Chapter 5. Conclusion

In the mid-1920s, American professional travel writer Harry A. Franck noted that “if all the foreign communities scattered about Canton . . . were gathered together in one town, Shameen [sic], the hub of them all, would indeed be a little island by comparison.”1 The spread of foreigners throughout the city and the self-conscious modernization of Guangzhou’s streets and urban fabric by the municipal government did not, however, resolve cross-cultural tensions. The legacy of foreign impositions on Chinese sovereignty in the mid-nineteenth century still yielded tragedy with an unfortunate irony that became all too common in the twentieth century. The penultimate example of this occurred on June 23, 1925, when a group of Cantonese students, laborers, and merchants met in reaction to the killing of Chinese students by British policemen in Shanghai (Fig. 5.1). They marched peacefully in protest down the bund to the western bridge of Shamian. Upon reaching Shamian, the orderly protesters were fired upon by British troops, killing fifty-two and injuring many more. Prominent among the casualties were a Canton Christian College professor, one of his students, and even a thirteen-year-old lad identified as a Boy Scout. In embracing the ideals of democracy, sovereignty, modernity, and justice instilled by the foreign educators in Guangzhou, these principled Cantonese found themselves caught in the gap between the ideals and practices of the Western trading powers when they physically addressed the segregated island of foreign privilege.

Figure 5.1

Fig. 5.1

Demonstrators on the Changdi bund, June 23, 1925. This shows the orderly march of protesters along the bund going to confront the hegemonic commercial powers on Shamian. From Commission for the Investigation of the Shakee Massacre, June Twenty-Third.

On the other hand, Westerners recognized and admired Guangzhou’s rapid development into a modern city, with all of the utilities, transportation, and other comforts. They also took an interest in the development of a modern Chinese state, in Dr. Sun and his Guangzhou allies. This left an uneasy legacy, as the United States and Britain, with their conflicting democratic ideals and hegemonic business interests, jockeyed for influence against the Soviet Union’s ideological representatives in the 1920s and 1930s. The cosmopolitan Cantonese had produced for themselves a city with Western-style amenities and secular municipal hierarchies. Public buildings mixed Western classicism and newly developed “adaptive Chinese” architectural languages that could be harnessed to a new nationalism. The bulk of the new commercial and residential fabric, however, used modern materials to create a new local vernacular, with ground-level shops and covered walkways that ideally suited Cantonese cultural habits, replacing the previous covered, narrow lanes.

The tensions created by the foreign architectural footprint on Guangzhou were not resolved when foreign habitation in the city ceased. The Japanese occupation (1938–45) and subsequent rise of the government of the People’s Republic decreased and then completely removed foreign residence in the city for a span of decades. Lingnan University, that hub of Sino-Western interaction, moved itself entirely to Hong Kong, leaving its campus to be taken over by the public Sun Yat-sen [Zhongshan] University. Though many traces remain of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century legacy of Westerners in what was once to the British and Americans the “emporium of the East,” the city was transformed once again by the social goals of Maoist China. Given the municipal infrastructure developed during the Republican period, the post-war rise of the People’s Republic had relatively little to offer the city in terms of major civic building projects. There were of course some, but these remained so well within the mainstream of Maoist-era construction, in a mixture of Western Beaux-Arts and Soviet influences, that they paled in comparison with the grandeur these buildings sometimes possessed in other cities. The public construction of the 1920s and 1930s, in its “adaptive” Chinese mode, in examples such as Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and Zhongshan Library, remain the monuments that truly stand out in the urban fabric dating before the last few decades.

The more profound impact that the period of the 1950s to around 1980 had on the appearance of Guangzhou was the mass-produced, often nine-story, concrete-slab apartment building (Fig. 5.2). The reason behind the choice of nine stories may have resulted, even during perhaps the most secular period in Chinese history, from traditional numerological beliefs. The Chinese word for nine, jiu, is a homophone for a character associated with long time spans, longevity, and everlastingness.2 Such associations in the context of building would of course instill confidence. If one counts in the English fashion, with a ground floor and eight floors above it, the association with eight might resemble Cantonese fa, “to multiply,” symbolizing prosperity.3 At any rate, these buildings accomplished the noteworthy goal of providing sturdy, modern, if somewhat cramped, housing for great masses of people. They still serve this purpose today. Though their rectangular rows give an overall monotonous and sometimes even grim appearance, to the planners’ credit, they generally occupy the interior of blocks, with the earlier (and some new) shop houses on the outside maintaining a lively street life. Overall, the construction of the decades of the 1950s through the 1970s gives the impression of a city asleep. It is no coincidence that these are the very decades when Hong Kong sprouted its great white towers. The historical and cultural proclivity of the Cantonese for the art of the business transaction no doubt left some uneasy enough with the centralized economy of Mao’s state that many fled to the British colony of Hong Kong, where their cousins spoke the same language and enjoyed commercial freedom. There is some sense that the government in Beijing did not quite know what to do with the city in the third quarter of the twentieth century, given that the economy of the city did not really meld with the goals of the nation-state. Mao-era attempts to find a role for the city did add another noteworthy impact upon the skyline of these years: in previously rural parts of the Honam and Baihedong districts, heavy industrial plants on the Soviet model were constructed.4

Figure 5.2

Fig. 5.2

Nine-story concrete-slab apartment buildings (built c. 1960–80) in foreground and middle ground, as viewed from the Flower Pagoda. This is largely the architectural contribution of the Mao era to Guangzhou’s urban fabric, which, although grim-looking today, met a very important need during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Photo by author, 2002.

The early 1980s, however, would see the city awaken and building recommence on an enormous scale. The return of foreigners in substantial numbers also was a feature of this transformation. The initial impetus for this was the lead-up to and actual acquisition of Economic and Technical Development Zone status in 1984.5 In this, Guangzhou was preceded by the boomtown of Shenzhen, on the territorial border of Guangdong and Hong Kong, in 1980. This city’s location on the Canton-Kowloon Railway route to Guangzhou, however, was no accident. In Guangzhou, the architectural herald of things to come was the construction of the White Swan Hotel, on newly reclaimed land in front of Christ Church and its parsonage on Shamian. Built in the first couple of years of the 1980s, to a design by Mo Bozhi (educated before the Second World War at Sun Yat-sen University), it is a shining white tower with a diamond-shaped plan, with all the amenities that an American visitor would expect.6 Since its construction, Guangzhou has sprouted innumerable gleaming glass and steel high-rise buildings along the Pearl River (Fig. 5.3) and in sprawling new developments east of the old city.

Figure 5.3

Fig. 5.3

View of tall buildings (mostly 1980s–2000s) along the Pearl River, from bridge close to Shamian, looking east along the city’s riverfront. Much of the contemporary construction of the city is characterized by not always agreeable glass and steel tall buildings with polished granite lobbies. There are a few remnants of the early twentieth-century city on the left, including the landmark Aiqun Hotel. Photo by author, 2006.

The original city core of the eighteenth through mid-twentieth centuries is now less than a third of urbanized Guangzhou. Following the urbanization of the countryside surrounding Dongshan, the city extended north to the Baiyun Mountains, south to engulf Honam (now more typically known as Haizhu) nearly entirely, and further east to two high-profile adjacent districts, Tianhe (in Cantonese, Tien Ho) and Zhujiang Xincheng (Pearl River New Town). If Shanghai’s tall buildings invite comparisons with New York, and if Beijing’s wide avenues invite comparisons with Paris, then Guangzhou’s new form would invite comparisons with London, where the winding streets of the old city contrast with gleaming new high-rise development downriver. Tianhe, located south of the new Guangzhou East Station on the Canton-Kowloon Railway, echoing the earlier development of Dongshan, sprouted many buildings on its wide avenues during the 1990s. Its landmark building, the Citic Plaza, designed by Dennis Lau and Ng Chun Man, is a combination office tower, apartment building, and shopping mall.7 It bears the distinction of being, at 390 meters, the tallest reinforced-concrete building in the world, a testament to the combination of contemporary technology and the sheer muscle of the Chinese workforce. Between Tianhe and the river lies the Zhujiang New Town, intended to be the gem of new development in eastern Guangzhou. The Beaux-Arts ancestry of its wide grid of avenues centered on a green mall, terminating in a riverfront park flanked by cultural institutions, is truly unmistakable. This district now sprouts buildings by internationally known architects at an astounding rate. Some are in fact in historicist modes, including a fantasy of a Second Empire high-rise apartment complex and the grandly neoclassical towers of the Agricultural Bank of China. Most of the projects, however, embrace contemporary modernist chic.8

The remnants of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century foreign architecture now increasingly lie quietly in the shade of these enormous edifices. Shamian and its buildings are now preserved with varying levels of integrity, and Westerners are a fairly commonplace sight on it once again, though this time largely as tourists rather than residents. The White Swan Hotel’s construction testifies to some remembered logic that Shamian is where foreigners belong. Scores of parents issue from the hotel, pushing strollers of newly adopted Chinese babies down the banyan-lined streets, as Guangzhou is a major point for filing the necessary legal papers. Tourist shops line the streets, some specifically catering to this trade, with some version of traditional baby clothes. Chinese visitors are also attracted to the island. In the early 2000s, a billboard montage of some more prominent Shamian buildings faced the north canal, and announced it as “Shamian—the Romantic European Culture Island.” This perception of the island as Guangzhou’s bit of Europe is quite clear among some of the populace. Newlyweds dressed up in Cinderella and Prince Charming outfits pose for wedding photographs, and more professional photographers with lights and tripods focus on fashion models, using the legacies of historical foreign residence as backdrops. Historically denied such pleasures, Cantonese schoolchildren now enjoy the shady lanes and retired Cantonese spend languid afternoons socializing along the Shamian bund.

Much of the Changdi bund has been replaced by more recent construction, but the Sun Company building again houses active commercial enterprise, while the Aiqun Hotel building sometimes serves as a backdrop for tourist snapshots and harbors a popular dim sum restaurant on the top three floors of a post-1980 addition—one can watch the city float past while noshing on dumplings from the rotating top floor. Important public officials and the wealthy still dwell in the villas and townhouses of Dongshan’s historic core, though foreigners are generally rare in this district today. The future of historic Dongshan may be in doubt due to development pressures, and a more massive project of recording than this author could accomplish should be mounted.9 Mission stations have all more or less disappeared, but a hospital of more recent construction stands on or near the old American Presbyterian compound site. A few chapels of the late Republican period still dot the city streets.

The Catholic cathedral still stands. Interestingly, on its street of Yide Lu, it has seemingly drawn shops with all kinds of holiday decorations and gifts suitable for Chinese New Year, Christmas, birthdays, or any number of other occasions. The educational buildings built by the missionaries and the early twentieth-century municipal government still perform admirable service. The Lingnan University Campus is now the shady main campus for Sun Yat-sen University, and it retains nearly all of its buildings from the first half of the twentieth century. The continued preservation of this campus would be a great boon to world heritage, as few universities in China or even the United States can boast such architectural integrity, and as it is the site of a great history of cross-cultural collaboration. A few foreigners have returned to the campus on the south side of the river as teachers, and quite a few students from abroad now come there to hone their Chinese-language skills.

The important Cantonese legacy of the 1920s and 1930s shop houses again bustle with business. They have been restored or renovated in some numbers to create pedestrian malls, with air conditioning and Canto-pop or European techno music exploding out of the shops to greet enthusiastic shoppers, most notably on Shang Xia Jiu Lu in the Xiguan (the historic shops lining Beijing Lu have fared less well). These streets can still compete with the indoor shopping malls, perhaps because they are viewed as the proper place for a Cantonese night out by locals and other Chinese, anchored as they are by famous restaurants that include some of the few businesses in continuous operation since the Republican period. Compared with the broad sidewalks of the Zhujiang New Town, the older commercial streets seem yet to foster more interest for pedestrians. In some ways, the two streets are competing models of what dwelling in Guangzhou could be. Though the eastern suburbs may yet draw activity with their gleaming cultural facilities and climate-controlled indoor malls, they do not seem to be the domain of the working-class or perhaps even the middle-class Cantonese, who both traditionally and still today make the street life of Guangzhou so pleasurably exuberant, even among Chinese cities. Resolving the high-stakes debate of the identity of the city, as made manifest by the conjoined effects of architecture and citizenry, is beyond the scope of, and indeed the authority claimed by, this work.

The authority that is here claimed is that history should be used in addressing the evolving present. With the reemergence of the foreign presence, new footprints of occupation are being established. In terms of what the architectural history of Guangzhou’s Western-occupied neighborhoods can teach us, it seems clear that the urban and domestic imprint of foreigners should be self-consciously examined and reexamined. Though those that dwell on cultural borders often do not determine the course of international affairs, these women and men often do act as the oil for meshing of the gears of international relations.

In the close, if sometimes less than comfortable, quarters of the Thirteen Factories, Westerners and Cantonese learned mutual respect by living and working together. The more Western governments pushed for unequal concessions, however, the angrier the Cantonese became. As a result, the Westerners became more defensive and moved to partition their space further from that of the local inhabitants of the city. This in turn resulted in an escalation of Cantonese resistance, and great damage to property. It should be pointed out here, though, that for the most part, because of spatial intimacy, and therefore greater personal knowledge, targets were rarely “innocent.” Generally, even an angry group of rioters could distinguish between the people and property of a belligerent foreign nation (Britain, for example) and the people and property of a neutral or benign one (the United States).

In response to the Arrow War, that debacle in mutual understanding, most foreigners reacted by further separating themselves from the traditional city, dwelling on an island. This, combined with increasingly racist attitudes, manifest in the removal of Chinese employees from Western dwellings, led to increasingly less mutual knowledge. Both Westerners and Cantonese came to find in each other something increasingly alien. While the very firm physical separation and control of the foreigners’ environment accomplished peaceful existence in the short term, this would not last when tempers and misunderstandings boiled over. As the 1883 incident illustrated, when Cantonese perceptions of injustice came to a head, the canal’s boundary made little difference. The lack of personal knowledge led to destruction that did not discriminate between individual foreign identities. Given the architecturally aggressive acts of the foreign appropriation of symbolically loaded government yamen for offices and the construction of the cathedral, this should not have been unexpected. Every indication is, however, that it caught the residents of Shamian completely off guard, clearly demonstrating that they did not know what was occurring in their surrounding environment.

Tensions were somewhat eased, as the Cantonese found their own type of modernity in architecture and lifestyle and the Westerners found their approach engaging. Led by missionaries, whose job it was to interact with the populace and know about it, foreigners began to move out into the city. Guangzhou’s booming early twentieth-century economy, furthermore, necessitated close collaboration between the small community of Westerners and the Cantonese. The conservatives on Shamian still tried to hold onto practices of racial segregation, leading to the outright disaster of the massacre of 1925, an event that appalled not only the Chinese but also progressive Westerners. On the other hand, Canton Christian College/Lingnan University was a site of tremendous collaboration, an almost idyllic cross-cultural environment. Its administration, having learned from years of missionary experience, by the 1910s had come to offer what the populace wanted educationally, toned down evangelical sentiment in favor of universal tolerance, and produced an architectural language that at least gave a nod to symbolic appropriateness for its place and time.

While the practices of segregating by regulations and canals are no longer an issue, class, money, and privilege threaten to reinstate a separate existence that fails to serve the long-term best interests of the city’s Chinese and Western inhabitants. Tourists sequestered on Shamian or businessmen dwelling in the extremely high-end new eastern suburbs may be in danger of once again becoming “insular dwellers.” Even transportation through city streets can make an enormous difference in perceptions and thus relations. Flashy private cars might be the equivalent of Victorian sedan chair riders. On the subway or on foot, the foreigner in Guangzhou is greeted with attention, generally of a bemused and friendly nature reminiscent of the Thirteen Factories era. Peaceful existence, enabled by knowledge from mutual interaction, seems predicated on a carefully articulated social and residential proximity and, at least to a degree, equality. While the nature of empires, East and West, has changed, the awareness of how habitation and cross-cultural relations relate remains important to establishing peace and prosperity at their intersections.

1. Franck, Roving through Southern China, p. 258.

2. See Evelyn Lip, Chinese Numbers: Significance, Symbolism, and Tradition (Singapore: Times Books International, 1992), pp. 33–35. The number is traditionally found in pagodas and the Tiantan in Beijing.

3. Ibid., p. 31.

4. Johnston and Peterson, Historical Dictionary of Guangzhou (Canton) and Guangdong, p. 12.

5. Ibid., pp. 35–36.

6. See Rowe and Kuan, Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China, pp. 148–49, 222.

7. See Layla Dawson, China’s New Dawn: An Architectural Transformation (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2005), pp. 68–69.

8. Dawson, China’s New Dawn, pp. 124–25, and Xing Ruan, New China Architecture (Hong Kong: Periplus Editions, 2006), pp. 204–7.

9. Upon my visit to the area with The Architectural Heritage of Modern China: Guangzhou as my guide, I found that quite a number of historic structures had been demolished in the last decade, particularly in the Plum Blossom Village area.

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