As I was having a drink at The Fellas Terrace for my birthday this 20th May, I could enjoy an unusual view which focal point was neither the former British Bund nore Pudong towers but... the Gutzlaff semaphore!
The Gutzlaff tower is a not so frequently commented among the riverside landmarks. It actually stands on the former French Bund, once called Quai de France. Build in 1907 in its present shape, this column crowned by a mast provided informations to the ships stationed on the Huangpu including weather forecasts, by the means of small flags on its top. Another function of the semaphore was providing a reliable time reference. This was essential for ships to caliber their marine chronometers and obtain the latitude parameter when they went at sea.
The tower was monitored by the Jesuit observatory of Zikawei (present Xujiahui) which catholic scholars collected observations from the coastal stations along the China coasts in order to draw daily weather maps. As for time calculation, it was based on the positions of stars. The "timeball" located on top of the 50 meters high mast gave a visual signal to the boats by falling down at noon. This ingenious invention was actually the one of Portsmouth based Captain Wauchope in 1819, and later adopted by the famous Greenwich observatory. Then, this technology was adopted by most port cities in the world, like Japanese Kobe or American Boston. It was introduced in Shanghai by the Jesuits in 1884 in the form of a simple wood mast. It eventually collapsed during a violent typhoon in 1905 and therefore was replaced by a brick version the year after.
A landmark in Shanghai.
Because of its specific position between the two settlements, the tower was the site of interesting events. Let us not forget that Yan An Elevated road which faces now the semaphore used to be a canal in the first place called Yangqqingbang. For this reason, it became a natural boundary to separate the early French settlers accompanying the consul De Montigny from the British followers of Sir George Balfour. It took a small bridge to cross the shallow water filled ditch. Interesting enough, the tower was named after Karl Gützlaff, a German missionary in China who decided to keep a blind eye on the smuggling of opium to seize this opportunity to spread christianity while working as an interpreter for the British.
When Yangqingbang was eventually filled, the newly created Avenue Edouard VII became the playground for thieves who could escape each settlement's police forces by running to the other side. In the International Settlement, policemen were Indian Sikhs whereas the French hired Anamites from their Indochina colony. In 1941, when the Empire of Japan invaded Shanghai one the day after Pearl Harbor attack, their armed convoy was stopped there by a sIngle French army officer, patiently sitting on a folding chair. He explained that they could get into trouble with their German allies who controlled France at that time if they went any further. The event was long remembered by the Chinese who had been suffering from the Japanese occupation since 1937 as an act of bold heroism. Close to the French controlled semaphore was the British memorial of WWI representing a winged goddess of victory. It was distroyed by the Japanese during the months which followed this event. It is not clear however if this was an act of retaliation by the Japanese or a mere need of the metal for their war effort.
The development of radio transmissions progressively made visual observation of time irrelevant for ships staying in harbors and the Shanghai semaphore totally ceased to be used in 1956. At that date, some report it was turned into a police station. Following Deng Xiaoping reforms, the construction of a broader road on the Bund in 1993 led to the transfer of the tower seventy feet South East to give way to the traffic, a real technological challenge! For a while, the Bund Museum was occupied the ground floor and a cafe opened with access to the terrace, right at the base of the column. Today, the lighting of the building together with the rest of the old Bund makes the view from the Fellas Terrace where I was seating for my birthday an amazing one. The foreground actually reminds us of the first Foreigners coming to Shanghai whereas in the background one can appreciate some of the most modern skyscrapers in China.
When taking a picture of the electric "520" numbers on Pudong towers (I was born on Lovers Day as my date spells like "I love you" in mandarin), I realized I used an iPhone. Today, weather forecasts, pollution indexes, not to mention local time for every single city, have become basic functions. I could then make a one hundred and fifty years time travel in a single shot and get a glimpse of Shanghai eternal modernity!