The ancient port of Huangpu, a walk in Guangzhou’s past

Tied to opium trade

Huangpu, Guangzhou, Guangdong

Door to an ancient communal ancestral hall in Huangpu, Guangdong.

Huangpu (黄埔), pronounced Whampoa in Cantonese, a small village on the eastern edge of Pazhou island (琶洲岛) was the seaport of Guangzhou since the Song dynasty. Between 1757 and 1842, it was the only Chinese port open to foreign trade.

Ironically, it is during that period that quantities of opium transiting through Huangpu surged. In spite of imperial edicts banning the commerce of the drug,  Huangpu became the center of opium smuggling.

Customs Commissioners of Guangdong province were just to happy to publicly condemn the opium contraband, but privately benefit financially from this illegal trade.

Huangpu and the Silk Road

An abandoned ancestral hall.

An abandoned ancestral hall.

With so much opium contraband entering China through Huangpu, tensions rose between the ‘gweilos‘ (or 鬼佬 – a derogatory Cantonese term referring to foreigner) and imperial rulers which eventually led to the Opium Wars and forced open more Chinese seaports to foreign trade.

Before being a centre of opium smuggling, Huangpu was the departure point of the maritime Silk Road. This alternative maritime route replaced the inland route that was sometimes closed by the rulers of kingdoms founded on the margins of China’s borders.

Silk, porcelain, spices and other goods found their way to the West via the straits of Malacca, India and the Middle-East. Huangpu contributed to shaping Guangzhou as a business city. The Pazhou exhibition center which hosts the Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in Asia, was built a few miles near Huangpu.

Witness of the past

Lingnan style roofs in Huangpu

Lingnan style roofs in Huangpu

Huangpu is no longer an important seaport. Nothing remains of its past except two museums which explain the importance of Huangpu for Chinese trade. The history museum in the heart of the ancient village of Huangpu does not mention opium and emphasises on how this village on the Pearl River was at the convergence of East and West.

Bearing Huangpu’s past in mind, I enjoy sauntering in the network of narrow streets and alleys that crisscross the village. They are lined with a dozen of ancestral hall (祠堂) and temples, or ancient schools and official buildings all built in the local Lingnan (岭南) architectural style which, according to local history, originates from the nearby village of Shawan (沙湾)

Pak Tai Temple

Huangpu, Guangzhou, Guangdong

At the entrance of the village, the Pak Tai Temple (北帝庙), also called Yuxu Palace (玉虚宫), is one of Huangpu’s liveliest place in the village. There are always large sticks of incense burning in the incense burner that faces the temple.
In the afternoon, retired men play Chinese chess or card. Inside, the incense smoke permeates the atmosphere which gives the temple a mystic aura.

Ancestral halls

The Chen clan ancestral hall under a rare blue sky.

The Hu clan ancestral hall under a rare blue sky.

Most of the historical buildings and the main attraction of Huangpu are ancestral halls, also called lineage temples. In Huangpu, we can find two types :  the citang (祠堂) and the gongci (公祠).

The citang (祠堂) are dedicated to the ancestor of one family clan only. For example, the Hu Clan Ancestor Lineage Temple (photo below) was built by members of the Hu clan to honor and worship their ancestor. The richer the family was, the bigger was the citang.

The gongci (公祠), were communal ancestral hall. It means that two or more family clan built one lineage temple together. The ancestors of each clan were worshiped in different parts of the same hall.

Most of them are relatively well-preserved, but there is no worshiping the ancestor in these ancestral hall anymore. The Hu Clan lineage temple is now the headquarters of the Cantonese Overseas Chinese Association, while the communal temple of the Lu, Xian and Liang Clan is not open to the public. Some have been transformed into museums or art gallery / gift shops. There is even one that is home to the local police station.

A few other of these ancestral hall have been abandoned and are falling in ruins.

A place to unwind

Huangpu, Guangzhou, Guangdong

With its history and local architecture, Huangpu is a sleepy village that attracts crowds of Chinese tourists during the summer and holiday season. It does also attract urbanites desperate to take a break from the overcrowded city.

For travellers in Guangzhou, Huangpu is an alternative to going to the ancient town of Shawan (沙湾). Unlike Shawan, Huangpu is free and is still and off-the-radar place just a few kilometers from Zhujiang New Town.

How to get there

The old seaport of Huangpu (黄埔古港) is located in Haizhu district (海珠区) near the Xinzhou interchange (新洲立交桥) on Xingang East Road (新港东路). You can take a taxi or public transportation.

Public transportation : get off at Wanshengwei (万胜围), the interchange of line 4 and 8. Take exit B, turn right and go to the bus stop. Take bus #564 or #762. Their final stop is the entrance of the village.

Huangpu, Guangzhou, Guangdong

There are 7 comments

  1. Steve Griffith

    Nice way to get here is to take the tram that starts by the Guangzhou Tower which has its own metro station. Take the tram to the end of the line and you can either walk or take a bus a couple of stops . I thought Huangpu was about the right balance between a historic place and one ordinary people live in. Some reconstruction but tastefully done so it can be done rest of China take note . I got into an interesting conversation with some artists about the destruction of much of old Guangzhou. They recommended a water town to the west of Guangzhou called Feng something or other . Might be worth exploring

  2. Nmfon Natrakul

    Thank you so much for the post. My grandfather was born in Guangzhou, but migrated to SE Asia as a small child when his parents and many other family members who worked under Qing dynasty fled after Sun Yat Sen rose to power. None of our relatives remained in China and my grandpa never visited the country before he passed away. My mom and I thought about visiting Guangzhou many times, but a business megapolis holds no appeal to us. We never knew that there are other sides of Guangzhou or that there are traditional villages nearby. Thanks to all your posts on the city (I’m still trying to download your guide on my PC, since I do not own an iphone. Not sure if it’s possible.) I am now planning a trip with my mom to Guangzhou. Who of the deserted ancestral halls in Huangpu might turn out to be our family’s.

    1. Gaetan

      Hi! It’s always good to hear that my blog posts are useful to my readers! Thank you for your comment.
      Well, it’s true … Guangzhou is not a very attractive metropolis, but, when scratching the surface, you may find interesting places like Huangpu.
      I have written posts about two other places from which locals migrated to the US, Canada and Australia. They are both outside Guangzhou : Kaiping and Licha.
      Unfortunately, the Create Trips Guide are only available on iPhone … 😦

    1. Gaetan

      Are you talking about the ‘黄埔军校故址’ ? I did not find it in the village itself. The Huangpu military academy is not located in the village of Huangpu, but on the next island. Or my Baidu map is lying! It seems there is a ferry to get there from Yuzhu, but I have never been to the Huangpu military academy. Looks like a place to go though. Have you been there?

      1. renlingshuiyue

        Yes, which is listed under a hilarious old spelling of Whampoa (sounds like it’s between a vacuum or a bad joke ) on most historical documents/listings online. It was a surprise to me too when I found out this famous/or “legendary” military school was actually located in Changzhou island and no in Huangpu itself. But geographical namings are political just as everything else in China, so I digress.

        Sadly, I was not able to make it there before they turned it into a tourist attraction with brand new buildings. When I passed by last time and was asked if I wanted to go, I declined after some internal debate. Some officials was quoted in saying stuff like “It will be similar to a visit to the West Point!”.

        Historically, the place is very interesting to me, but the potential politics involved isn’t. Some the of recent Sun Yat Sen revival tourism boost by the part just feels like an attempt to sway KMT voters. And, the last thing I need is my picture (with or without somebody) in that location shows up on weibo claiming I am something or another if I handle anything sensitive.

        Cheers. 🙂

      2. Gaetan

        Isn’t “Whampoa” the Cantonese transliteration ? I have been in Guangzhou for so long and still clueless about the local language. I had heard about the “Red tourism” but it’s the first time I hear about Sun Yat Sen revival tourism boost. Interesting. Reminds me that I drove by the Sun Yat Sen mansion or home town and there were busloads of people.
        Anyway, as a ‘laowai’ I don’t need to care too much about these politically loaded tourist attractions.
        Cheers to you.

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