So I initially thought that 12 cities (and chapters) would cover it. This was what I had done for The Grand Tour Part I in Southeast Asia, and there was no reason East Asia, or China, Korea and Japan, were going to be any different.
But I now see that to properly tell the complex colonial history of East Asia, and document what legacy of this particular phase of history continues to remain today, I’m going to need 15 cities.
In 1842, in the aftermath of the 1st Opium War, the British signed what was to be the very first of the unequal treaties with Qing Dynasty China, forcing five Chinese port cities open to foreign trade, and arm-twisting the Emperor into ceding a sixth to Britain in perpetuity. The five port cities were: Canton, Amoy (present day Xiamen), Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai. The sixth was, of course, Hong Kong.
Ten years later, Japan was forced to do the same by the Americans. In 1852 and 1858, seven ports were ceded to the Americans: Osaka, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Niigata, Shimoda and Hakodate.
The next 50 years would be characterised by a mad scramble by all the other European powers and America to “divide up” China and Japan – just as they had done so with Africa, but perhaps in a far less pervasive manner (there were…after all… Emperors and Shoguns to contend with).
But make no mistake about it – China and Japan too, had been colonised by the Europeans. They weren’t colonised to the same degree, or in the same “style,” rather, as India and Southeast Asia were; but a traveller to the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s would not fail to remark that much of the coastlines of these two great nations were essentially European and American territory. Even the great capital cities were not sacrosanct, as foreign concession areas were established in the very heart of Peking and Tokyo (Edo) themselves, within earshot of the Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace.
At the height of the Treaty Port era, there were more than 80 treaty port cities, foreign concessions, international settlements and leased territories established in China alone, “belonging” to the Imperial powers: Britain, France, America, Russia, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and even Belgium. By 1899, Japan, having undergone the violent throes of a vast and extensive modernisation process introduced by its Meiji Emperor, abolished its treaty ports and transformed from colonised to Coloniser. And they too, claimed their stake of the Chinese pie, while conveniently and forcefully annexing Korea.
The Treaty Port Era is important because ALL of the major cities in the region today – in particular the glittering port cities of China’s Eastern seaboard – originated as European treaty ports and colonies. Treaty port heritage remains in the form of beautiful European buildings that form the core of the cities’ urban landscape – think the Shanghai Bund, or Gulangyu Island in Xiamen(Amoy); and also in other “softer” things unassailably associated with the city – such as Tsingtao Beer in Qingdao, and Kobe Beef in Kobe.
Part II of my Grand Tour takes me to 15 treaty ports and imperial cities in China, Korea and Japan. In each of the cities, I sojourn in the city’s Grand Hotel – the most important establishment in that city, which has had a history intertwined with that of the city itself. In this, I am guided by the exact same philosophy that guided my earlier wanderings through Colonial Southeast Asia and the dozen Grand Hotels still to be found there.
The 15 cities and hotels, visited in geographical order from south to north, are below. Each month starting from this shall see me journeying to and posting on one of the cities:
- Hong Kong and the Peninsula Hotel
- Macao and the Bela Vista Hotel
- Canton (Guangzhou) and the Victoria Hotel
- Amoy (Xiamen) and the Lujiang Hotel
- Shanghai and the Cathay Hotel
- Hankow (part of present-day Wuhan) and Hôtel Terminus
- Tsingtao (Qingdao) and the Prinz Heinrich Hotel
- Tientsin (Tianjin) and the Astor Hotel
- Peking (Beijing) and Le Grand Hôtel de Pékin
- Dalny (aka Dairen or Dalian) and the Yamato Hotel
- Seoul and the Chosun Hotel
- Nagasaki and the Belle Vue Hotel
- Kobe and the Oriental Hotel
- Yokohama and the New Grand Hotel; and finally
- Tokyo and both the Imperial Hotel and the Tokyo Station Hotel.
15 cities. 15 months. Join me on this epic, nostalgic journey northwards, as I relive those heady days and interesting times in the Treaty Ports and Imperial Cities of East Asia.
First stop: Hong Kong.