Shamian Island (沙面岛) always stands high on the bucket-list of Guangzhou-bound travellers. Located in the southwest of the city’s Liwan urban district, Shamian originally means ‘sand flats’. With wide avenues lined with trees and colonial architecture that dates back to the 19th century and early 20th century, Shamian is a haven of peace and undoubtedly the most well-preserved historical settlement in Guangzhou.
When sauntering in the streets of Shamian, visitors will notice inscriptions found at the base of some building. They remind us that this island owes its existence to foreigners and is irremediably linked to trade. In this article, we explore the historical circumstances that allowed for the creation of a foreign enclave in Guangzhou from the mid-19th century.
A story of trade and opium
Guangzhou is the oldest city in China. Other first-tiers cities and prime travel destinations like Beijing and Shanghai cannot compete with the 2500-year long history of Guangzhou. Departure point of the Maritime Silk Road as early as the Han dynasty (around 2000 years ago), Guangzhou was shaped by trade. Even during the period of isolationism, during the Ming dynasty and later under the Mao era, Guangzhou was the only enclave open to trade with the rest of the world.
From the 7th century, merchants from the Middle-East arrived in the city, followed in the 16th century by the Portuguese who leased the Macao Peninsula from the Chinese authorities. Things got complicated when British, French and other ‘western Barbarians’, as the Chinese ruler called them, wanted to trade with China.
During the 17th century, China was the main supplier of tea which was sold throughout the Himalayan Kingdoms via the Tea and Horse Road and the Maritime Silk Route which started in Guangzhou. Great Britain also became the main importer of Chinese teas.
Throughout the 18th century, the Qing emperors maintained a tight control on foreign trade : all goods bought by foreigners had to be paid in silver. With Great Britain getting hooked on tea and addicted to Chinese silks, porcelain and ceramics, the English silver supply decreased dramatically. In order to balance their silver supply, Britons started to export opium from their colonies in India to China, where they sold it for silver which, in turn, they used to purchase tea. This was in the 18th century.
Opium addiction plagued China and Huangpu (黄埔) became the gateway for English opium. This contributed to Chinese authorities taking drastic measures to eliminate illegal smuggling of opium into its territory which eventually led to the Opium Wars of 1839-1841 and 1858-1860. With China unequipped to fight against the modern weaponry of the Westerners, the Qing government was compelled to signed treaties which ceded Hong Kong and Shamian Island to the foreigners in 1842 and 1859 respectively.
British and French turned Shamian Island into a foreign concession and gave it the look it has now.
With the ongoing urbanization of the city and compared to other old neighborhoods of Guangzhou like Xiguan, Shamian is intact and the layout of the streets have been preserved. There are three wide avenues that run West to East crosses by five perpendicular streets that run North to South.
With numerous restaurants where one can try Cantonese, Chinese or Asian food, a few souvenirs stores that sell trinkets to tourists, tea houses and coffee shops where one can enjoy the laid-back atmosphere in the shade of large banyan trees, and the famous White Swan Hotel, one of the city’s first 5-star hotel which underwent through renovation and re-opened in 2015, Shamian is not only a de facto touristy place. Indeed, some of the historical buildings of Shamian are now residential compounds while others have been privatized by the local government.
While exploring the tiny islands, visitors will see couples in wedding dress followed by a small army of professional photographers and stylists who take advantage of the exotic architectural setting for their wedding photo shoot, local residents accompanying their children to school, as well as urban dwellers or expat who come to Shamian to escape the busy concrete madness of Guangzhou.
How to get there
Subway line 3 to Huangsha Station (黄沙站). Shamian Island is across the pedestrian bridge. Check my article about Guangzhou Subway.