Europe on the Pearl River: A colonial hangover in Guangzhou

A man cycles past one of the old colonial buildings in Shamian Island Image copyright Rex Features

Skyscrapers, shopping malls, road networks and railway lines are being constructed at speed across China. But in one corner of southern China time has stood still.

On the veranda of the red-brick Canton Club, a young couple poses for their wedding pictures. The train of her dress spills down the steps of the early 20th Century building.

It's a humid day, but her carefully applied make-up is thick enough to prevent even a drop of perspiration shining through. Her husband-to-be, in his shiny, tight grey suit, looks less comfortable, as the photographer kneeling below shouts a steady stream of instructions. I smile, hoping to convey a sense of encouragement, and continue on my morning walk.

Another couple stand in front of their photographer in the doorway of the next building. Its date - and its purpose - are hewn into the stone. Bank of Taiwan. 1913.

It's the same story outside the Banque de l'Indo Chine (built 1899) - and indeed in front of the grand pillars of the City Bank of the United States (which later became Citibank). The groom is in regulation shiny grey, but this time the bride is wearing a baby blue gown, and clutching an enormous bunch of pink silk flowers.

Guangzhou is one of the fastest developing cities in China.

It's the capital of Guangdong province where the Pearl River flows into the sea, and the go-getters of nearby Hong Kong and Macau challenge the mainlanders.

The city fathers are ambitious. This is a rich part of the country, with a strong manufacturing base and rapidly increasing reputation for high-tech research and development. Guangzhou's leaders believe their home should be considered on a par with Beijing and Shanghai.

An area that was still farmland when I first visited here more than 20 years ago, is a now a spectacular high-rise new town, with an opera house, a striking library, and an elegant lattice-clad TV tower shooting up into the sky above the Pearl River.

Image copyright Getty Images

Yet it is to the strange colonial hangover that is Shamian Island that Guangzhou's brides and grooms flock for their marital photographs.

As well as the banks, the great old Hong Kong and Shanghai trading houses have left their mark here, buildings which accommodated Butterfield & Swire, Jardines, Dodwell & Company.

Shamian was a sort of mini-colony, a European free-trade zone established in the 1860s, after the Second Opium War. A series of small islands and mudflats were turned into an enclave just over half a mile long, and about 1,000 feet wide.

The British, who controlled 60% of the territory, established a presence first, followed later by the French, who owned the remaining space.

The concessions were relinquished after the communist victory in 1949 and the strange tale of Shamian was largely forgotten until the 1990s, when plaques started to appear, detailing in English and Chinese the history of each building.

Gradually restoration projects got under way.

The veranda and trading hall of one former concern is now a particularly elegant branch of America's leading coffee vendor, complete with thwacking fans and wicker chairs.

The old Dairy Farm Building, where cows were kept to provide the Europeans with their daily milk, is now a smart nightclub. In the churchyard of Our Lady of Lourdes, a row of vines flourishes, the grapes beginning to get fat.

With wide open boulevards, and restored civic gardens, this is one of the cleanest parts of the city. Car access is controlled by the fact there is only one bridge for vehicles and most people get around by foot or cycle. Even a trio of policemen are on their bikes, blue and red lights flashing.

That this is unlike the rest of Guangzhou is made clear when I am able to hear the sound of a distant harmonica. A corner or two later, I find its source, an old man playing as he sits on one of the benches in the former French garden.

Yet the modern city is very close. Wandering down one street I reach the canal that separates island and mainland - little more than a few yards of murky brown water, overshadowed by the multiple layers of road bridges above.

In Shanghai, in the former German enclave of Qingdao, and here in Shamian, China seems to have become more relaxed about the legacy of European occupation. Ironically, over the border in Hong Kong there's no equivalently dense area of colonial heritage. Some old buildings survive but most were lost during the great spurt of construction in the 1970s.

I remember little in the way of street lighting on Shamian two decades ago - few business opportunities had been seized. The place seemed to be considered something of an embarrassment rather than a strange and quirky part of China's rich history.

Today, though, for the brides of Guangzhou, and their sometimes bashful grooms it seems its red-brick or granite, balconies and verandas provide a more reassuring photo backdrop than the skyscrapers, dynamism and energy of the new city.

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