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Notes on the Geography of China: Shantou (Swatow)

How many countries have cities of five million people that foreigners have never of? Certainly China tops the list, and close to the top of its list is Shantou, 250 miles up the coast from Hong Kong. (If you really like driving, it's about 800 south of Shanghai.) The city in 2012 opened another of China's instant airports; it's an hour inland, near Jeiyang.

Tourists take a pass on the city, perhaps because guidebooks are harsh on the place. One says that Shantou shows "all the signs of an SEZ [special economic zone] damp squib, with little to recommend it." But there are two Shantous, the modern city and an old, rotting core, left over from the days when this was the treaty port known as Swatow. The tender mercies of the architectural restoration gang have not yet arrived here, so the place rivals Rangoon for sheer decrepitude. Which makes it interesting.

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A 1930s British Naval Intelligence handbook on China states that in the 18th century the East India Company had a station on Namao Island outside Shantou's harbour. The handbook continues: "Swatow (or Shantou) was little more than a fishing village on a mud-flat. The port was opened to trade in 1860 by the Treaty of Tientsin (1858), and in 1862 a grant of land was made to Great Britain about a mile outside Swatow, but the projected settlement fell thorough owing to the hostility of the populace. Foreign residences and offices were established, however, at Kakchio [in the distance here], and before 1870 foreigners were freely living and trading in Swatow itself [behind the camera]. Kakchio, an island with granite hills separated from the mainland to the west by Tathoupo (Tatapu) Creek, is still the chief place of residence for foreigners."

The handbook goes on to state that in 1936 the Shantou port cleared 6.6 million tons of freight, 40 percent of it domestic. That wasn't counting the freight handled by some 15,000 junks. The port's total trade was valued at $146 million, of which two-thirds was domestic. That made it the second biggest port in South China, after Canton. Shantou's chief export to the United States was embroidery, for which Shantou was famous. (Almost all the silk handkerchiefs sold in the U.S. came from here.) Shantou was also a major port for emigrants heading to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

The Japanese army arrived in June, 1939. One of the foreigners caught up in the action was Alice Wood, whose father was a port pilot in Shantou. Alice fell in love with a young American naval officer whose ship cruised these waters, and he managed to get her out, despite some tight moments. He was John Bulkeley, who later married her. He went on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor and rise to the rank of Vice Admiral. Alice's story is recounted in Twelve Handkerchiefs: The Global Journey of Alice Wood Bulkeley..., by Joan Bulkeley Stade.

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There are still a few junks around, but China waits for no antiquarian. Here's the new Queshi Bridge, first leg of the drive to Hong Kong. The Chinese love these cable-stayed bridges. The active port today, a modern container operation, is a few miles to the left of this picture.

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Waterfront apartments with a promenade line the corniche. The same site was hit by a typhoon on 2 August 1922. It wiped out the commercial district and took 50,000 lives.

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There are precious few foreigners, but they're not hopelessly lost.

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Still along the waterfront: People's Square Park and the Xinhaigang shopping mall.

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Haibin Road. Looks a lot like Singapore.

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Betcha this tower was finished before this picture hit the internet.

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The waterfront curves inland here, and the road parallels it by turning toward the old Treaty Port town.

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We're on the edge of it and in the domain of Mao-era housing. That's the Wufu Tea House across the street.

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A street-side temple. It might just offer consolation to sailors and their families.

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The entrance to the Golden Trade Enterprises Corporation.

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What do they make? See for yourself.

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It's a mixed-use neighborhood.

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What do you make of it? Waste materials en route to recycling?

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Here comes the Queshi Bridge, under whose shelter orange trees await buyers for whom the trees are an auspicious symbol at the Chinese New Year.

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Also close to the bridge approach: fishermen. Their fishing stakes or poles used to be a considerable navigation hazard at night.

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Here she comes, right down into Anping Road. Watch the housing change between here and the next picture.

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Bang: we're finally at the Treaty Port town. The buildings are unusual in one particular respect: despite the plaster ornamentation, the skeletons are of concrete. Why? I cannot say.

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Who was it who imposed this style? I don't know, but it blends classical elements with distinctly Asian ones.

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Shall we call it Crushed Ionic?

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I said that this neighborhood was decrepit; here's an example, with storefronts blocked up, windows missing, and rooftop gardens growing of their own volition.

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Occasionally, someone tries a renovation.

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Side street.

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Hard to say.

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Maybe not.

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Curved facades are common.

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Presumably, this was a shophouse with pretensions, but is there a written record, a retrievable history?

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Here's that oculus.

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Another example.

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House proud.

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Here's the entrance.

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Curiouser and curiouser. What is it? Tess Johnston in The Last Colonies: Western Architecture in China's Southern Treaty Ports, 1997, suggests that it might have been an entertainment center. What would that be?

Here's Joseph von Sternberg's description. The film director, who had worked in Shanghai and Macao: "The establishment had six floors to provide distraction for the milling crowd, six floors that seethed with life and all the commotion and noise that go with it studded with every variety of entertainment Chinese ingenuity had contrived. On the first floor were gambling tables, sing-song girls, magicians, pick-pockets, slot machines, fireworks, bird cages, fans, stick incense, acrobats and ginger. One flight up were the restaurants, a dozen different groups of actors, crickets in cages, pimps, mid-wives, barbers and earwax extractors. The third floor had jugglers, herb medicines, ice cream parlours, photographers, a new bevy of girls their high-collared gowns slit to reveal their hips, in case one had passed up the more modest ones below who merely flashed their thighs.

"The fourth floor was crowded with shooting galleries, fantan tables, massage benches...the fifth floor featured girls whose dresses were slit to the armpits, a stuffed whale, story tellers, balloons, peep shows, a mirror maze, two love-letter booths with scribes who guaranteed results, 'rubber goods' and a temple filled with ferocious gods and joss sticks. On the top floor and roof of that house of multiple joys a jumble of tight-rope walkers slithered back and forth, and there were seesaws, lottery tickets, and marriage brokers.

"And as I tried to find my way down again an open space was pointed out to me where hundreds of Chinese, so I was told, after spending their last coppers, had speeded the return to the street below by jumping from the roof..." (Fun In A Chinese Laundry, p. 83).

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Perhaps that's what it was, but the sign suggests that it was a much more prosaic department store. Of course, that could have been a later incarnation. Anyway, now it's empty.

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Another commercial building, this one the Nansheng Trading Corporation.

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Any Western architecture in the neighborhood? Yes, including this, but there were others before the 1922 typhoon that washed away the offices of Butterfield & Swire, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and other famous companies.

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Could this be the old Swatow hotel? It's at the east end of Yongping Road, not far from the post office.

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The facade.

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The tiptop, with a pediment date of 1936.

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Corroborating evidence: next door is a building with a faded second-floor sign: "High Class Tailor," the last word almost obliterated.

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Up top: "Long Live Chairman Mao." Why the Gothic windows?

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The same building, offering accommodation to sailors.

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A rare bird: a freestanding villa, more or less surrounded by apartment buildings.

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We'll take a quick walk through the modern city, beginning with the Catholic cathedral, completed in 1999. The proportions are bizarre, but less so than the politics of the place, which has two bishops, one approved by the Vatican and the other ordained in 2011 by the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

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The engines of progress.

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A higher version.

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Who says the Chinese don't respect foreign trademarks?

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Barcelona East? Gaudi of Guangzhou?

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Hungry? Try the Nanguo Mall.

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The parking lot out back.

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Can't resist.

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Main entrance.

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Shopping for New Year's sweets.

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Tonight's dinner.

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Business is good.

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