The confluence of two waterways never fails to fascinate people

Chen Huizhi
The stretch of Suzhou Creek that flows through Hongkou District has been transformed into an urban garden that respects the history of the area.
Chen Huizhi

Editor’s note:

Suzhou Creek holds a special place in the hearts of Shanghai residents. The region's silks and ceramics were carried along the Maritime Silk Road in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and centuries later the area became an early industrial hub of the city. By the 1980s, the creek had degenerated into a fetid waterway, flanked by shantytowns. But that was the past. The future is now fully on display with the completion of years of intensive cleanup projects and redevelopment of the waterfront. This series explores the creek in each of the six city districts through which it flows.

While the Oriental Pearl Tower and skyscrapers of the Lujiazui financial hub are the landmarks of Shanghai’s rapid development, the latticed Waibaidu Bridge over Suzhou Creek and the old 22-story Broadway Mansions building nearby are reminders of its rich past.

A new 460-square-meter waterfront viewing platform, just a stone’s throw from Waibaidu Bridge, now offers a unique vantage point for residents and tourists.

Suzhou Creek flows through six Shanghai districts and 180 years of the city’s modern history. Its redevelopment has given us a continuous 42-kilometer pedestrian corridor along the creek.

Starting at the intersection of the Suzhou Creek and Huangpu River walkways on the North Bund, one can stroll along 900 meters of the creek that flows through Hongkou District.

The walkway, opened in December, is one of the most scenic and historical segments of the longer creekside path.

The confluence of rivers has always fascinated people, like where the Rhine River meets the Mosel in Koblenz, Germany, and where the Danube meets the Sava in Belgrade, Serbia.

So it comes as no surprise that the confluence of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek fascinated Peter Felix Richards, a Scottish merchant who set up shop in Shanghai around the time when the city opened its port for foreign vessels in 1843.

The Astor House Hotel, now the Pujiang Hotel located across the street from the Russian Consulate east of Waibaidu Bridge, was built in 1846. It was the first Western hotel in China. Remodeling gave it its current neo-classic look in 1910.

The Waibaidu Bridge, also known as Garden Bridge, was constructed in 1907 as the first large bridge in Shanghai and one of the city’s most beautiful.

In its proximity, several historical buildings were erected on the northern banks of the creek. You can see them from creekside pathway.

The iconic building that today houses the Shanghai Postal Museum opened in 1924 as Shanghai’s General Post Office.

Broadway Mansions, now a hotel, was built in 1934 as a modernist icon. A year later, the Embankment Building, once known as the “No.1 Apartment Building of the Far East,” was completed. It’s still a residential complex today.

But fine architecture wasn’t the only addition to the shoreline. Over the years, the riverbank became clogged with many buildings of lesser stature, including jerry-built illegal structures. River views disappeared behind concrete, and a one-time walking path along the shore was narrow and littered, damping the enthusiasm of anyone thinking of strolling there.

Today, the Beisuzhou Road portion of Wusong Road, which runs alongside the creek, has been entirely turned into a pedestrian-only street. The width of road and the riverside pathway have been greatly expanded.

Under the creek’s redevelopment, a parking lot, a transformer substation, water quality monitoring facilities and an office of the maritime authority have been removed from the banks.

The two-story maritime office building was refitted with an elegant brick exterior and will later be turned into a tourism center and art gallery.

Along the river, the stone-paved pedestrian street and lighting in the style of early gas lamps give a pleasing, uniform look to the landscape.

A variety of trees and flowers has replaced monotonous evergreen trees and shrubs, turning the street into a garden-like public area.

Sculptures and installations that reflect the history of the area enhance the environment. They include the sculpture of a newsboy, a green postman’s bicycle and manhole covers inscribed with iconic pictures that appeared on old souvenir bags from Shanghai.

The confluence of two waterways never fails to fascinate people
Ti Gong

An old souvenir bag from Shanghai which features the Waibaidu Bridge, the Broadway Mansions and Suzhou Creek.

Wang Lin, an architecture professor at the School of Design of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, who was the general designer of the Beisuzhou Road project, said the project aimed to create a “riverside balcony” from which people could take photos of Shanghai’s most iconic sites with just ordinary cameras.

“For many residents, Suzhou Creek was just a river, but we are hoping it will become as celebrated as the River Thames in London and the Seine in Paris, where people can congregate and enjoy themselves,” she said.

Wang said she believes that the landscape, when the redevelopment is fully completed, won’t let people down.

“It’s well known in our trade that however brilliant ideas are, they won’t deliver if construction and management of a project is of poor quality,” she said. “That didn’t happen in this project. We got exactly the effect we were seeking.”

The nearest Metro station to this part of the Suzhou Creek riverside is Tiantong Road Station on lines 10 and 12.

Using bridges over the creek, people can explore the Rockbund, a congregation of some of the earliest buildings on the Bund. They include the former Union Church, the former Shanghai Rowing Club and the residence of the former British Consulate. Access to the Bund has become easy.

The Beisuzhou Road riverside project started last April and was intermittently interrupted by the outbreak of coronavirus.

The Suzhou Creek stories of Shanghai residents

Li Yunfu, who has been living in the Embankment Building for 50 years

The confluence of two waterways never fails to fascinate people
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Suzhou Creek was once a very clean river. I still remember kids jumping into the river from the bridges on summer days. Some would swim toward barges carrying loads of watermelons and try to knock a few off for themselves. The bargemen would try to fend them off with a pole, but there was really nothing they could do to deter the rascals. I watched with amusement from my fifth-floor balcony.

The color of the river became darker and darker in the 1980s, due to industrialization upstream. The foul look of the river was coupled with noisy nights, as boats unloaded steel or bamboo just under my window. There was no proper dock then, and the boatmen had to climb up ladders over the flood-control wall to unload the goods. Sometimes the loud noise of goods hurtling to the ground would waken us in the dead of night.

The river got its first facelift in the 1990s, and its natural color started to return. Now the riverbank has been turned into a garden, which is quite incredible. I was thinking about selling our apartment for a long time, but now I have decided to stay.

I’ve heard that some of the first-floor shops of our Embankment Building will move out, to be replaced by coffee shops to serve people walking the riverside.

I hope that more benches will be added along the walking path for senior citizens and tourists, and that more public restrooms be made available. Also, it would be a good idea to install some lifesaving equipment like life buoys on the banks in case of emergencies.

Xue Minghua, architect with AMJ Architecture Planning & Design Co, who headed up landscaping work on the Hongkou segment of Suzhou Creek

The confluence of two waterways never fails to fascinate people
Hu Jun / SHINE

Shanghai residents of my generation used to have only one impression of Suzhou Creek – that it was a smelly, dirty river. People wouldn’t think of going near it. Most of the creekfront was reserved for businesses or river administrators.

We, as landscape designers, applauded the massive project to redevelop the Suzhou Creek riverside once ecological work had restored the water quality. However, there was limited public access to the creek. In most cases, people had to stand on bridges to get any view. Riverside space was fragmented.

Our design aimed to break open and bring out the best of the creek to the public – in effect, to make the river a part of people’s daily life. We wanted accessible public space that highlights the style of the historical buildings and yet remains functional.

As someone born and raised in this city, I was honored to be part of the team that made it happen.

Wu Peixue, amateur photographer who lives in Putuo District

The confluence of two waterways never fails to fascinate people
Chen Huizhi / SHINE

I live near Suzhou Creek, and it’s been such a delight to see the river becoming cleaner and cleaner. I have been following the re-landscaping of the riverside for many years and taking photos of the progress.

The part of the riverside near the Bund is, of course, the most unique because of the views it affords of so many landmark buildings of Shanghai. The new elevated platform next to Waibaidu Bridge is an incredible site for photographers. Also, the walking paths there are more spacious than on most other parts of the creek.

Obviously great effort has been invested into turning a once smelly little river into enjoyable public space. But the common problem of too few restrooms remains. I hope this problem will be addressed soon.

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