Archive for July 26th, 2011

Thirteen Hong Street

July 26, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (14)


Of late I’m often asked whether anything remains of the place that is referred to, in River of Smoke, as ‘Fanqui-town’ .


MIT Visualizing Cultures

[‘View of the Canton Factories’ by William Daniell, 1805-6*]


This is of course the old Foreign Enclave in Canton (Guangzhou) which was also known as the ‘Thirteen Factories’ (Saap Sam Hong).


MIT Visualizing Cultures

[The Thirteen Factories as depicted in a reverse-glass painting §]


The answer to the question is no: nothing remains of the Thirteen Factories today. They were burnt down in 1856 and never rebuilt. Instead a new foreign enclave was constructed on a reclaimed mud-bank called Shamian.

This model of historical Canton gives us an idea of the location of the Thirteen Factories in relation to the old walled city.




The Thirteen Factories were located at the south-western edge of the city (bottom left hand corner), just beyond the city walls and the south-west gate. The position of Shamian Island is not clearly indicated on this map, but it was somewhat to the west of the Thirteen Factories.




The newly-built foreign enclave on Shamian Island bore little resemblance to the old Thirteen Factories: it was a settlement in the mid-19th century European-colonial style


and Chinese people were not allowed to enter it except with special permits. It was connected to the city by bridges which could be sealed off in case of trouble.


Shamian has survived pretty much intact. It is much visited by foreigners and its hotels are popular among those who go to China to adopt children.


Many of its buildings are well-preserved








and some stand upon interesting foundation stones.









Some of the buildings have been turned into boutique hotels, bars and restaurants.








In the last century and a half Guangzhou has changed dramatically. The old city walls were torn down early in the twentieth century, and the riverfront has been hugely altered through reclamation.  The most prominent sights and landmarks mentioned by 18th and 19th century travelers have almost all disappeared, including the island from which (according to one legend) the Pearl River took its name – it was known to European travelers as the ‘Dutch Folly’ (and  ‘Pearl Island’ to the Cantonese).


[‘Dutch Folly Fort’ by George Chinneryn ß].


The Pearl River at Guangzhou is now much narrower than it was in the 19th century and many massive buildings, roads, and walkways have been constructed on the reclaimed land.









The southern bank of the river, which was known to travelers as ‘Honam Island’, has perhaps changed even more dramatically than the opposite shore. In the past this island was a kind of country getaway, and was much less built-up than the other bank, being lined mainly with temples, country estates and gardens.



[Looking south towards Honam Island from the roofs of the Thirteen Factories; early 19th century **].


Now the south bank has been completely incorporated into the city.








And the stretch of shore that would have been directly aligned with the Thirteen Factories has become a paved walkway.










There remains only one living trace of the Thirteen Factories: this is the street that marked the foreign enclave’s northern boundary. Known as ‘Thirteen Factory Street’ it was described by travelers as a busy, crowded thoroughfare, packed with shops and stalls. Much of the tea, porcelain, silk and other goods that were exported from China found their way to the world through this street.



[Silk Shop, c. 1825 Guangzhou ***]





Shop, Guangzhou, 2011




This street is still known as ‘Thirteen Factory Street’ (Saap Sam Hong Lu). Travelers who visit it in the expectation of viewing a quaint remnant of the past will be disappointed.









It is now the centre of Guangzhou’s wholesale garment export industry









and has become even busier and more crowded than it was in the past. It is in fact the busiest market I have ever seen – if Calcutta’s Bow Bazar, Bombay’s Crawford Market and Cairo’s Khan el Khalili were crammed together in one place I doubt they would generate as much activity as Thirteen Hong Street on a weekday morning.









To me it seems a triumph of historical continuity that this street has remained so true to its character.


But disappointed nostalgists can always console themselves by walking down a street that offers mannequins











and wigs









and through a square with a statue that commemorates Canton’s mercantile past,










to one of the city’s famous dim-sum restaurants








where friendly diners will help them pick out the best that Canton has to offer.








And when the feast ends, they can work it off by going for a walk along White Swan Lake, where the Pearl and North rivers meet.






* With thanks to the MIT Visualizing Cultures Project:

§ Courtesy MIT Visualizing Cultures Project, see above]

ß  Peabody ‘Essex Museum, photo Jeffrey R. Dykes (courtesy MIT Visualizing Cultures site, see above)

** (courtesy MIT Visualizing Cultures Project)

*** China Gouache on paper Gift of Mr. & Mrs. B. Rionda Braga, Peabody Essex Museum 2007 Photo Jeffrey R. Dykes (courtesy MIT Visualizing Cultures Project)




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