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Old world European charms in Chinese islands

Shamian and Gulangyu are two of the few preserved "colonial islands" in mainland China, rich with history and full of beautiful colonial buildings and gardens

Shamian Island is unremarkable.

At least, by the standards of a Mainland Chinese Tourist Attraction. A sandbank island within Guangzhou city, it measures a mere 900m from east to west. It has no marquee-name landmarks. The Mandarin version of Lonely Planet hardly bothers to mention it.

But it is one of the few preserved "colonial islands" in mainland China. A piece of old-world Europe adrift in the middle of an Asian metropolis.

Crossing the foot bridge that links Shamian Island to Guangzhou is like going from a frenetic traffic intersection to a hushed cathedral.

  • GETTING THERE

  • Shamian Island: Located in the Liwan district of Guangzhou city. Take subway line 1 to Huangsha station and then take Exit F.

    Gulangyu: A 20-minute ferry ride from Xiamen International Cruise Terminal, in Xiamen.

    Ferries depart throughout the day and a return fare costs 35 yuan (S$7.60).

    Various airlines operate direct flights from Singapore to Guangzhou and Xiamen.

There are pretty manicured gardens, with fountains and cast stone planters filled with blooms. Towering colonial buildings stand like quiet sentries, watching over this island which seems unmoored from the influence of time and development.

There is no hint in serene Shamian of the turbulent past. Between the 19th and 20th century, the island was a palimpsest upon which the bloodstained arc of modern China's history was traced.

In 1841, gunshots sparked the Opium War and ignited a rush by Western powers and Japan to "carve up" pieces of China for themselves through unequal treaties. Coastal cities such as Amoy and Canton (now known as Xiamen and Guangzhou respectively) became treaty ports. And in 1859, the British and French divvied up Shamian Island into concession zones - in effect, these were mini European enclaves.

Entry and exit was guarded by Western sentries and Chinese were not allowed to own property on Shamian. Cut off from the rest of China by a sliver of water, the island became a floating world of leafy boulevards and colonial manors, which are still seen today.

The island witnessed the "June 23 incident" in 1925, when some 50 Chinese anti-imperialist demonstrators were gunned down by British guards.

After the 1949 communist revolution, the island's manors were opened up as housing for the masses, its churches turned into factories to fuel the engines of New China.

But today, the island is less a hotbed for the proletariat as it is a pleasant, gentrified neighbourhood.

The former French police station has been converted into a cafe that serves expensive kopi luwak (civet coffee). Shamian is also home to possibly the prettiest Starbucks (50-52 Shamian Street) in Guangzhou - the American coffee chain is housed in a two-storey villa, painted Tiffany blue, with white arches and balustrades.

Starbucks notwithstanding, the island has (so far) escaped being nipped and tucked to Disneyfied levels. The rhythms of local life continue: Children, liberated from school, glide across the park in bicycles. Elderly women stop on the roads to exchange neighbourhood gossip.

Shamian Island is best for a contemplative stroll, especially when paired with a tour of the nearby historic district of Liwan.

Visitors who come close to dusk will be rewarded, for this is when the island reveals her best side.

Bathed in the amber rays of late afternoon, the fountains sparkle, the banyan trees look lusher, and dramatic shadows fall like a veil across the island's dignified buildings.

Local shutterbugs descend on the island during this golden hour, photographing young models, who coyly peek out from behind stunning Tuscan columns.

Shamian Island is considered a national level heritage site, and conservation laws apply. Residents, for instance, have to seek permission before they can modify the interiors of historic homes.

Some heritage structures, such as the Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel (14 Shamian Street), have been beautifully restored and reopened to the public.

Others, such as the former Bank of Taiwan (26 Shamian Street), are not accessible to visitors, but most people seem content to admire their handsome facades.

Over in Xiamen, where I continue my trip through Southern China, there is no avoiding the crowds at Gulangyu.

A 20-minute ferry ride from Xiamen, the island is the city's tourism trump card. Almost every inch of Gulangyu's 2 sq km area is crammed with elegant colonial buildings, and the area is fully car-free.

Like Shamian, Gulangyu was the child of unique historical circumstances. It was designated as an international settlement in 1903, and attracted foreign communities who lavished the maze-like streets with churches, consulates, banks, schools and luxurious residences.

Wealthy overseas Chinese also constructed villas which married Chinese features and western Art Deco. And so was born a hybrid architectural style: "Amoy-Deco".

The island suffered during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards entered homes to smash pianos (instruments of the "Western bourgeois") and defaced villas with slogans such as "Long Live Chairman Mao!"

But in recent years, tourism has given impetus to conservation efforts. Gulangyu started to apply to become a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008, and hopes to receive full status next year.

However, visitors must be prepared for the crush of domestic tourists, which thins out ever-so- slightly on weekdays and evenings. Recently, international visitors and non-residents of Xiamen have to pay for a more expensive ferry ticket - an attempt to regulate tourist numbers.

The island's commercial core begins near the ferry terminal, with shops and eateries lining the snaking streets of Longtou and Quanzhou Road.

Crowds converge at attractions, including Shuzhuang Garden (7 Gangzaihou Road), a beautiful Chinese-style garden and the impressive Piano museum (located inside Shuzhuang Garden) which houses over 100 antique pianos. And few people skip climbing up Sunlight Rock, the highest point in the island, for views of Xiamen city.

But the best parts of Gulangyu are the quiet back lanes, far away from the jam-packed tourist core.

Conspicuously free of ticketed attractions, you can take your time to wander around and contemplate the many old villas, which are in varying states of upkeep.

Not all of Gulangyu's residents have the money to maintain these lavish historic homes.

Some have been converted into bed and breakfasts, while others have fallen into disrepair. But strangely, it is the shabbier, derelict buildings which make me pause and ponder.

There is a certain melancholic charm in these forgotten structures. In their crumbling bricks and ivy-covered gates is a wistful echo of past wealth and glories, gently smoothed over by the inevitable march of time.


• Jeanne Tai is associate deputy editor of Her World magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'China's colonial charms'. Print Edition | Subscribe