Renovated historic structure is Suzhou Creek's new landmark

Qiao Zhengyue Tang Dafei Li Jiaohao
Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce's grand gatehouse and clubhouse, witnesses to a turbulent history, have been renovated into a new Suzhou Creek landmark.
Qiao Zhengyue Tang Dafei Li Jiaohao

Directed by Tang Dafei. Shot by Li Fuguang. Edited by Tang Dafei. Subtitles by Li Jiaohao.

A gatehouse mirrors a commemorative Roman arch along the Suzhou Creek and Henan Road Bridge. The roof is inscribed with "Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce" in Chinese characters. The grand gatehouse and the chamber's clubhouse, witnesses of a turbulent history, have been renovated to become a landmark of Suzhou Creek.

After Shanghai opened its port in 1843, businesses were booming, and foreign chambers of commerce were founded to formulate trading regulations and mediate disputes. The traditional Chinese guilds appeared to be more conservative than foreign chambers. In 1902, the first chamber of commerce in China, the Shanghai Commercial Meeting Club, was launched under the advice of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) minister Sheng Xuanhuai. After changes and reorganizations, the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce was officially founded in 1912.

The chamber gathered the city's most influential merchants. Powerful business leaders, such as Zhu Baosan, Shen Lanfang, and Yu Yaqing, were all heads of this organization.

In 1916, the chamber built its new clubhouse at the Temple of the Queen of Heaven along Suzhou Creek. Four years later, they built the grand gatehouse. Atkinson & Dallas, a famous British architectural firm in old Shanghai, designed the new clubhouse. Among the firm's 100-plus architectural works were Buildings No. 7 and No. 29 on the waterfront Bund.

Atkinson & Dallas designed the red-brick clubhouse in a neo-classical style. The building is divided into three sections horizontally and five sections vertically. The centerpiece is a giant stairway at the entrance. The façade, crafted with red bricks and artificial stones, is graced by a triangle and semi-circular gables, vase-shaped balustrades, horizontal belts, and two-floor-high pilasters.

The steel-and-concrete structure has seen the modernization of industries and the development of the chamber of commerce. The building covers an area of 520 square meters and has three floors, with a garage and offices on the ground floor, the Discussion Hall on the second floor, and offices on the third. The oversized balcony on the top floor provides a view of the Chinese garden and Suzhou Creek.

Details of the interior reveal the likes of modern Shanghai merchants. They valued practicality as well as style. Parts are designed with functionality in mind while being lavishly decorated. The grand, dark wood staircase is an example.

The "discussion hall" is the most important part of the building. It is two floors high and can house some 800 people. The beamless hall features a curved, suspended ceiling and a cloister supported by huge brackets.

Business people and government representatives from China and other nations attended the building's opening ceremony on March 18, 1916. As the Chairman, M. Chu Pao-san had not yet recovered from illness, Vice-Chairman Shen Lianfang delivered a speech. He said the building itself cost over Tls. 62,999, and its fixtures, decorations, and furniture cost an additional Tls. 30,000. It was called the "Discussion Hall of the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce" to be a place where progressive commerce problems could be discussed and studied. Well, it's undoubtedly worthy of its name.

From its opening day, the "Discussion Hall" became the center of the city's commercial activities. Members from the finance, real estate, shipping, textile, flour, tea, and hardware industries discussed and organized many important events here. In an array of social campaigns and activities during the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China, the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce played an important role in political and diplomatic affairs, financial bailouts, charity and disaster relief, and safeguarding the interests of Chinese business people.

The red-brick building is known as the "South Building" because there's also a "North Building" in the courtyard that exhibits Chinese commodities. Here, the chamber has put on four successful exhibitions to show off and promote products from all over the country.

In addition, the chamber organized China's domestic industrial products abroad to participate in the three World Expositions in San Francisco and Panama in 1915, Philadelphia in 1926, and Paris in 1937.

During the 1915 Panama World Expo, a 35-year-old chamber member named Nie Yuntai, who managed a yarn factory, delivered an impressive speech in English. This was seen as a high point for Shanghai's business community on the world stage. The site formally used to exhibit products is now a garden.

The government dissolved the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce in 1929, ending its historical purpose. Since then, the red-brick building has gone through many changes, once being used as a factory and then abandoned for years. Its historical appearance has been destroyed.

In 2011, the Overseas Chinese Town Group kicked off a seven-year-long restoration of the building and the gatehouse. The restoration team named "Office for Urban Renewal" restored the damaged gables and roofs according to a 3D model.

They also revived the balconies that had been closed for many years and repaired the large-span curved ceiling and beautiful staircase. The mosaic floor fronting the discussion hall is hand polished in five colors: red, orange, blue, green, and white, to form a Datura pattern, showing rich texture and natural lines.

Due to the settlement of the foundation, cracks appear in the center of the mosaic. It took the team nearly a month to repair the Datura flower according to its original patterns and textures.

Luckily, the restoration team found the original red-brick walls covered in plaster in the garden. Now both textures from two distinctive historical periods are displayed.

Today, the red-brick building, which blends well with newly built red towers, is used as the banquet hall of a stylish hotel. The Suzhou Creek area where the building stands is developing into a world-class waterfront business district. After the opening of Suzhou Creek tourism, the gatehouse has become an eye-catching landmark. It is imposing, like the commercial and industrial spirit of Suzhou Creek from decades ago.

Special Reports