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A silent witness to history

SPANNING the Suzhou Creek in the heart of Shanghai, Waibaidu Bridge has been a silent witness to more than 100 years of history.

Before the steel structure was split in two, detached from its pylons and shipped away for repairs last April, it had been busy serving nearly 30,000 vehicles every day.

People relied on it to commute between the north and the central parts of the city through the Bund area. It was a vital link for city traffic and one of the few constants in this ever-changing city.

But its 10-month absence tugged at the heart strings of residents, evoking nostalgic feelings and reviving memories of an object that wasn't just a mere traffic bridge but a treasure closely tied to the city's history and the lives of local people.

In 1856, a British businessman named Wales built a wooden bridge across the Suzhou Creek to ease traffic for British and American settlers. Chinese users had to pay a toll. Mounting complaints from Chinese caused the engineering authority of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to build a similar wooden overpass nearby in 1873 and made it free to cross. Locals called it Waibaidu Bridge as Waibaidu means "Outer Free Ferry" in the local dialect. It was the predecessor of the current Waibaidu bridge.

An official survey in 1889 reported that 1,633 carriages, 20,958 rickshaws, 2,759 wooden trolleys, 27 sedan chairs, 38 horses and 35,000 pedestrians used the bridge every day. It was demolished and replaced by the steel bridge in 1907.

The hand-drawn designs for the steel structure, by Britain's Howarth Erskine Ltd, dated 1903, are preserved in Shanghai and offered key clues for the recent repairs.

Over decades, the iconic span has appeared in many movies.

When people heard it was being removed last April, many visited the site to pose for pictures while others posted old photographs online to share their Waibaidu memories.

During the 1960s, when local youngsters responded to a call to settle in the country's rural areas, many stood on Waibaidu Bridge for a photo before they left. Many carried a bag featuring a silhouette of the bridge and neighboring Broadway Mansions - the essence of home.


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