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The Continental style of Shamian Street

By Sophy Jiang

In Guangzhou, there is a street that lies along the river with ferries shuttling passengers back and forth. Streets here are framed by old banyan trees with aerial roots, creating a somewhat mystical appearance.  The boulevard displays marvelous ancient western style buildings, towering churches, and possesses numerous vivid copper sculptures in a dignified consulate.  The streets are filled with stores selling Chinese paintings, western style paintings, and cloisonné.  There is also chi-pao, Chinese-style costumes and dresses; tea houses, Starbucks, and Lan Kwai Fong.  The Island integrates Chinese and Western motifs as it combines old and new in thousands of ways and styles. This fairyland is Shamian Street, a romantic escape within southern Guangzhou.  It was once a settlement of only British and French citizens.

Shamian is now totally different from the past and has more than 50 historical and culture relic sites.  Many buildings have the British Romantic architectural style of the 19th century with red brick and three stories with an oval attic.  There is the former Hong Kong Bank, with four stories and pillars on the outside wall and was built in a classical western renewal style.  Each one has a name card carved in the corner with a sentence both in Chinese and English.

History of the Island

Shamian Island, Guangzhou, ChinaShamian Street is one of the earliest foreign settlements, located on the bank of White Swan Pool, near the junction of Pearl River.  As one traces the history of Shamian Street, it is not a lengthy story, but it is a troubled one.  It came about as a result of the second Opium War, which many consider the most wretched time in China’s history.  During this time, the British and French invaded China and when they needed a place they forced the government of Qing Dynasty to give Shamian Street to them and created a settlement there.  They separated Shamian Street from the rest of the city by digging a man-made river.  They did this by reclaiming the land from the river and sea to make an island.  On this island, they built government consulates, foreign firms, hospitals, schools, bars, cinemas, and ball courts, and made everything as they preferred to have it. In September, 1861, Lao Chongguang- the governor of Guangdong and Guangxi, signed the Lease Agreement of Shamian Island with the British consul Henry Burks.  Britain took control of 44 acres of the island and France took over 11 acres.  From then on, Shamian was under the control of foreign powers for more than 80 years.     

Shamian Island had been relatively unknown for a number of years.  One day this island grabbed the attention of Henry Fok, a businessman from Hong Kong, who had a deep love of his motherland.  He decided to create the first five star hotel in the area, the White Swan Hotel, and make it into a 28-story luxurious hotel rising straight from the ground.  Thanks to the accomplished designers, they put a traditional Lingnan Garden landscape and waterfall on the third floor of the hotel, with rocks and a pavilion around it.  The waterfall is named “Hometown Water” which falls down and merges with the Pearl River at the front door of the hotel.  It is said that on the day the hotel began the business, there were thousands of people which came to see it. The White Swan Hotel also serves as a symbolic example of a mark “made in China” since the hotel was designed, built, and is managed all by Chinese, under the leadership of Henry Fok.  The hotel quickly became known both in China and abroad; it currently ranks as one of the world’s

Shamian Island’s fortune became evident from the flow of heavy traffic in front of White Swan, as luxury cars pulled up and delivered foreigners in formal wear.  Many older folks can still recall how President Nixon showed his skill at the piano; how the advance security advance team of President Bush Senior covered the street and the hotel; how the Queen of Britain’s blue Rolls–Royce motorcade took over the street.  There are also stories of how hotel staff members had to make a special bed for the former German Chancellor or the memorable moments when Bill Gates’ helicopter floated down from the sky to land for check-in. The street was soon occupied by foreign consulates, foreign institutions and various international businesses which  

In the 1990s a peculiar sight became common in the street infront of the American Consulate.  Locals began to see a queue of Americanparentswaiting inlong lines snaking into the street.  These parents had an appointment with the consulateto obtain a visa for their adoptive Chinese child.  Eventually, the White Swan Hotel itself became an attraction.  Many American parents would spend leisure time in the lobby ofWhite Swan with their newly adopted child.  The parents, many of whom had blond hair and blue eyes, held babies in their arms with black hair, black eyes, and Chinese heritage.  As a result, many stores began to sell Chinese style children’s garments and traditional handiworks on Shamian street. Store clerks here can typically speak English and will tell you that they have designed the handiworks made in their shop.  Gradually, bars, cafés, restaurants, youth hostels, and other similar businesses become a significant presence on the street.  The classical European style buildings gradually become the underpinning that drew Westerner visitors here.  Today, Shamian Island has a reputation of a business, entertainment, and tourist resort with a unique European style.

There is a unique history to the two churches on the island as well. Since there were two nations in control in this tiny place at the same time two kinds of churches were built.  Today there stands the Lourdes Christian Church in the Gothic style and the Shamian Church (formerly the British Virgin Guild Church) in the Roman style.  It is hard for Chinese to tell the difference between the two, it seems funny to them that the British and French live together on the tiny island, but their “spirits” fight in the sky of the island.  The two churches are small, but there are still clergies serving in each.  Sister Wang Xuehua is a nun in Shamian church.  From appearances she looks like a primary school teacher with short hair and round glasses.  Her complexion is fair; she holds a serene expression and speaks softly.  Sister Wang comes from Wenzhou, Zhejiang, and believed in Catholicism from the time she was very young.   She studied in Guangzhou and became a Shishi Catholic convent. Later she was designated to serve at Shamian church.  The nuns of this order live in poverty and they do not receive any salary.  What they get is only a cost of living fee, but the church does allocate them computers and cell phones.  So the nuns are not out of date, for example, they also use QQ to preach and teach their e-pals.  Once they got in touch with the outside world, there comes some worldly lure, but sister Wang is quiet inside.  She told people that she used to steal.  She says that every time when she stole, she felt scared.  Then she would go to make a confession and gradually she felt God’s inspiration and love.  Finally, she says, the lost sheep straightened up.

  Shamian, a street where you may get lost

Walking along Shamian Street, the shade of the ancient banyan trees cover the road, breezes blow from the river and touch the churches and the western style buildings that rest here.  There are a thousand stories that must reside as memories within these streets.  Walking along, it is easy to get lost in time and imagine bygone eras.  It seems like one could travel back to the chaos of the war years.  Is the one wearing a white scarf, black hat and black coat walking out of the church the godfather of old Shanghai?  Who is that guy?  Is he in contact with an underground Party member?  At that beautiful building over there sits a fair lady who looks over the street sentimentally.  The child that sits at the outdoor coffee table ---- which multinational corporation belongs to him?

Because of the classical buildings, Shamian seems far away from the ordinary business of most Chinese people.  This guarantees that the stores on the street will have their own style.  There is the particularly memorable and impressive German restaurant at the street corner.  It has two train carriages on the rail in the garden, a traffic light stand beside the track, and in between the carriages is a European style waiting room.  At this restaurant the food is served in carriages, and it is said that the engine was brought from Germany and only the finest German food is served here.  The waiting room is large and leaves sufficient space among the tables, but the carriages have narrow booths, which are often filled with young lovers who hold on each other tightly and whisper.  If you happen to visit in the springtime, you’ll enjoy spring flowers in the garden here.  You will also see men and women inside, smiling as if in the old black and white movies.  It is reminiscent of classic images from scenes of the Orient Express.

Shamian, what kind of street it is?  Once you visit here, you will become infatuated with it and will not want to leave.  When the prosperous past collides with the serene present; when the Pearl River blows under the ancient banyan, and when the old man catches a glimpse of young couples standing outside the door for their guests, it is a reminder of the lively glamour of people from the past who lives on this street.  Or, also when the heavy painting meets the light cloisonné; the feasting and revelry of “Lan Fong” meets the solemn church; when ladies’ Chi-pao meet the wedding dress, classic buildings come alive and new sleek modern buildings go up ….. which one is authentic?  All of these elements of history create glamour for those people on this street. The combination gives Shamian Street the power to combine a hundred years of charm mixed with modern civilization in one breath.  It has produced a stunning life of memories for many.

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