There’s nowhere quite like Shamian Island in the whole of China. Shanghai has the Bund, Xiamen has an island full of ancient colonial buildings too, but it is old Canton that one truly feels concession China as it used to be.
Guangzhou for the uninitiated is full blare noise and grime – a real wake up call from the pleasant surroundings of Hong Kong. Though Cantonese and proud of it, it feels like the real China as soon as you step out of the plane or train – a noisy attack on your senses. All of which makes Shamian Island all the more special. At the turn of the 20th century this little haven where was where the enfeebled emperor allowed foreigners to set up base and trade with China. The Swires and Jardines funneled their opium through here. The deal etched out was that the island – a narrow wedge between two rivers – was fair game but Joe Foreigner could not step foot off it. Up sprouted wonderfully sturdy colonial style buildings amid spectacular trees.
Go there now and little of this heritage site has changed. Sure, there’s the 28-storey white giant that is the White Swan Hotel, Guangzhou’s first five star and to this day best known hotel. Bar that though little has changed. Statues dotted everywhere depict yesteryear, plaques on buildings denote who was who a century ago. It’s quiet, which after a headache inducing day around town is a God-send. It’s leafy and it’s retained its dignified air. These days the majority of foreigners visiting this tiny strip of land – probably no more than 1.5km by 500m – are Americans here to adopt kids. Stalls garner business by offering free pram rentals. Western adults stroll the avenues as new parents – their Oriental offspring bemused by their hugely changed circumstances. All the restaurants here are top notch, Lucy’s is a pleasant bar to sup a beer as the dusk sets in and the banks of the Pearl river switch on a gaudy storm of neon. The annex of the Victory Hotel is a top place to stay at under half the price of the White Swan. An even better bargain is the Guangzhou Youth Hostel, whose rooms will surprise those brought up on a the European or American equivalents of the YMCA.
Before moving to Dalian I used to enjoy bookending my China trips from Guangzhou. The airport there is the best in the mainland with cheaper fares than Hong Kong while the train station is the starting point for countless exciting adventures. And after a rough few weeks away the civility of Shamian was and still is a joy to behold.