Customs House, Shanghai

Customs House, Shanghai
Customs House - The Bund - Shanghai (Elevation)
The Customs House seen from the Huangpu river

The Customs House (Chinese: 江海关) is an eight storey building on the Bund, Shanghai. Built in 1927, the building remains a customs house today. Together with the neighbouring HSBC Building, the Customs House is seen as one of the symbols of the Bund and Shanghai.


The Shanghai Customs House was first set up in the late 17th century, when the Kangxi Emperor lifted the ban against sea trade after conquering Taiwan. To facilitate trading along the east coast of China, the Qing government set up four customs houses in the four coastal provinces of Jiangnan (now split into Jiangsu and Anhui), Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong. The name "Jiangnan Customs House" was abbreviated to "Jiang Customs House", or "Jiang Haiguan" in Chinese. The principal customs house, originally located at Lianyungang was later set up just outside the east gate of the walled city of Shanghai (then a part of Jiangnan Province), by the Huangpu River.

With the development of overseas trade in Shanghai, the location of the customs house became increasingly inconvenient, with foreign merchants preferring to berth their ships further out to sea, near today's Bund. The governor of Shanghai then set up a check point at the south end of the Bund. Upon further insistence by the British consul to move the customs house inside the British concession, a new customs house was built at the present site. This new house is known as the New Customs House, North Customs House, or "Foreign Customs House", whereas the old customs house was known as the "Grand Customs House". In 1853, the rebelling Small Swords Society burnt down the Grand Customs House. In 1860, the Taiping Revolution Army burnt down the rebuilt Grand Customs House. It was decided not to rebuild the Grand Customs House, with the current building becoming the new headquarters.

During the rebellions, the British authority declared the concession to be neutral. They then forced out the Qing officials from the North Customs House, on the grounds that they could not collect customs in neutral territory. After the rebellion, the Qing authority in Shanghai was forced to set up customs authority, first on two gunboats parked across the river in Pudong, then on the north bank of Suzhou River. However, foreign merchant vessels ignored these ineffective customs posts.

In 1854, the British authority obtained the power of customs in the concession. The British, French, and Americans each nominated one person to form a Foreigners Tax Committee, which operated from the Customs House. Subsequently, the Qing government agreed to appoint a British as an inspector general of the newly formed Chinese Maritime Customs Service. In 1857, the Shanghai government spent 6800 taels of silver to rebuild the North Customs House. In 1863, Sir Robert Hart was appointed to the position of inspector general, a position that he would hold until 1911.

The building as rebuilt in 1857 was a traditional Chinese building in the Yamen style. It was fronted with a monumental arch (pailou) and two flag poles. By 1859, this building was becoming outdated. The governor of Shanghai then applied for funding to rebuild it. Robert Hart chose a Gothic design, with a five-storey rectangular clock tower in the centre, and two three-storey wings beside it, surrounding a quadrangle.

This building was again demolished in 1925 to make way for the current building, designed by P & T Architects Limited (Palmer and Turner). The new building was completed on December 19, 1927, and cost 4.3 million taels of silver, twice the budget. The building remains a customs house today.


The present Customs House occupies an area of 5722 m², with 32680 m² of floor space. The building is in two section: the eastern section is eight storeys tall and faces the Huangpu River. It is topped by a clock tower, which is eleven storeys or 90 metres tall. The western section is five stories tall, and faces onto Sichuan Road. A reinforced concrete structure was used. The exterior follows a Greek-revival Neo-Classicist design. The eastern section is entirely surfaced in granite, as are the first two storeys of the western section, with the upper three storeys faced with brown bricks. The main entrance has four Doric columns. Eaves are founda bove the first and second storeys, with a larger one above the sixth floor. Large stone columns penetrate from the third to the sixth storey.

Inside the main entrance is the main hall. Marble columns are decorated with gold leaf. At the centre is an oxtagonal dome, with mosaics on the eight sides.

The most famous feature of the Customs House is the clock tower and clock. The clock tower offers views over the entire Bund and Shanghai city centre. It has four faces, each made up of more than 100 pieces of glass, between 0.3 and 1 metre in size. The diameter of each face is 5.3 metres, with 72 automatic lamps. The clock and bell mechanisms are 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 remains to be the largest clock in Asia. During the Cultural Revolution, the clock music was changed to The East is Red. The traditional tune (the Westminster Quarters) was restored in the 1980s. In 2003, however, the municipal Communist Party branch ordered the music to be changed once again to The East is Red.


Coordinates: 31°14′20″N 121°29′0″E / 31.23889°N 121.483333°E / 31.23889; 121.483333

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