Historic Shanghai

The people, places and ideas that made Shanghai what it is today

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Bridge of Misunderstanding

February 15th, 2008 · 9 Comments

The 1907 Garden Bridge (in Chinese, the Waibaidu Qiao) is one of those rarest of historic treasures in Shanghai: an original structure that is still being used for the same purpose for which it was built. Imagine our shock, then, when we read recently that the Garden Bridge was to “vanish.”

No need to panic. It turns out that the bridge will disappear for one year for repairs. In fact, this is an urban renewal project that Shanghai preservationists can support wholeheartedly. The entire structure is to be dismantled, repaired and reassembled beam by beam. While the bridge is in drydock, a tunnel will be constructed along its route to take through traffic underneath the Bund and the Suzhou Creek.


Not only will the tunnel relieve congestion in this historic and much-visited district, but it will allow the modern bridge that now stands just to the west of Garden Bridge to be dismantled, revealing once again the beautiful grounds of the former British Consulate and resuscitating views of the stately General Post Office to the west.

The only disappointing part of the February 6 Shanghai Daily article reporting the Garden Bridge project was the following statement:

The word ‘baidu’ means ‘free ferry’ - a name dating from a time of discrimination when only Chinese people had to pay a toll to use an earlier bridge built in 1856 by a British businessman on practically the same site.

As is too often the case, the Shanghai Daily incorrectly reported the facts, and gave the impression of imperialist exploitation where none existed.


Wills Bridge

Foreigners forced their way into China with imperialist designs, no doubt, but the Garden Bridge is not evidence of imperialist exploitation. According to noted Shanghai chronicler F.L. Hawks Pott, the first bridge across Suzhou Creek was built in 1856 by an entrepreneur named Wills who brought capital into China and invested in infrastructure that benefited Chinese and foreigner alike. He invested $12,000 dollars in the 450-foot span (complete with drawbridge), and naturally charged a crossing fee. Both Chinese and foreigners paid this toll, but as with many goods and services in Shanghai, foreigners paid on credit – thus the impression on the part of many Chinese that foreigners passed free.

The Shanghai Municipal Council bought out Wills in the 1870s and eliminated the toll. Thus should have ended the errant complaints of discrimination against locals. Indeed, complaints might have been aimed in the opposite direction. The local governor (taotai in Wade-Giles) declined the SMC’s request for Chinese government investment in the construction of the new Garden Bridge, which replaced Wills Bridge in 1907. So residents of the Chinese municipality enjoyed free crossing of the Suzhou Creek from the 1870s thanks to the ratepayers of the International Settlement (a majority of whom, it should be noted, were wealthy Chinese, who were taxed but did not have the right to representation on the SMC until the 1920s).

We would ask the Shanghai Daily for a clarification on this point, but similar requests in the past have received no response, so this post will act as testament to the editorial error.


Tags: 19th century shanghai · architecture · economic history · international settlement · shanghai today · the bund

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Micah Sittig // Feb 17, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    A quick survey of Chinese sources on the web uncovers a few stories and added detail. Sources [1] and [2] tell exactly the story that the Shanghai Daily tells, about foreigners not paying to cross Will’s bridge, so this may be where the Shanghai Daily gets its “facts”.

    But they also say not that the Council bought out Wills but that they built an alternative wooden bridge just west of Will’s in 1873 that was free for everybody, and Chinese-speakers thus stopped using Will’s 外摆渡桥 (wai bai du qiao; Bund Ferry Crossing Bridge) and switched to the SMC’s 外白渡桥 (also wai bai du qiao; Bund Free Crossing Bridge). Will’s bridge fell into disuse, was sold to the SMC at a bargain price later that year, and was eventually torn down. The iron bridge we cross today was built by the SMC in 1906 and inherited the name of its wooden predecessor. Also, source [2] says that the local governor was called 道台, daotai in pinyin.

    Other sources like [3] and the Chinese Wikipedia [4] do not mention the local/Shanghailander divide, simply stating that Shanghai residents resented having to pay Will’s toll, precipitating the SMC’s decision to build the alternative bridge.

    Not that any of the sources I list are credible either… do they not teach the importance of bibliographies in school anymore?

    [1] http://shanghai.yiyou.com/html/4/312.html
    [2] http://pigtail1983.spaces.live.com/Blog/cns!6FD875991AD23F81!363.entry
    [3] http://www.hpjbanks.com/history/wai23.asp
    [4] http://msittig.wubi.org/test/garden.html (mirror of blocked ZH Wikipedia)

  • 2 Micah Sittig // Feb 17, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    Also, just as the Shanghai Daily would benefit from naming its sources, so would this website. Maybe an “About the Author” or a link to a more authoritative site? Just a thought.

  • 3 Micah Sittig // Feb 17, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    And finally, great weblog, by the way. It really fills a niche on the internet that had been developed by some earlier sites but lately been stagnating.

  • 4 Fessenden // Feb 18, 2008 at 6:51 am

    Thank you very much for the comments, Micah. As you can probably tell, I’m new to this whole blogging thing, learning as we go. The “About” page has been revised to give more background and identify the author (that’s me - I appear as Fessenden in comments. Twenty points to the first reader who can identify the reference!).

    Your comment on sources is excellent - especially as an encouragement to others who post on Historic Shanghai to make their comments substantive and to get their facts straight. We don’t want this blog to get too formal, but neither do we want it to be a haven for hearsay. I will be policing this via the comment approval process.

    But to answer your question: no, they DON’T teach anyone about the importance of bibliographies any more.

  • 5 Lynn Pan // Feb 18, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Fessenden as in Fessy, chairman of SMC? The guy whom a US State Department document has described as one of those ‘feeble creatures who had gone to pieces in the Far East’ - which probably only means that he had gone a bit native and could speak some Chinese?

  • 6 Fessenden // Feb 18, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    一百分, Lynn Pan! Stirling Fessenden was “out here too long,” having served as chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Council in the early 1920s and as Secretary General of the SMC (a salaried position) from 1929 to 1939. His tenure paid off, in a sense — during the occupation, he was permitted by the Japanese (in part because of his ill health) to stay in his apartment in the French Concession (with his Russian mistress, of course), where he died (presumably quite happy) in 1944.

  • 7 Shanghaiist : Bridge of Misunderstanding: Shanghai's Waibaidu Qiao // Feb 19, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    […] Cross-posted at Historic Shanghai. […]

  • 8 Grulia // Feb 24, 2009 at 6:02 am

    Where can I found thsi information in itlaian?

  • 9 Irka // Feb 24, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Very real blog, respect too author!

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