The greatest reminder of the colonial era in Guangzhou, perhaps in all of China, is the delightful Shamian Island. Lined with trees and old, run-down yet beautiful European buildings, it offers both a spot of respite from the fast-paced fury of Guangzhou and a fascinating glimpse into the past. Once a mere sandbank on the Pearl River, China was forced to lease Shamian Island to the British and French in 1859, towards the end of the Opium Wars. With the influx of foreigners from Britain, France, America, Holland, Germany, Portugal, Italy and Japan the island began to take on its current form as they built banks, churches, offices and residences. It remained as such an enclave until 1945 when it was taken by the Kuomintang.
Today, Shamian Island is a mesmerizing place. Imbued first and foremost with a most intoxicating atmosphere of colonial arrogance, it also impresses by its beautiful architecture and well-kept gardens. Various statues (mainly modern creations) on the island are also worth checking out, while there are plenty of souvenir shops (of questionable value) and a few restaurants and cafes. While it’s terrible to recommend a Starbucks in such a place, the outlet on Shamian Island provides a wonderful outlook and is housed in a beautiful building. All the old buildings on the island now bear English-language plaques explaining their original purpose and the year they were built. On Shamian Island you can also see locals engaged in Tai Chi, card games and even singing and dancing.
In terms of sights, the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes (14 Shamian Dajie; Open 8-18) is well worth a close look. This small but beautiful church was built by the French in 1892. The interior is simple but feels very peaceful and natural. Also worth a special squiz are the former British Consulate (on Shamian Nan Jie) and the Anglican Church opposite the White Swan Hotel. Although it’s fairly small (about 900m east to west and 300m north to south) you could easily spend a couple of hours taking in Shamian Island. Allow one hour as a minimum.
Directions: Take exit D from Huangsha subway station, go left as you exit and you soon come to a pedestrian overpass. Cross to the other side and you’re at the island.
Show the taxi driver: 请带我去沙面岛, 谢谢。 (Please take me to Shamian Island. Thank you.)