The discreet charm of Shamian Island

We walked down Qingping Road and came to the wide and very busy inner ring road. Past the sea of cars, straight ahead would be Shamian Island. An elevated pedestrian walkway seemed to lead straight into an equally busy flyover. Putting all our trust in the hands of town planners, we crossed the road, and found that the walkway dipped under the traffic flyover, and led straight on to the charming bridge over the narrow canal which you see in the featured photo. That is Shamian Island for you: walk blindly into the teeming brashness of modern China, and suddenly through a sideways opening in the world, you can step into an unhurried and charming little world.

Charming public art is scattered around this island. I haven’t seen Cantonese boys and girls with this kind of hair. So I guess this piece harks back to the strange history of the island. The maritime silk route led to Guangzhou two thousand years back, but this island entered history only in 1685 CE, after about a hundred acrimonious and bloody years of trade with the west, when the Qing emperor allowed British merchants to settle in this mud flat on the Zhujiang. The subsequent opium trade that the British started out of this base led to the first of the Opium Wars in 1839. This was the beginning of an upheaval in Chinese politics which lasted for a hundred and fifty years, led to the Cantonese diaspora, the destruction of imperial China, and the rise of a modern nation. Now, as these statues show, the view of those early years of contact with the west has taken on a somewhat rosy hue.

Shamian Island was once the exclusive preserve of the British and French. This is apparent the moment you walk across that lovely bridge. The buildings have been renovated with care, and now house government offices, museums, art businesses, and many restaurants and cafes. Much of the renovation of this district, and its conversion into a leisure area, dates from about a decade back. I don’t think the ornate door which you see in the photo above has much of history, but the building does.

The shaded leafy roads of the island, and the massive buildings, are typical of British and French areas throughout Asia. I can recognize them as coming from the same school which churned out the buildings of Bombay, Calcutta, and Rangoon. As a result, this part of historical Canton attracts many visitors from the rest of Guangzhou. A small bridge at the western end of the island permits quick access from a nearby metro station. I suppose the evening we spent in the island is more or less typical. It was full of families and young people enjoying a stroll.

We’d got up before four in the morning to take an early flight into Guangzhou. Airports in China are well outside cities, even in smaller ones, so travel between the city and the airport can take significantly longer than the flight itself. Now in the evening, we were too tired to do anything but stroll down the broad leafy avenue that you see in the photo above. We found a cafe and sat there for a while, we watched people, eventually we walked down to the waterfront for a beer and watched the light fade from the sky, as the city lights came up.

When we walked back across the island it had changed character. Parks and streets were lit up, and buildings were in shadows. A different set of people were here for dinner. The families and children were gone, young people were out for an evening of fun: couples and groups of friends. This gave us a good opportunity to check which were the most popular restaurants. After all, when you are in a foreign country, this is one of the easiest ways to find the best local food.

Diwali by the Pearl River

It was Diwali night, and cities in China were all going to be lit up in celebration. Of course, they are lit up on all nights, but that is a minor incidental detail.

We sat down in a relaxed restaurant on a promenade next to the Zhujiang river. Lanterns hung from trees, and dim LED lamps on the tables cycled through the spectrum. I thought it looked enchanting, and The Family agreed that this was a nice place to enjoy a Diwali sundowner. We sat down for a Tsingtao. The Family asked “Is it only in India that you get some nibbles when you order drinks?” Spain was another place that came to mind. It is not the custom in Guangzhou. We ordered a basket of squid to go with the beer. It took a while to come, so we ordered a beer to go with the squid. Diwali is a time to be happy, to let go of little concerns.

As it got darker, the number of cruise boats on the river increased. This made the place look even more enchanting. Lights came on simultaneously in the buildings across the river. The high-rises seemed to be mainly dark, except for the bright synchronized LEDs playing through the exterior. I don’t know whether the video that you see above gives you the sense of calm and unhurried charm that enveloped us. There were no firecrackers, and we were far away from friends and family, but it was an enchanting evening. The mellow winter of Guangzhou suited us to a tee (now I know what that means!). We walked back content with our first day in Guangzhou.

Fishing in the Pearl river

Old stories of China talk of the relaxed charm of Canton and the slow-flowing Pearl river. The horrors of the 20th century CE have now passed, and what used to be mud flats three centuries ago remains one of the major trading centers of the world. The river delta is now one of the major manufacturing hubs of the world. The sun was setting when we finished our stroll through Shamian island and ended up on its southern bank. Now, in the 21st century, Guangzhou and the slow-flowing Zhujiang river retain all the relaxed charm that it was famous for.

In the mellow light of the setting sun we spotted a man fishing in the Zhujiang. Fishing is very popular in this part of China, and a crowd gathered soon to watch this lone warrior. He exchanged a few words with hangers on, but was pretty intent on his work. For a few months a year, starting from about February, fishing is banned in the river, to allow stock to replenish itself. As the light faded from the sky, this man landed two large fish. The ban is successful, then. On the walkway, next to the parapet you see in these photos, tables were being laid out. We sat down for a sundowner- Tsingtao with squid.