An Architecture Tour of the Shanghai Bund: the Customs House

If you pass by the Bund on the hour, no matter how clamorous the surroundings are, you will surely hear the melodious bell of the clock, which is a symbol of the Bund. In novels and TV series, this bell echoes in the morning of Shanghai; in tourism books and articles, this bell has become a new “listening spot” of shanghai. This bell, ringing from the clock tower of the Customs House, has sounded since 1928 to this day, and has never stopped.

Customs House, Shanghai

Established in 1857, the Customs House was initially built in the traditional style of feudal Chinese government offices, quite unique among buildings of western style on the Bund. The Customs House existing today was built in 1927, after being demolished three times. Having 11 stories including the clock-tower, it used to be the tallest building on the Bund. The most famous feature of the Customs House is the clock tower and clock.

The clock tower serves as the longitudinal axis of the building, the exterior wall is paved with Jinshan stones, and windows and engraved designs on both sides are in harmony and symmetry. The entrance door is designed in the style of the ancient Greek temples. Inside the entrance, the patterns depicting sailing ships on the dome are remarkably beautiful. Propping up the massive building, four Greek Doric orders feature squares carved with floral designs at their top, expressing a feeling of inviolability.

The clock tower of the Customs House, Shanghai

The clock in the clock tower, with a diameter of 5.4 meters, was the largest in Asia and the 3rd largest around the world then, only next to the Big Ben on the Parliament House in London and the one in Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia. The clock and bell mechanisms were built according to the design of Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster. The bells were cast by John Taylor Bellfounders and the clock mechanism was built by JB Joyce & Co in England before they were shipped to Shanghai. It is said that when the 6.26-ton heavy clock was to be installed in the 72-meter tall clock tower, numerous shanghai locals stopped to watch.

The four exterior walls, namely the four facades of the clock indicating the directions of south, north, east and west, were pieced together with over 100 opal glasses of different sizes. The clock tower consists of the clockwork compartment, a copper bell base and a flagpole stand. The clockwork compartment, which lies at the center of the clock, is made up of hundreds of interlocked gears with rough steel cables in place of the fine wires in ordinary clocks. The steel cables are connected with three huge pendulums, which serve to strike at full hours, tick and signal time respectively.

Customs House Clock

At 1 o’clock, 1st of January, 1928, the first stroke sounded from the clock on the Customs House. Today, if you happen to pas by on the hour, you will hear the resonant music echoing on the river. The music now is no longer the original English Royal music “the Westminster Quarters”, instead, it is “The East is Red”, a symbol of the revolutionary victory for New China.

On the whole, the style of the Customs House is revival Neo-Classicist, yet the exterior design is greatly simplified. The clock tower tapers towards the top, displaying the high-rise sense of the cubes, which has a flavor of Art Deco-simple and graceful. The ground floor features ancient Greek columns and cloisters, which is a demonstration of classicism. Vertical lines are obviously emphasized from the 3rd to the 6th floor, with a slightly Gothic Revival aspect. A large horizontal cornice with dentils projecting beneath it is close to the Renaissance style, while the clock tower on the top seems to be a simplified Baroque style…Flavors and art concepts of different times being harmonically and freely combined together, this might be the manifestation of Eclecticism in the Customs House.

Walking towards the building along the west side of East Zhongshan Road, you may not have an overall view of the Customs House. No matter how far back you lean, you may at the most see the eave of the 7th floor and the clock tower is totally blocked. If you want to appreciate the overall building, the best observation spot is Lujiazui on the other side of Huangpu River or on a river cruise. Greek Doric columns stand up to the top, making it an imposing scene. Standing adjacent to the HSBC Building, the imposing Customs House Building is counted as its sister architecture.

An Architecture Tour of the Shanghai Bund -the HSBC Building and the Customs House BuildingTravel Tips:

You don’t need to worry that architectural structures are the only attraction in your tour of the Bund. There are lots of options for you if you would like a rest.

Only a few steps from the Customs House is Three on the Bund. If you feel like appreciating Chinese modern art, you may head to Shanghai Gallery of Art on the 3rd floor. The 4th floor of the building is occupied by a well-known western restaurant – Jean Georges. Each course in it is presented like a work of art. The noon set is quite a bargain. New Heights is on the 7th floor, whose open seats are the most popular. Many TV shows have chosen it for the afternoon tea scenes, with the broad view of the Bund just behind it.

Not far from here, No. 5 and 6 on the Bund have also been reconstructed as fashion spots. M on the Bund, MoonSha Japanese Cuisine, etc, are located in No. 5 on the Bund, and next door in No. 6 on the Bund there is also a long list of choices for you such as SUN with AQUA, Tiandi Restaurant, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.

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