because of the abovementioned reasons, the Waibaidu Bridge has become a very important part in the life of Shanghai, which you can see in many literary works and movies. Midnight, written by Mao Dun in 1933, is a novel set entirely in Shanghai that opens with a naive outsider crossing the Waibaidu Bridge to enter the city. Steven Spielberg's film Empire of the Sun shows Shanghai in 1941. In a scene reflecting the volatile atmosphere of the times, a British family is seen passing the border post on the Waibaidu Bridge, while the Chinese people around them are subject to the whim of Japanese soldiers. In Lust, Caution, a Chinese espionage thriller directed by Academy Award winner Ang Lee, the Waibaidu Bridge appears twice.

The Waibaidu Bridge celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary in 2007. At the end of February 2008, the bridge was closed to all traffic in preparation for its move into a shipyard in Pudong for extensive repairs and restoration. Some 63,000 steel rivets were replaced, about 40 percent of the total. Engineers also found high sulfur content in the bridge after conducting tests on its structural integrity, necessitating the removal of rust.

Repainting was another major task, requiring all the rust and old paint to be removed from the bridge before new coats were applied. The restored bridge, which reopened to pedestrians in April 2009, now stands on new concrete piles that are wider and deeper than the original wooden supports and is expected to have a safe lifespan of at least another 50 years.

With its rich history and unique design, the Waibaidu Bridge is always regarded as a symbol of Shanghai. The new high rises and bridges have become part of Shanghai's skyline, but they'll never replace the Waibaidu Bridge, especially when talking about childhood memories. More importantly, after a hundred years, the bridge still stands firm with a new look, which reminds us of the unforgettable past. On the day it reopened, many Shanghai residents went to the bridge with families and friends. They took photos and chatted about its history. I know for sure I'll go back to visit her one day and all my favorite memories will come back.

Recommended Books

1. Architecture History of Shanghai (1840-1949)

Author: Wu Jiang

Publisher: Shanghai Tongji University Publishing House

2. History and Architecture of the Bund

Author: Xue Liyong

Publisher: Shanghai Social Science Academy Publishing House

3. Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century

Author: Lu Hanchao

Publisher: University of California Press

4. The History of Shanghai

Authors: Samuel Couling and George Lanning

Publisher: Kelly & Walsh Limited

5. Personal Reminiscences of Thirty Years' Residence in the Model Settlement of Shanghai

Author: Charles M. Dyce

Publisher: Chapman & Hall

6. A Short History of Shanghai: Being an Account of the Growth and Development of the International Settlement

Author: Francis Lister Hawks Pott

Publisher: Kelly & Walsh Limited

7. Architecture on the Shanghai Bund, Papers on Far Eastern History, Vol. 39

Author: Jon W. Huebner





The author is a senior publisher who used to work in Shanghai and now lives in Vancouver, Cananda

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