STORKS & STONES – An Island of Foreigners in China

May 10, 2010 | Asia, Girls Trek Too, Tracing China's Past

April 3, 2008
Guangzhou, China

It’s another wet, cloud-swaddled morning in Guangzhou, the city’s towers and apartment blocks floating in a bath of white mist. Perhaps it’s for the best. This industrial city might otherwise look too starkly gritty and real in the full light of day. Since I’ve been here, daylight has seemed like the perpetual dusk of a nuclear winter.

My room on the 23rd floor of the Furama Hotel looks over part of the Pearl River, or Zhu Jiang. This is the same river my uncle once looked on from the roof of his home. He told me he remembered watching the planes, known as Clipper Ships, fly in with news and money from his father in America. America: the land his big brothers and sisters pined for, but which was quickly fading from his brief four-year-old cache of memories.

The art deco Ai Qun Hotel was once the tallest building in the city, back when it opened its doors in 1937.

Part of my view to the waterfront is blocked by tall buildings, especially the Ai Qun Hotel. The art deco Ai Qun was once the tallest building in the city, back when it opened its doors in 1937. I imagine how it might have looked when Uncle Roy arrived in 1936, with crews dangling from a maze of bamboo scaffolding.

Yesterday, Fiona Zhu and I walked to Shamian Island. Our stroll took us west down the Canton Bund, the old name for the banyan-lined riverfront promenade. The walkway was built in 1932, just four years before Uncle Roy traveled from America to China to live in Guangzhou with his mother and nine brothers and sisters. They lived near the river, in a large house with his Uncle Fu Ying. It was only a year later that the Japanese started heading south, and his family fled to the false safety of Hong Kong.

We crossed a small bridge to Shamian Island. Between the 1860s and 1930s, Shamian was a foreign concession restricted to foreign businessmen and their servants.

Zhu Zhu – that’s what Fiona told me her friends call her – shared her umbrella with me for much of the day, as the fine mist repeatedly broke into a heavy drizzle. Not far from my hotel, we crossed a small bridge and stepped onto Shamian Island. Between the 1860s and 1930s, Shamian was a world unto itself, a foreign concession restricted to foreign businessmen and their servants, back when Guangzhou was the major trading port known as Canton.

Shamian is separated from the mainland by the thinnest sliver of water, and we walked along that slender creek.

Shamian is separated from the mainland by the thinnest sliver of water, and we walked along that slender creek. We passed the old Victory Hotel, long ago known as the Victoria Hotel. The building sits across from the English Bridge, where, once upon a time, smartly uniformed Sikh police guarded the official entrance to the island.

The eastern end of the island was once the French section, and the western end was the British section. As the island is quite tiny, those two nations must have been much friendlier neighbors here than they ever were in their homelands. However, each nation had its own postal service, and each had it’s own church: Anglican for the British, Catholic for the French.

I spent the greater part of our day photographing the island’s many 19th century European buildings.

I spent the greater part of our day photographing the island’s many 19th century European buildings, prompting Zhu Zhu to remark, laughing, “Your friends will see all your photo and say, ‘Wha? I thought you visit China?’ The buildings had the arches, columns, balustrades, towers, curling cornices, and flowery porticos of Victorian-era Europe. Some of them still sported the colors of their glory days: pastel pinks, yellows, and even bright lime. The multiple arches of one old vestibule were hung with ornate red Chinese lanterns, bringing Chinese and European styles together in a combination unique to old Canton.

Chinese and European styles came together in a combination unique to old Canton.

In the 19th century, foreign merchants weren’t allowed to leave this small island. The bridges closed at 10:00 p.m. each night. Foreign traders lived under threat of execution if they even began to study the Chinese language. Much like today, the Chinese government enjoyed the money it made from trading with other nations, but sought to protect its culture from the evil influences of Western thinking.

After the Japanese occupation forces were ejected from Guangzhou in 1945, Shamian Island came under control of the Guangzhou municipality. Today, Hong Kong filmmakers often use Shamian as a set for scenes depicting “Old Hong Kong,” because much of the island resembles what Hong Kong used to look like before the construction frenzy of the 1950’s.

Inside the White Swan Hotel, the lobby featured a large koi pond crossed by a small bridge, and a tall rock waterfall topped by a small pagoda.

We stopped briefly at the modern White Swan Hotel. On the outside, it was little more than an ugly white tower, just about the only modern structure on the island – or “Eyes-land,” as Zhu Zhu called it, until I told her the “S” was silent. But inside, the lobby featured a large koi pond crossed by a small bridge, and a tall rock waterfall topped by a small pagoda. It was a lovely respite from the rainy outdoor gloom.

We returned back down the length of the island via its central thoroughfare, called Shamian Dajie.

We returned back down the length of the island via its central thoroughfare, called Shamian Dajie: a peaceful, wide, tree-shaded pedestrian lane, filled with ornamental plants and birdsong. A large white man, apparently American, walked past carrying a Chinese baby on his shoulders. “This baby is an orphan, I think,” Zhu Zhu said. I told her I’d read that both Guangzhou and the White Swan Hotel were well-known stops for Americans adopting Chinese babies. Most of the babies are unwanted girls from those rural areas where old-fashioned families still prefer sons, to carry on family names and traditions – in a nation with a one-child-only rule.

Most of the adopted babies are unwanted girls from those rural areas where families still prefer sons. This government sign encourages parents to keep girls.

Because of all the adoptive parents who stay there, I explained, “The White Swan Hotel is sometimes called the White Stork Hotel.” Zhu Zhu looked confused, and I realized that she had never heard of the Western myth of the stork. “When children ask where babies come from, sometimes parents tell them ‘The stork brought you.’” When I tried to recall why, my face must have grown even more puzzled than hers.

“In China, parents tell you that babies are found inside a stone,” she said.

We laughed and agreed that both ideas were equally strange. But then, so is Shamian Island, a place where foreigners still sequester themselves from the rest of Guangzhou. Only now, they no longer ship home Chinese goods, but fly home with Chinese children.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

Sign up for blog posts and to get my newsletter!

Pin It on Pinterest