Tied to opium trade
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
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
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
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.
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
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.