Bunds and Buildings as Spaces of Empire in East Asia

In his work, ‘The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of Asia’,  Jeremy Taylor attempts to examine the bund as a generic spatial form; analysing its importance in both sustaining the lifestyle of European residents and its significance to the Western residents of the treaty ports as space with military, commercial and lastly recreational functions[1]. He concludes by hoping that his work will stimulate further debate surrounding the questions of space and power within the treaty ports. Outside of treaty ports, Taylor’s work is part of a burgeoning field of historical discourse examining the importance of European urban expansion on cityscapes across the world. This can be seen in works such as Antony King’s Urbanism, Colonialism and the World-Economy: Cultural and Spatial Foundations of the World Urban System. Interestingly the Shanghai Bund arguably demonstrates King’s thesis that these colonial spaces are eventually integrated into what he calls the single world economy, transitioning from a colonial space with primarily military and economic functions to one that is largely recreational in its nature and ultimately part of the broader world economy[2]. Although Taylor demonstrates its importance to Westerners, he does not explore Chinese understandings or conceptualisations of the Shanghai Bund as a space[3]. However, a comparison of the Shanghai Bund with colonial buildings and Korea and Taiwan demonstrate that, despite fulfilling similar functions, most colonial spaces found in treaty ports and colonial cities have in fact been treated differently to the bund, which has arguably endured as an important space after the colonial period.

In Korea, the construction of the Japanese Western style colonial building in front of the Kwanghwa palace disrupted and challenged the ancient geomancy calculation known as Pungsu, which sought to enhance the vital energies of the ruler[4]. The intentions of the Japanese in overturning the cognitive map of the Koreans by constructing a modern western-style government building on this site is clear. In Taiwan, the central government building and redevelopment of downtown Taipei was finalised by the completion of the Sōtokufu in 1919. Although nothing was demolished to construct this building, the Japanese did raise the Yamen in 1931 to build the Old City Hall[5]. As with the bund, the construction of these sites was both conscious and deliberate. They were centrally located, western style buildings designed to convey both the modern and civilising intentions of the colonists as well as establish their dominance in the spaces in which they were created. Parallels with this can arguably be seen with the bund which remained a space of power through its use as an economic center and space which military might could be demonstrated. As these building were ultimately used as spaces that convey power, it is unsurprising that in many cases these buildings continued to be used until the end of the 20th century. In Taipei, the Chinese were quick to occupy many of the buildings that were part of the Japanese colonial occupation, occupying the central colonial buildings and only bothering to switch on Chinese character in the name[6]. However, although they remained politically significant in both Korea and Taiwan these spaces continue to be contentious. In Taiwan the city government challenged the nationalist government’s building by moving ‘away from the downtown and into a new spatiality’[7]. Even with the demolition of the government building, restoration of the Kwanghwa gate and creation of the Kwanghwa square in 2009, the spatial configuration of  downtown Seoul remains intrinsically linked to their identity and history[8]. Ultimately the importance of these buildings as spaces of empire is now lost and unlike the Shanghai Bund, many are beginning to lose their significance as nations begin to recognise the colonial origins of these space’s associations with power.

Returning to an examination of the Bund, it is clear that perhaps the Shanghai Bund’s association with finance and business within the Chinese identity that has perhaps ensured its continued importance as a centre in Shanghai. In order to fully understand the typology of the Shanghai Bund as a space of empire, it is perhaps important to consider its perception amongst the Chinese in Shanghai, who have arguably enabled its transition from a space of empire to a space of economic entrepreneurialism.

[1] Jeremy E. Taylor, ‘The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of East Asia’, Social History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 125-142

[2] Antony D. King, Urbanism, Colonialism, and The World Economy: Cultural and Spatial Foundations of the World Urban System, (London, 1990), pp1-12.

[3] Talyor, ‘The Bund’, p128.

[4] Hong Kal, Aesthetic Construction of Korean nationalism: Spectacle, Politics and History, (Oxford, 2000), p45.

[5] Joseph R Allen, Taipei: City of Displacements, (Washington, 2012), p43.

[6] Allen, Taipei, p35.

[7] Ibid, p65.

[8] Kal, Aesthetic Construction of Korean nationalism, p1.