Is it a portent or a confirmation? It was clearly significant when I discovered that, after 23 years, the famous restaurant M on the Bund, on the seventh floor at 5 The Bund, had closed earlier this year.

In China, things change rapidly and, during the pandemic, keeping up to date has been a challenge, but M on the Bund was one of those permanences that signified the immense transformation that came to Shanghai and, by inference, all of China from the start of the 1990s.

I first travelled to Shanghai in 1987, flying up after APLF Hong Kong. I stayed at the Sheraton, hired a Volvo taxi for my stay and had a translator who a colleague had recommended. A trip to the Bund was required, I seem to remember, during a visit to the Shanghai Engineering Co No 2 HQ, which ran glove making in the region.

We slowly rose in a very rickety lift in a building that must have been close to No 5 for our meeting and later went for lunch, with our guest, the translator and the driver, on an upper floor of the famous Peace Hotel.

Before Pudong

There was no Pudong beyond rice fields and an ancient industrial slum to look out over, few motor cars other than the Volvo taxis and the occasional official vehicle, some minibuses, an immense number of bicycles and a uniformity of dress and general gloom hanging over the buildings and people.

The red brick of the towering new Sheraton was about the brightest element, so much so that my translator asked for permission to bring his fiancé to see it (Chinese people were not allowed in “foreign” hotels in 1987).

It did not look like a place about to erupt into the 20th century, never mind the 21st, but things changed soon after April 1990 when Premier Li Peng officially sanctioned the proposed development of the Pudong New Area (Pudong Xinchu) as a designated development area.

It was soon to have its dramatic skyscrapers, towers and buildings with new bridges built over the Huangpu River. Renovation of the Bund began almost straight away and has been continuous since, with a further upgrade to improve the roadways and pedestrian experience in time for the 2010 World Expo, which was themed “Better City, Better Life”.

Yet, for those attending the Shanghai Leather Fair, better known as the All China Leather Exhibition, which started in 1998, it was having new places to go for dinner in the evening that made the difference and these quickly began to appear with the new millennium. M on the Bund was an outstanding leader at the time. A safe and efficient elevator in a totally renovated building to the seventh floor offered great food and a terrace with unbelievable views over the river to the bright lights of Pudong and up and down the Bund.

Nowhere told the story better of the changes afoot in China, the modernisation, the dynamic, the entrepreneurial approach, the wealth being created and the obvious future power and potential. M on the Bund and the New Heights became regular destinations to both admire and try to comprehend what was happening in China. 

It was a period when at least two or three visits were required to keep up with the speed of change in China and many tanners combined travel into China after APLF with another trip for the ACLE. However, sentiment changed somewhat for those who stayed on after ACLE 2015 and watched the China Victory Day parade.

It was the start of the move to make Xi Jinping much more of a supreme leader and towards the cancellation of term limits, which means it is almost certain he will start a third term later this year. These moves, followed by Trump’s election in the U.S., have hardened attitudes and pulled China away from the continued integration into the global economy and structures that seemed to be happening since 1990.

Covid consequences

Covid-19 has made this divide much wider and there now seems no likelihood of reversal of the economic separation. How this will play out in terms of the outstanding joint ventures and overseas tanneries and plants in China we wait to see, but the ideas being voiced a decade ago that the ACLE would come to dominate the APLF as the major Asian fair have long disappeared.

The decision by the Australian owner not to renew her lease and to close M on the Bund reminds us of the development we have been privileged to observe but that, for the leather world, the moment of Shanghai appears to be over much sooner than most of us would have liked. 

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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