Unique Island

5 May 2011

Guangzhou ponders what to do with European heritage site
By Mark O´Neill

An island in the Pearl River in the centre of Guangzhou contains one of the finest collections of European architecture in China. It houses dozens of buildings from the mid-19th century until 1949, when it was a concession given to Britain and France.

The city is debating what to do with this elegant legacy – the island of Shamian. Conservationists want the city to pay to restore the Shamian buildings to their original state, then turn them into a platform for Chinese and foreign culture. Others want to turn the island into a food street. A third proposal would lease the houses to major Chinese companies for use as offices.

The issue forms part of the future of Guangzhou, capital of the province of Guangdong, the factory of the world. Three decades of unprecedented prosperity from manufacturing and exports have transformed the city into a dazzling skyline of office blocks, five-star hotels, futuristic museums, an opera house, multi-layered expressways and traffic gridlock.

During this rapid transformation, much of the old city has disappeared and been replaced with new buildings, roads and subways. What place is there for history in the new Guangzhou? How much of its past does it want to retain, including that which reminds it of an era when it was the only city that could trade with the West yet when China was weak and subject to foreign powers?

“Shamian is a national treasure,” said Tang Guohua, Director of the Institute for the Research of Lingnan Architecture at Guangzhou University, and the most prominent conservationist in Guangzhou. “We should use it for cultural and not commercial purposes. The European Union has told me that it would be willing to rent the buildings for cultural purposes.”

But the government of Liwan district, which has management control of Shamian, seems uninterested. It prefers a solution that would generate rents and tax revenue, such as turning it into a food street or business centre.

Rich history

While the debate rages, the island today offers a rich architecture that reflects the life of Guangzhou over the last 150 years.

After the Second Opium War of 1856–1860, the Qing dynasty leased 0.3 square kilometres on the banks of the Pearl River – 80 per cent to the British and 20 per cent to the French. The new tenants dredged a canal to separate the site from the rest of the city as a security measure, and built two bridges over the canal.

The English bridge to the north was guarded by Sikh soldiers, while the French bridge to the east was guarded by Annamite French troops. The gates were closed each night at 10pm.

Foreign trading firms which had operated in Guangzhou for the previous 100 years in an area known as the Thirteen Factories moved to the safety and privilege of Shamian. They built large, well-appointed offices and spacious homes for their managers to live in. Initially, the companies were British, like Dodwell & Co, Butterfield & Swire and ED Sassoon. Others followed from France, the US, Holland, Italy, Germany, Portugal and Japan.

Foreign banks followed, like the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, Banque Indosuez, Citibank, the Bank of Taiwan and the Yokohama Specie Bank, which became the Bank of Tokyo. In 1904, electric street lights were installed. The visitors also built two small churches – one Protestant and one Catholic – some hotels, a men’s club and a park and tennis courts on the riverside.

The buildings overlook the Pearl River outside Shamian, or, inside, a magnificent boulevard that runs the full length of the island. It boasts 143 trees, of which 134 are more than 100 years old, with the eldest 321 years of age.

While 12 Chinese cities had foreign concessions, only Guangzhou had the foreign buildings concentrated in a small area and on an island, making it a period piece that cannot be found in the rest of the country.

Exodus and influx

During World War II, the foreign powers gave up their concessions. After 1949, all the foreign companies and their staff left Shamian. Their place was taken by Chinese companies who occupied the buildings, with a small number of their senior staff residing there. In a city recovering from years of war and destruction, the island was one of the best places to live.

Conscious of the need to preserve this treasure, the city banned cars from the island. Cyclists going there had to dismount and walk the rest of the way. The city opened the park to the public in 1960.

Everything changed with the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). The ban on cars was lifted and hundreds of new residents moved in, many from outside Guangzhou. Large houses formerly occupied by a single family became home to dozens of people; they built makeshift kitchens and toilets, causing great damage to the structures. Shamian became a site of gambling and prostitution.

In the 1980s, the city began to appreciate once more the value of its legacy. Many of the new residents were moved out, and in 1996 the central government designated Shamian as a national cultural heritage site. In 2000, the city government published a plan on how to preserve the buildings – the first such plan in China.

Since then, the debate has rumbled on as how best to use the site.

Only about half the original buildings remain. The rest have been demolished to make way for apartment buildings, offices and hotels. The most imposing new structure is the 34-storey, five-star White Swan Hotel overlooking the Pearl River. It opened in February 1983 as a pioneer joint-venture hotel in China.

The Customs Department and the provincial Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) have built large offices, the FAO taking over the buildings that used to house the consulates of Britain, France and other countries.

State and private companies, banks, police stations and restaurants have moved into old structures, retaining the outside but transforming the inside to meet the requirements of modern business. There is a youth hostel, souvenir shops, a Starbucks and other coffee houses, as well as art galleries and workshops. The Polish consulate occupies one old building, with armed police on duty outside. Part of the US consulate is at one end of the island, although it is due to join the rest of the institution in another part of the city in 2013.

A site for sore eyes

The main boulevard, lined by tall, veteran trees, remains unchanged and attracts a wide variety of visitors every day. In the morning, residents come out to walk their dogs, play badminton, do Taiqi and other exercises, and there is a small running track. “This is the best living environment in Guangzhou,” said one of them. “We enjoy it daily. The rest of the city is a concrete jungle. But living conditions inside are not good – crowded and often poor toilet and kitchen facilities.”

Then company staff arrive, many by car, to work in the offices. They are followed by tourists, Chinese and foreign, who come to enjoy the buildings, the ambience and the tranquillity. Among them are American couples who have adopted Chinese orphans – both boys and girls. Many stay at the White Swan Hotel. Two old buildings that have been completely restored are the two churches, which hold regular religious services. They attract many visitors.

The island is popular for weddings; it has a shop which specialises in wedding photos. It is also popular as a site to make advertisements or historical dramas for television. In the evening, the island attracts dating couples and corporate guests invited to seafood restaurants.

The Asian Games, which the city hosted last November, was a great blessing for Shamian. The government spent 150 million yuan to restore the outside of the buildings and clean up the streets and green areas.

Great Debate

Professor Tang leads the campaign to preserve Shamian and other historical areas of Guangzhou; he is adviser to the provincial government on cultural issues. “The next five–six years are a critical period,” he said in an interview.

This is because, over the last two years, many of the residents have been relocated to new apartments, leaving 16 of the historic buildings empty. The urgent question is what to do with them. Tang wants the government to spend 300–400 million yuan – a fraction of what it spent on the Asian Games – to restore the buildings to their original state and provide security.

“It should offer leases of five–six years to tenants who will use them for cultural purposes. If they do a proper job, the leases can be extended. It should not be for profit. Supporting us are the media, the public and the residents who come to love the place after they live there.”

Like other cities in China, Guangzhou has demolished much of its historic heritage in the course of modernisation. Tang and the conservationists argue that Shamian is a cultural treasure which the city should cherish.

They received a boost in January this year when Mayor Zhang Guangning outlined his vision in the 12th five-year plan, which runs from this year until 2015. This included the objective of Guangzhou becoming a ‘world cultural city’. “If the party, government, media and the public work together, this objective is tangible for us,” Tang said.

The weakness of Tang’s proposal is that it would involve spending money but bring no direct economic return. The other two proposals on the table would both generate substantial revenue. One is to turn Shamian into one of the city’s 14 Food Streets, which would attract thousands of customers every week.

The other, favoured by the district government, would invite major firms to set up headquarters on the island. This would bring in rents as well as the taxes which the firms would pay.

Both these proposals would mean demolishing the interiors of the buildings, to meet the needs of restaurants or modern, computer-centred offices; they would mean the end of preserving Shamian as a piece of history.

Susan He is director of the in-depth news department of the New Express daily; she has written extensively on the issue and campaigned to preserve the island.

“Many NGOs in Guangzhou are doing conservation work and raising public awareness. Thanks to their work, to our coverage in the media, and to lobbying by the residents, some of the old buildings and streets in Enning Lu (Road) were preserved. It is easier to do this in Shamian because it is a national preservation site. The question is how to protect it,” she said in an interview.

“We reflect the view of civil society. One proposal is to ask firms to do the restoration and give them compensation elsewhere,” she said.

The future will decide the destiny of this unique piece of Guangzhou’s history.

MACAUHUB FRENCH