Continuing on my previous blog on Guangzhou, this one is about Shamian (沙面) Island, a former enclave of the European powers in the city. Given the historical context of the Opium Wars, rise of Communism and the Cultural Revolution, it’s a wonder that the colonial buildings here were not demolished in a fit of nationalistic rage.

Shamian literally means Sandy Surface. This was the name given to a sand bank on the shores of the Pearl River. From the time of the Song Dynasty (960AD) until the Qing Dynasty (1911), it served as a port for foreign traders. After the Second Opium War, the area was ceded to the British and French as a concession area. Concrete embankments were built to reinforce the banks and a canal was dug along the north side, effectively making the sand bank an island. Two bridges connected the island to the mainland, with one bridge guarded by the British and the other bridge guarded by the French. The island became a rich foreign enclave with consulates, banks, churches, schools and commercial buildings being built from the 19th century until the early 20th century.

Shamian Island is really small. It’s only 900m by 300m in size and you can probably walk around it in less than an hour. But the point of coming here is to slow down and step back in time.

Time slows down in Shamian Island with it’s pedestrian streets, colonial buildings and ancient banyan trees.
I was quite fascinated by the presence of these very ancient looking banyan trees. Not only do you find them growing abundantly on Shamian Island, you will also find them growing else where in Guangzhou.
One of the most prominent buildings here is the one with Starbucks. I must say this is one of the more unique Starbucks outlets that I’ve visited. For a even more unique Starbucks experience you can read about my visit to the Starbucks in Kyoto.

Many of the colonial buildings have been converted into government offices, a police station, restaurants, shops and hotels. There is still some work being done on several buildings and I saw a new Macdonalds outlet being fitted out. I guess foreign trade still goes on here but in a different form now. The consulates have all moved out except for the Polish Consulate which has 2 guards posts outside, although the guards don’t seem to be doing anything much.

The British built Protestant church in the British side of the island. It’s a functional church and they were conducting Sunday morning service when I walked past.
Here is a strange one, the Bank of Taiwan Building. I wonder how it came to be.
The more prominent buildings will have a metal plaque on the ground in front of them explaining the history of the building. For historical buffs, this might be interesting, but I wasn’t going to go round staring at the ground at every building.
English looking flower beds line the central street which is restricted to pedestrians only. Vehicular traffic is controlled on Shamian Island to certain streets only.
With the Victorian looking fountains, colonial buildings and banyan trees, it’s like a mini Europe here but with a Chinese accent.
A tranquil scene early in the morning. Ancient banyan trees line the shore of the canal dug by the British in 1859 to separate Shamian from the main shore and you can see the bridge that connects the French side of Shamian to the mainland.
There are many bronze statues depicting life on Shamian Island. These statues depict life from the Qing Dynasty until modern times like this statue of a photographer.
Nationalist posters can be seen in some of the government buildings.

When to Visit

The best times to visit Shamian Island are in the mornings or the evenings. During these times, you can see the local residents enjoying their social activities along the tranquil streets and parks on the island. That said, Shamian Island is an all day attraction and you can come here anytime.

Practicing Taichi in the morning.
The Cantonese people definitely know how to enjoy their life, engaging in all kinds of social activities.
A sunset view of the opposite bank of the Pearl River from Shamian Island.
As dusk falls, the buildings come to life as their facades are lighted up.
This very grand looking colonial building serves as some sort of government office.
Another colonial building with a tea shop on the ground floor.
We stayed at the White Swan Hotel which is built on reclaimed land along Shamian Island. This hotel has welcomed many foreign leaders like Queen Elizabeth II, President George W. Bush, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il. This hotel was also popular with American couples who came to China to adopt children as it was next to the American Consulate.

Getting There

Shamian Island is pretty easy to get to. You can take the Metro Line 1 or Line 6 to Huangsha Station and cross the overhead bridge to the island. Otherwise many public buses also stop at bus stops located just outside the island.

7 thoughts on “The Sandy Island

  1. My friend and I stayed at a hotel on Shamian Island toward the end of our week-long trip in southern China. I loved the peaceful ambiance on the island despite its location in one of the country’s biggest cities.

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