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)
Part II – The Commercial Quarter (廣州老鎮)
Part III – The Chan Clan Academy and Temple (陳家祠)