Shamian Island: outpost of the West
Separated from central Guangzhou by the still waters of a canal, and cut off on two sides by an elevated six-lane highway, Shamian Island is an anomaly in the chaos of China’s third-largest city.
Shamian, the “sandy surface”, lies at a point where the Pearl River branches out into two channels, one turning south on a sweeping course that swings back east, merging once again before emptying into the South China Sea at Hǔmén, “Tiger Gate”. Known to Western geographers as Bocca Tigris, the narrow channel was once the scene of pitched battles during the Opium Wars – largely a result of its strategic position guarding the maritime route to Canton.
Between the mid-18th century and the outbreak of the First Opium War (1839-42), the only place for foreigners to trade and live in China was at the Thirteen Factories, a row of trading posts outside Guangzhou’s city walls. These were razed during the chaos of the Second Opium War, leaving traders without a suitable replacement.
In 1859, a nearby sandbar was granted by Qing dynasty authorities as a foreign enclave, and jurisdiction was handed over to the British, who governed three-fifths of Shamian, and the French. Laid out on a grid, with five streets running north-south and three perpendicular east-west arteries, the new quarter was divided along its length by a wide, tree-lined central avenue. Banks and trading companies from as far afield as the United States, Germany, Portugal and Japan soon set up shop on the island; at its western end the British built protestant Christ Church Shameen in 1865, and several decades later, the French followed suit by completing Our Lady of Lourdes.
Thankfully, the island’s two churches and pastel-coloured mansions – many sporting graceful verandahs – survived the ravages of World War II and the Cultural Revolution. Today Shamian Island is a quiet residential area, with a handful of hotels and restaurants scattered around its leafy streets. Crossing the canal from modern Guangzhou is to step back in time, into another world and a small slice of a distant continent.