The Bund corresponds to the wharf area along the western bank of the Huangpu River, which was once a part of the so-called International Settlement area of Shanghai controlled by foreign forces during a period that stretched from the final chapters of China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, through to the middle of WWII, when the Japanese, who had occupied much of this part of China at the time, forced the other foreign forces out.* Shanghai International Settlement represented a consolidation of the American and British settlements in Shanghai, which were set up to ensure that the trade and territorial concessions that were forced upon China by the international community were respected (the first such concession being the Treaty of Nanking (1842) between China and Britain, though it was followed by similar treaties with other foreign powers such as the U.S., France, Russia, Portugal, and Japan).
The Chinese saw these treaties as being grossly unfair, which is why they are referred to in Chinese parlance collectively as the Unequal Treaties. The territorial concessions were mainly to be interpreted as access to Chinese ports - both for the purpose of trade as well as for the purpose of replenishment of fuel, food, etc., for visiting ships - but of course the Shanghai settlements themselves represented territorial concessions. It must in fairness be said that the Chinese government of the period, though rightly outraged over being compelled to condone trade in opium (the debacle, alas, also involved the transport of opium between Chinese ports by especially British merchant ships, which led to the so-called Opium Wars between China and Britain during the middle of the 19th century), also denied all foreign ships, merchant or military, access to Chinese ports, even for the purpose of replenishment, and it was this which was at the heart of the conflict, since the denial of a ship's international right to replenishment effectively banned shipping not only to Chinese ports, but also to ports beyond, such as to Japanese ports and to Russia's Pacific coast ports.
The French government was invited to include its settlement in the combined Shanghai International Settlement, but the French declined, maintaining a separate French Settlement (for francophiles, this has turned out to be a positive development, since the part of Shanghai that corresponds to the French Settlement has retained a distinctly "French" feel, even where the original French architecture has had to give way to newer sidewalk cafées and bistros).
The architecture along the Bund comprises such a wide array of Western styles, as well as Chinese styles, that it is renowned the world over as a "World Architectural Exhibition". The 52 buildings that officially make up the Bund span Art Deco, Baroque, Beaux-Arts, Gothic, Neo-Classical, Renaissance and Romanesque styles. Shanghai boasts the largest and richest collection of Art Deco structures in the world.
Some of the more prominent buildings that belonged to the Bund's foreign-occupation era have names which, not surprisingly (the area of the Bund corresponds to the original British Settlement), conjure up colonial times. These are: the McBain Building, which served as the Shanghai offices of Royal Dutch Shell and Asiatic Petroleum Company; the Great Northern Telegraph Corporation Building, home of the Great Northern Telegraph Company and later home of the first telephone switchboard in Shanghai; the HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) Building, which housed the bank of the same name (in spite of its name, it was strictly a British bank, founded by a Scot by the name of Thomas Sutherland); the Shanghai Club, the primary social club for British expats living in Shanghai during the period; the Customs House, a British structure that was built on the site of a former Chinese-style customs house - the British variant had a made-in-England clock-and-bell tower that mimicked Big Ben; the Glen Line Building, which housed the offices of Glen Line Eastern Agencies, a Scottish shipping company; and the Consulate-General of the United Kingdom, which needs no further elaboration.
Many of these grandiose structures of a byegone era were modified or allowed to fall into disrepair after the emergence of the PRC, but after China's opening to the West, thanks to the efforts of U.S. President Richard Nixon and his famous and flamboyant Foreign Minister (Secretary of State), Henry Kissinger, the government of the PRC took steps to have the grandiose buildings of the Bund restored to their heyday glory. Although the buildings themselves have been restored, most of course serve a different purpose today than they originally did, since many, if not most, of the original enterprises no longer exist (the city of Shanghai and the British bank, HSBC, which of course still exists, could not agree on a price when the restoration of the old HSBC Building was completed in the early 1990s). For example, many of the insurance buildings and shipping houses, etc. now serve as hotels.
As well, due to severe flooding in the 1970s and 1980s, it was decided to build a new levee, or embankment, to contain the Huangpu River, such that today the riverfront has been dramatically altered compared to the past. Moreover, to accomodate increasing traffic, much of the park area alongside the the Bund has had to give way to a widened thoroughfare, while most of the wharves that belonged to the riverfront have also long since disappeared, although a few remain, offering pleasure cruises for nostalgia-hungering tourists. The change in the Bund's riverfront is not necessarily for the bad, however, as the top of the new embankment is in the form of a promenade with special viewing balconies that project outward in the direction of the river, in the style of a bay window, and offer an excellent view of the Huangpu River below as well as a view of the immediate continuation of the city of Shanghai on the river's opposite bank.
The promenade is paved with 140,000 colored bricks and granite blocks and with 32 semi-circular (bay window style) viewing balconies that face the Huangpu River. The promenade, which, in addition to the viewing balconies, also has 21 bowl-shaped flower terraces, 6 pavilions, and a number of stone benches in a variety of shapes, is tastefully lit at night, providing a safe and romantic stroll along the riverfront.
The Bund is one of Shanghai's most popular tourist attractions. Due to the historical nature of the architecture along the Bund, there are limitations on the architecture of the surrounding area, so as not to mar the view - or clash with the architectural beauty - of these grandiose old buildings that have finally been restored to their former glory.
* "Bund" (pronounced so it rhymes with "fund") means embankment, or quay, and stems from the Urdu word "band" (Urdu is a language of central India belonging to the Indo-Persian branch of the Indo-European family of languages), meaning levee, or dam. How the word came to designate the wharf area of Shanghai along the Huangpu River is an interesting story in itself...
The term made its way to the rest of India - where it underwent a change in pronunciation from "band" to "bund" - either by Mughal traders during India's Mughal Empire (CE 1526-1858) period (the Mughuls were a people of Turko-Mongolian descent who controlled most of the Subcontinent at the peak of their rule, around 1700), or by the famous Jewish merchant families of Baghdad, such as the Sassoon family. It seems certain that it was members of the Sassoon family who brought the term to Shanghai. Given the presence of the Tigris River, which runs through the heart of Baghdad and which was famous even in biblical times for spilling over its banks, it is not surprising that "bands" were constructed along the Tigris in Baghdad. The present-day elevated embankment alongside the Huangpu River in Shanghai is therefore only an amplification, as it were, of the original "bund", which is what gives the area its name in the first place.