The island of Shamian (沙面) sits aloof from the rest of the heaving port city of Guangzhou. Shamian is a carefully demarcated space, a separate physical entity, and former joint British and French concession. For the best part of a century, a colonial edict was in place here, with this area being off-limits to most of the local Chinese population. European architecture was the order of the day, and on these sheltered streets, complete with a brightly coloured church, it seems that a true island mentality dominated.
This small part of Guangzhou (then known as Canton, from which the English word “Cantonese” derives) was created in the image of its colonisers. It is a sad irony that the colonial buildings from this period seem to be better protected, due to being more highly valued, than some of the traditional Chinese architecture.
Despite extensive efforts to maintain a separate identity, Shamian is a part of Guangzhou. Sha. 沙。Mere grains, sand, a fine powder, like the opium once fought over and sold from this place. Guang. 广。Vast, expansive, also numerous (how numerous were the conflicts which once raged here? The cannon balls, the victims). Mian. 面。Face, surface, an aspect of. Zhou. 州。A state, an administrative province, though similar to zhou (洲), an island in a stream, like Shamian itself.
The old church seems to stand like a museum now, and crowds flock to it, not as a true flock, but as a mob driven by intense curiosity, more enticed by the appearance of the place than its reality.
I see few other foreign tourists during my visit on a sunny holiday. People ask for photos with me by some of the historic buildings, a French missionary school (or perhaps a monastery? It’s unclear). After all, I guess, in some way, my face is in-keeping with the scene, the general Occidental, European look. How can I refuse, given this history? Or should I?
I am not an actor in costume at a theme park. The streets where I stood where once a place of deliberate segregation and racial hierarchy. The subsequent aesthetics, the notion of white skin as desirable, the admiration of European architecture as the epitome of beauty, ultimately derive from colonialism, an ugly truth. I’ve seen colonial architecture before, and I’ve seen other 21st century cities grapple with their own colonial past, but the reason I was so struck by it in this place was that the story didn’t seem over, as confirmed by strangers’ reaction to my presence there.
Is there another way to read this story, to rewrite this narrative? Could it be said that my re-visiting of the place, and seeing beyond its neo-classical façade, for what it really was, can redeem it into a site where present may reconcile with the past? Where I am now the outsider, and the Chinese flag is displayed proudly on every street corner (Shamian was only returned to Chinese possession in 1949).
Perhaps, but beneath its exterior charm, I fear that the ghosts of Guangzhou still linger in these shaded streets, an enduring requiem to an unsettling inequality. Is it right to inhale the splendor of such a graceful place, or should we avoid falling under its spell? Can the past ever be truly reconciled with the present? The banyan trees wait patiently on the sidelines, they have seen worse, and they will see more.