Essential Architecture- The Bund, Shanghai

Russo-Chinese Bank Building

presently Formerly a Russian Bank, currently used as the Chinese Foreign Exchange and Trade Center. Headquarters of the Shanghai Labor Union, formerly Jiaotong Bank.


Heinrich Becker


No. 15, The Bund, Shanghai, China






rendered masonry


  Above image reproduced with the generous permission of Simon Fieldhouse. Copyright Simon Fieldhouse.
The opening of the Russo-Chinese Bank on 26” October 1902 caused quite a stir amongst Shanghai’s foreign community, many of whom thought it looked totally our of place on the Bund. As it turned out the building was to set the trend for modern European style buildings which would later emerge along the entire waterfront. Heinrich Becker, who had studied in Munich, came to Shanghai in 1899 where he won the open competition for the design of the bank. His design in Italian Renaissance style, using natural stone, was very much in vogue for prestigious European bank buildings of the era. Becker was assisted in the project by British architect Richard Seel, who had previously designed the Government Buildings in Tokyo. Despite some claims that the building was by Becker & Baedeker, including that on the heritage plaque outside, Becker didn’t enter into partnership with Mr. C. Baedeker until 1905. The building was successfully completed within two years in spite of numerous hindrances, including the desertion of numerous artisans and labourers during the tumultuous Boxer uprising of 1900.

The building was quite revolutionary in terms of technical sophistication and artistic interpretation. The bank had its own electric generator and, apart from being the first building in China to be equipped with an elevator, it was fully heated with hot air pipes and every single desk was served by two electric fans and two electric lights. Inside the building a beautifully decorated central hall extended through the three-storey structure which was accessed by way of an intricately carved, grand marble staircase. On the interior walls there were sculptures of iron smelting, agriculture, coal-mining and textile manufacture, as well as of tea, cotton, shipping and electricity. On the third floor two handsome apartments for the managers opened onto the stone veranda and magnificent stained glass ran around the hallway.

Thankfully, much of the original internal decoration still survives though, as the building houses the Shanghai Gold Exchange, it remains well hidden from public view. However, all the outside adornment, including two groups of statues representing industry and commerce and three masks depicting a Chinese flanked by two Russians on keystones above the ground floor windows, has been lost. The building today provides one of the best illustrations on the Bund of the settling process. There are now two steps down, rather than up, to the entrance hall. An SMC engineer noted in 1923 that this building in particular had ‘subsided to a considerable degree,’ but went on to note that the pavement level was also much higher than it was when the building was constructed.

When it was first established in Shanghai in 1896, the Russo- Chinese Bank had just five European clerks. When its new building opened its Dutch manager, Michael Speelman, one of only two Dutchmen resident in Shanghai at that time, had charge of over 50 clerks. A new innovation for the bank was the installation, on the ground floor, of 300 safe-deposit boxes for its customers. The Russo-Chinese Bank established the Chinese Eastern Railroad Company and was amalgamated with the Banque du Nord in 1901. It later became the Russo-Asiatic Bank and in 1925, at the time of its liquidation, its property deeds were handed over to the Chinese Maritime Customs who held an extensive credit balance with the institution. A deal was made in 1928 and the Central Bank of China took over the property, with H. H. Kung, later to become the Nationalist Government Minister of Finance, as governor. The building also housed the office of Thomas Cook, travel agents, who had established their first office in China at Shanghai in 1910. The patriarch of the family firm wasn’t too impressed by the native elements of the city when he paid a visit on his first round-the-world tour in 1873.

The two, really out of place, Art Deco, three storey block buildings, which still survive to the south of the main building, were erected in 1930 primarily to provide storage for silver which couldn’t be accommodated in the bank’s existing vaults. However, much of the silver was shipped abroad when the bank was evacuated during the Sino-Japanese hostilities of 1937. Directly after the evacuation the bank was temporarily used as the offices for the Russian Regiment of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps—a salaried detachment of Shanghai’s long established volunteer militia. In 1938, the building provided classrooms for Chinese students from the Ellis Kadoorie School and the Nieh Chih Kuei Public School which had been forced to relocate because of local hostilities. The new Central Bank of China, under the control of the puppet government in Nanjing, took over the premises in November 1940.

In one of the outbuildings, and again looking out of place in its posh neighbourhood setting, the small Three Gun store, a state-run enterprise parading a selection of old-fashioned knitted undergarments, looks as though it has been there for time immemorial. It only took up residence, however, in 1993 and chose the spot purely on commercial grounds. The Three Gun brand was originally established in Shanghai in 1937 by Gan Tinghui in response to the Japanese aggression which had resulted in a boycott of Japanese goods in the city. He combatively named his company following three consecutive successes he had scored in shooting competitions. In 1966, the company, among others, was incorporated into the Number 9 Knitted Garment Factory of Shanghai. The Three Gun brand was resurrected in the period of reform following the death of Mao Zedong in 1977 and in 2005, as one of China’s largest producers of undergarments, it gained the sole rights to produce and sell children’s clothes for the Disney brand. Adjoining the shop are two even smaller spaces housing ATMs for HSBC and the Bank of East Asia—two mammoth banking institutions which now only have a token presence on the waterfront.