By Wm Patrick Cranley
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.
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.
Cross-posted at Historic Shanghai.