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Notes on the Geography of China: Guangzhou: Shamian

Shamian (sometimes in the past spelled Shameen) is the former European enclave of Canton. It is a tiny artificial island no more than five gridded blocks along its greater axis and two along its lesser. About three quarters of the island once formed a British concession, but the eastern end--two blocks plus a riverside park--constituted a French concession. Each concession had its own bridge to the mainland, and each concession had its own Bund, or waterside promenade. The exclusionary rules are long gone, but the island is doing very well for itself as a tourist attraction.

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China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 1

We're on the river side of the island and looking across the island, which ends with the trees. Four buildings face the corner in the center of the picture. Asiatic Petroleum (a marketing company created in 1903 by Shell and Royal Dutch) is at the lower left of that corner. The greenish building across the street was the Yokohama Specie Bank. The building with the umbrella was HSBC; the fourth corner was occupied by Anderson, Mysner, an American firm.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 2

Here's the stream separating the island from the rest of the city. The embankment dates from 1859. Here's an early description, from An Official Guide to Eastern Asia (1915), published by the Imperial Japanese Government Railways. "Sha-meen, a low sandy island close to the city, was set apart as a foreign settlement quarter in 1859, and the British and French spent $320,000 (silver) in filling up the shoals around and making the place habitable. Sha-meen covers 44 acres (of which 4/5 belong to the British and 1/5 to the French); it is separated from the city by a narrow channel, which is bridged over at two places, one connecting it with Nam-kwan and the other with Sai-kwan. Towards the S. and S.E. Sha-meen faces the main current of the river and the two towns of Ho-nam and Wa-ti. The two bridges are closed after 10 o'clock at night as a precaution against the the entrance of thieves or rowdies. At the bund of Sha-meen no Chinese boats are allowed to moor. Sha-meen, with foreign consulates, banks, post-offices, trading firms, and hotels constitutes a distinct community by itself, while the river bank, shaded by luxuriant banyan-trees, affords a delightful walk, the like of which is found nowhere else in Canton." (v. 4, p. 344)

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 3

Here's the British Bridge, built in 1861. Four decades later, the Reverend John Macgowan came by. He wrote of Shamian, "A narrow creek separates it fom the mainland, but not sufficiently to preserve it from all the offensive odours which seem to form part of Chinese national life. Small boats crowd this creek, for they have greater protection here from wind and tide.... Beyond Shameen there is very little worth seeing in connection with the foreign residents at this port... no magnificent buildings or beautifully laid-out roads and drives" (Pictures of Southern China 1897, pp. 296 and 300).

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 4

Macgowan: "The most conspicuous feature, from a foreign point of view, about Canton is the small island of Shameen, which has been granted to the English as a concession on which they can build houses and reside without any interference from the native population that lives in such close proximity. It is delightfully situated on the river, and is not only very picturesque in appearance but admirably placed so that the breezes that blow up the stream shall refresh the people who live on it in the dreary, sultry weather of the hot summer months. Having it entirely under their own control, the residents have made roads and planted trees, and made it look as much like a piece of England as they possibly could" (pp. 295-6).

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 5

Steps up from the Embankment. With heavy gates shut at night on the bridges, and with guards stationed there during the day to allow no Chinese to enter unless carrying a pass, Europeans felt safe on Shamian. Carl Crow wrote, "Zest rather than danger is added to residence there [on Shamian] by reason of the occasional disturbances in Canton" (The Traveler's Handbook of China, 1915, p. 369).

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 6

Perhaps we should take refuge here in Christ Church. What was it like for the minister's wife? We have a fair idea, thanks to Mrs. John Henry Gray, who was in fact the minister's wife. In Fourteen Months in Canton (1880), she describes her first glimpse of the island:

"I thought Shameen looked very pretty as we passed along it, and I was surprised, when we pulled up before the Chaplaincy, to see what a charming, comfortable house it seemed to be. When I entered it I was still better pleased, as the house is so well arranged. I will give you a description of my new home. It is in the Italian style of architecture, built in two stories, with two deep verandahs at the back of the house, looking upon the river.... From the verandah you step on to a narrow piece of grass which separates us from the bund or walk on the river wall.... The church, our house, and the wall which surrounds them, are painted a stone color in two shades. I like our part of Shameen much. It is at the extreme end of the small island, and is all to ourselves" (pp. 4-5).

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 7

The house is gone but possibly stood on the site now occupied by the American consulate. By summer, in any event, Mrs. Gray was not so happy: "The weather is warm and settled now. The heat of the room has been something unendurable. I do not know if we have had an unusually rainy season, but the effect of the damp was very disagreeable. If you put a pair of boots you had taken off in the corner of the bedroom, when you looked at them again in two or three days' time, you found a thick coating of mildew over them." (p.108)

Humidity wasn't the worst of it. In April, 1878, she wrote about a typhoon. "I was attracted toward the window by a curious rushing sound, and on looking out I saw a great cloud of what appeared to be fragments and debris being driver madly up the river.... the wind was upon us, and the banyan trees in front of our house were literally bent to the ground by its force.... The full force of the whirlwind came upon the front of our house, and so terrific was it for a few seconds, that it took away our breath, and it seemed impossible that any masonry could withstand the shock" (pp. 396-7).

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 8

A number of old private residences do survive. Here's one, facing the channel.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 9

Next door are the former offices of The British Company.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 10

The old Hongkong Dairy Farm Ice and Cold Storage Company.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 11

The street names in the colonial period couldn't have been simpler: in addition to Canal Street, where we've just looked around, there was Central Avenue--a tree-lined boulevard, shown here--and there was Front Avenue, now built up though originally lined on the river side by parks. Come to think of it, they could have been simpler and now are: they've been renamed Shamian North Road, Shamian Main Street, and Shamian South Road.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 12

We're returned to the central corner seen earlier from above. Here's Asiatic Petroleum, from 1906; it later housed the German consulate.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 13

Across the street, Citibank now occupies most of the building of the Yokohama Specie Bank.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 14

The Yokohama Specie Bank building of 1893, later the Japanese and U.S. consulates.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 15

At the third corner of the intersection, the former offices of HSBC.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 16

Lots of windows to catch some breeze: this is Pallonjee House, former HSBC staff quarters. The name Pallonjee is Parsee--Parsees had been early buyers of Shamian lots, which were first auctioned in 1861--and comes from Cowasjee Pallonjee & Company. It failed shortly after 1920, when HSBC moved in.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 17

At the fourth corner, the former offices of the American firm, Anderson, Mysner and Co.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 18

Also on Central Avenue, the former Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 19

Close by, this building from 1865 is still serving as the west wing of the British Consulate.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 20

A two-minute walk from the embassy is Our Lady of Lourdes, completed at the French end of the island in 1892.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 21

Services are still held.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 22

Hiding behind the foliage next door is a major building.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 23

It's the Imperial Maritime Customs Building, from 1907.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 24

Nearby, the one-time home of Indian nationals.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 25

Also at the French end of the island is this building from 1899; it's one of several occupied over the years by the Banque de l'Indo-Chine.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 26

The French naval and post offices.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 27

Vaucher & Co., a trading company.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 28

The China and France Industry Bank, from 1912; for a time, it held the Japanese Consulate.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 29

Door of the same building.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 30

The home in 1862 of Sassoon Sons and Co; it later housed the Société des Missions Etrangères, as well as the Portuguese consulate.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 31

D. Sassoon and Swire Co, 1870.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 32

Butterfield and Swire, 1881.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 33

Residence of the associate general inspector of the China salt trade, who was an officer of the Guangdong and Guangsi Salt Trade Bureau, China Treasury Department. The building has suffered many additions.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 34

Perhaps there're more evident from this angle.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 35

Tourists need coffee, as well as air conditioning. Here they have both, in the old Yokohama Specie Bank building. It's a different world from the one Harold Acton saw in the 1930s. He wrote, "I stayed in an old-fashioned hotel on the Shameen, a small island separated from Canton by a narrow creek, surrounded by barbed wire in case of anti-foreign riots. The intense humidity aggravated the heat, which I counteracted by carrying small towels about with me. Moss and mosquitoes thrived. Cigarettes, matches, book-bindings--everything was sodden. (Harold Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948, p. 295)

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 36

Acton had few kind words for his compatriots: "The small European community seldom stirred from the Shameen; and I remember being profoundly depressed by the sight of two stout middle-aged Westerners of the commercial traveller type. They were sitting in their shirt-sleeves on the hotel veranda, electric fan and ubiquitous whisky-bottle before them. Neither spoke, and I could not help wondering at the sheer hangdog misery of their expressions, for the immediate environment, a river crammed with the strangest multi-formity of water-traffic, was far from dull. And I had a simultaneous vision of thousands of bored individuals on verandas, sipping and cursing inwardly, mocked by the brilliant sunlight. And all of them began to chant in weary unison: 'Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.' Not one was out of tune. I met only one European who preferred Canton to anywhere else in the world, Dr. Otto, who ran a German hospital on an island. He had been adopted by a Cantonese official in gratitude for saving the life of his son and heir." (Acton, p. 295)

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 37

Bank becomes a hangout: this was another building of the Banque de l'Indo-Chine.

China: Guangzhou: Shamian picture 38

What's "romantic" about it?

For further reading, see Chapter 11, "A European Refuge," in Valery M. Garrett, Heaven is High, the Emperor Far Away (2002).

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