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Shamian Island: outpost of the West

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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.

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After the rain

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On the island’s central boulevard

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Bronze figures in period dress

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The French Catholic church, Our Lady of Lourdes

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Wheeling past

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Dame in red brick

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Asiatic Petroleum building, occupied for a time by the German Consulate

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Yokohama Specie Bank, later Citibank, a coffee shop and now an art gallery

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Humble abode

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The Anglican sanctuary

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East and West

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Along water’s edge

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Is it as intact as it appears from your pictures, James? Except for the rude awakening of the modern vehicles in the last shot, it seems like a slice of the past, all spruced up ready for them to call “Action”. Wonderful. 🙂

    May 21, 2013
    • It is, Meredith – and strangely bereft of the crowds I had come to expect in China. Apart from Bama and I there were just two or three other visitors on the entire island! Plus the fact that it is a living, breathing neighbourhood… not quite the expats’ haven of old but still charming nonetheless. 🙂

      May 21, 2013
      • Could you have stayed there, James?

        May 21, 2013
      • Absolutely, Meredith! There are a handful of hotels there, including the famous White Swan. It was undergoing a full-scale renovation though – and would have been far out of our budget – so we picked a smaller place just off the central boulevard.

        May 22, 2013
      • I guess it won’t be long then before it’s on the ‘trail’ and will be full of tourists and day-trippers! Being contained on its little island, and all spruced up like that, it’s a living museum in a way. Fascinating.

        May 22, 2013
  2. When I came to Shamian Island after that long metro ride, I was quite surprised with what I saw. It didn’t feel like we’re in China at all due to the tranquility of this place. Strolling around the neighborhood, despite the rain, was really nice too. I’m glad you took me to this quiet and beautiful part of Guangzhou James!

    May 21, 2013
    • You’re welcome Bama, it was such a memorable way to wind down a challenging trip. I visited Shamian back in 2003 and fell in love with the place – so I knew I just had to take you there! It hasn’t changed much since then, apart from the presence of a few cafes and art galleries, and some fresh coats of paint. I’m glad you got to experience another side of the city. 🙂

      May 21, 2013
  3. This place looks so cool, James! I wish I had known about it when I went to Guangzhou!

    May 22, 2013
    • Surprisingly, it’s managed to remain off the radar for most – even domestic tourists! Fingers crossed it will stay that way for at least the next few years…

      May 23, 2013
  4. Very interesting. I’m sure young folks might consider the area “boring” since it’s sort of in between not-so-old (19th century) and modern. Thanks for highlighting this gem.

    May 26, 2013
    • Thanks in turn for the comment, Jean. That’s a possibility, but then again Shamian is a wonderful place for a romantic stroll or a slow cup of coffee… so it has a definite appeal for young couples and those with an artistic/bohemian bent.

      May 27, 2013
  5. How amazingly well preserved! You half expect those bronze figures to come to life and start walking those streets! The ‘East and West’ shot brings you back 😉 Thanks for a very evocative post James.

    May 26, 2013
    • My pleasure, Madhu! You’re right – this is one area that has so far remained untouched by China’s relentless development. I guess a lot of it is down to the municipal authorities; even in the 1980s they had the foresight to declare the island a conservation area. 🙂

      May 26, 2013

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