An Afternoon in Old Canton…

Ornate roof of the Chen Clan Academy.

Ornate roof of the Chen Clan Academy.

Most visitors to Guangzhou today don’t come for the history, heritage or architecture.  They come for business, trade, industry, commerce.  History, heritage and architecture are the last things on their mind.  Which is perfectly in keeping, ironically, with Guangzhou’s heritage as THE premiere centre of trade in China, both then and now; but is such a pity – for today’s Guangzhou is rich in heritage: vernacular, commercial heritage of course, but heritage all the same.

Outside of Shameen Island, the Old Town of Canton is a sight to explore, whatwith its hundreds of winding streets flanked by traditional Chinese shophouses found all over Southeast Asia where there is a strong Chinese diaspora. The vernacular architectural form itself originated here, in Canton and in the city of Amoy (Xiamen), where many Chinese came from.

Like in Shanghai, there is a Bund here, though it is somewhat lesser known.  Extending East from Shameen Island, the Canton Bund still preserves some astounding specimens of European commercial architecture from the days when Canton was a treaty port.  Much further East stands another trace of its European past – the glorious, Baroque Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, erected by the French in 1863.

Finally, at the edge of the old town sits one of Canton’s most important pieces of Chinese traditional architecture – the Chan Clan Academy and Temple. This is a mind-bogglingly surreal agglomeration of traditional Chinese legends and iconography.  The design of the structure forms the basis for the of thousands of Chinese temples in Southeast Asia; except the design here is much more opulent, ornate and ostentatious.

The temple was built in 1894 by returning Chinese-American emigres, who raised money from 72 different Chan families in the city to build a communal temple for the worship of their common ancestors of the same surname. The temple also incorporated within it, a place for their younger clansmen to gather and study for the Imperial Examinations.

This heritage walk has three parts.  The first starts off along the Canton Bund, with its many nameless relics to Canton’s commercial, European past.

The second takes in the streets of Canton’s Old Town – beginning at the Sacré-Cœur Cathedral, passing through the Thirteen Factories area to the famous Shangxiajiu Street (上下九街), which is today restored and transformed into a pedestrianised shopping street.  Along the way, one also finds instances of Xiguan Architecture (西關) – an entirely indigeneous architectural form that emerged here in Canton and combined the best of European and Chinese styles.

Finally, we stop off at the Chan Clan Academy and Temple to admire a proliferation of gods, goddesses, demons and magical creatures; all of which remind us of a time when Canton was one of the greatest seaport in the East.

(Incidentally, I too, am of the Chan clan… though not from Canton but from Fuzhou, another of the original treaty ports in China).

Part I – The Canton Bund (廣州外灘)

The Canton Custom House (1914) - the foremost landmark on the Bund.

The Canton Custom House (1914) – the foremost landmark on the Bund.

An unidentified building next door.

An unidentified building next door.

Another unidentified former commercial building.

Another unidentified former commercial building.

More buildings along the bund.

More buildings along the bund.

The Art Deco Old Canton Cinema.

The Art Deco Old Canton Cinema.

View of the Esplanade, along the Pearl River.

View of the Esplanade, along the Pearl River.

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hospital

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hospital

The Oi Kwan Hotel (愛羣大酒店) was built in 1934 by a Chinese mogul.

The Oi Kwan Hotel (愛羣大酒店) was built in 1934 by a Chinese mogul.

Close-up of the art deco detailing on the Oi Kwan Hotel.

Close-up of the art deco detailing on the Oi Kwan Hotel.

Side view of the Oi Kwan hotel, looking almost like a view unto New York City.

Side view of the Oi Kwan hotel, looking almost like a view unto New York City.

Colonnaded walkways, reminiscent of five-foot ways in Southeast Asia.

Colonnaded walkways, reminiscent of five-foot ways in Southeast Asia.

Unidentified building across the street.

Unidentified building across the street.

More commercial buildings just off the bund.

More commercial buildings just off the bund.

Part II – The Commercial Quarter (廣州老鎮)

View of Sacred Heart Cathedral from the street.

View of Sacred Heart Cathedral from the street.

Sacred Heart Cathedral (1863).

Sacred Heart Cathedral (1863).

Commercial shophouses in the 13 Factories area.  Note the ornate decorations on the facade.

Commercial shophouses in the 13 Factories area. Note the ornate decorations on the facade.

More shophouses in the 13 Factories area.

More shophouses in the 13 Factories area.

The 13 Factories area is today a bustling commercial precinct.

The 13 Factories area is today a bustling commercial precinct.

Historic commercial architecture in the 13 Factories area.

Historic commercial architecture in the 13 Factories area.

Traditional shophouses along Shangxiajiu Street.

Traditional shophouses along Shangxiajiu Street.

More instances of shophouses on Shangxiajiu Street.

More instances of shophouses on Shangxiajiu Street.

Ornate facade along Shangxiajiu Street.

Ornate facade along Shangxiajiu Street.

Close-up of detailing, depicting the gods of Fortune and Long Life.

Close-up of detailing, depicting the gods of Fortune and Long Life.

Old residences in the Old Town

Old residences in the Old Town

Old residences in the Old Town.

Old residences in the Old Town.

Cross between a shophouse residence and Xiguan residence in the Old Town.

Cross between a shophouse residence and Xiguan residence in the Old Town.

Xiguan residence in the Old Town.

Xiguan residence in the Old Town.

A more spectacular instance of Xiguan residence in the Old Town.

A more spectacular instance of Xiguan residence in the Old Town.

Part III – The Chan Clan Academy and Temple (陳家祠)

Approaching the front of the huge temple complex.

Approaching the front of the huge temple complex.

The plaque reads "The Chan Clan Academy."

The plaque reads “The Chan Clan Academy.”

Ornate wooden panelling, reminiscent of similar panelling in Southeast Asian temples.

Ornate wooden panelling, reminiscent of similar panelling in Southeast Asian temples.

The roofs of the temples are usually highly ornamented with mythical creatures.

The roofs of the temples are usually highly ornamented with mythical creatures.

One of the half a dozen courtyards within the complex.

One of the half a dozen courtyards within the complex.

The Central Hall, today a museum.

The Central Hall, today a museum.

The Ancestral Altar - this would have been populated with thousands of ancestral tablets commemorating the dead.  But all but two of these were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

The Ancestral Altar – this would have been populated with thousands of ancestral tablets commemorating the dead. But all but two of these were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Parting view of the Chan Clan Academy and Temple.

Parting view of the Chan Clan Academy and Temple.

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, China, Cities & Regions, Culture & Lifestyle, Landmarks & History, Photography, Sociology & Urban Studies, Travel & Mobility and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An Afternoon in Old Canton…

  1. Edison Wong says:

    Nice pics!

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