A stroll through old Can­ton’s his­toric quar­ters re­veals cul­tural di­ver­sity and dis­tinc­tive ar­chi­tec­ture

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE - By Jason Wordie

Usu­ally over­looked by visi­tors to China, his­toric, mul­ti­lay­ered Guangzhou of­fers far more history and cul­tural in­ter­est than its glossy mod­ern busi­ness cen­ter would sug­gest. Known for cen­turies as Can­ton, its ties to early global trade go back to Ro­man times.

China’s Latin name – Ser­ica – is the same word for silk and that, in turn, de­rives from An­cient Chi­nese. No sur­prise there – most of this pre­cious ma­te­rial reached the wider world via Can­ton. Trade links to Arab realms from the 7th cen­tury AD on­ward of­fer mod­ern echoes; Guangzhou has one of the world’s old­est mosques, and the city re­mains a ma­jor hub be­tween China and the Mid­dle East.

Com­mer­cial re­la­tion­ships with the West started in the 17th cen­tury. From the 1760s un­til 1842, Can­ton was the only port in China open to mar­itime trade. By the early 19th cen­tury, this mo­nop­oly po­si­tion had made it one of the world’s wealth­i­est cities.

In­de­pen­dent-minded, vi­sion­ary may­ors and pro­vin­cial gover­nors shaped con­tem­po­rary Can­ton in the late 1920s and 1930s; ex­ten­sive in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment from the 1980s fur­ther trans­formed the city. But as Guangzhou’s new ur­ban cen­ter was de­lib­er­ately lo­cated some dis­tance away, Can­ton’s his­toric core re­mains largely in­tact. Even bet­ter, imag­i­na­tive restora­tion and con­ser­va­tion projects are go­ing on all over the city.


Most visi­tors, alas, only see Guangzhou’s hec­tic mod­ern face. But for those with time to ven­ture far­ther, the tiny is­land of Shameen (Shamian), right on the Pearl River, is an on­go­ing con­trast to the rest of the city. Orig­i­nally a sand­bar, (from which it de­rives its Chi­nese name), Shameen be­came an An­glo-French ad­min­is­tered Con­ces­sion in 1860. Build­ings mostly date from that pe­riod un­til the early 1950s.

Un­til 1938, no ve­hi­cles were al­lowed on the is­land; only sedan chairs, rick­shaws and foot trav­el­ers were per­mit­ted. Shameen’s pedes­tri­an­ized fla­vor con­tin­ues, with cen­tury-old banyan and cam­phor trees and an at­trac­tive, flower-filled cen­tral park area. Wed­ding cou­ples regularly use the is­land, and its two his­toric churches – one French, the other English – as at­mo­spheric pho­to­graph back­drops.

For­eign-owned build­ings were pro­gres­sively na­tion­al­ized through­out the early 1950s; state own­er­ship, in turn, helped en­sure their long-term con­ser­va­tion. New ten­ants had no in­cen­tive to de­mol­ish or mod­ern­ize – and could not do so any­way.

Now a na­tional his­toric site, strict her­itage pro­to­cols are ap­plied in Shameen. Cre­ative adap­ta­tion of her­itage build­ings is on­go­ing; an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple is the for­mer Chi­nese Mar­itime Cus­toms Com­mis­sioner’s res­i­dence.

Built in 1907, this red-brick man­sion has been turned into a small bou­tique ho­tel. Known as Shamian Club­house, many orig­i­nal dec­o­ra­tive fea­tures, such as English floor tiles and or­nate fire­places, have been care­fully in­cor­po­rated.

At night, Shameen’s her­itage build­ings are il­lu­mi­nated, and open-air bars near the river­front of­fer re­lax­ing venues to en­joy the pass­ing pedes­trian scene.

Built around the Pearl River, one of China’s ma­jor in­land wa­ter­ways, river­front prom­e­nades abound all over Can­ton. Tree­shaded, ex­ten­sive wa­ter­front ram­bles are an en­joy­able as­pect of the city that most con­tem­po­rary visi­tors never ex­pe­ri­ence.

Ad­ja­cent to Shameen, the Can­ton Bund is the clos­est venue for a scenic stroll. From Shameen walk a half-mile or so down to the orig­i­nal, iron can­tilevered Pearl River Bridge opened in 1933, to en­joy the full range of ar­chi­tec­tural in­ter­est.

Bund-front build­ings mostly date from the first three decades of the 20th cen­tury. These in­clude the old Post Of­fice, the Cus­toms House with a clock tower brightly il­lu­mi­nated at night, and the city’s first high-rise build­ing, the Oi Kwan Ho­tel.

Still in op­er­a­tion as a ho­tel, it boasts strik­ingly orig­i­nal Art Deco fea­tures on the façade. Can­ton’s in­ter­war as­pi­ra­tion – to ri­val Shang­hai in river­front grandeur – re­mains ev­i­dent here. Room rates start at ¥330- ¥550 ($52-$86) a night.

A stroll through an­cient Can­ton’s old quar­ters re­veals a rich cul­tural di­ver­sity and dis­tinc­tive ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Clock­wise from top left: Western style build­ing of the 19th Cen­tury-Shamian Is­land; Our Lady of Lour­des French church on Shameen; the banks of the Pearl River; the Ro­man Catholic Sa­cred Heart Cathe­dral and Sun Yat Sen Me­mo­rial Hall Metro sta­tion Huang­sha Shamian Club­house Cus­toms House Old Post Of­fice Build­ings Oi Kwan Ho­tel Guangzhou’s Catholic Cathe­dral Pearl River Bridge

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