Nellie’s dates: 25-26 December 1889
My dates: 16-17 September 2014
Shamian Island, Canton, China
Predictably, both Nellie and I felt most at home on Shamian, a tiny island once set aside for Europeans. Surrounded by water, Shamian or Shameen, resembles a large ship mooring alongside a wharf. Crossing to the island over charming white stone footbridges, you enter another reality.
Nellie wrote it was “green and picturesque, with handsome houses of Oriental design, and grand shade trees, and wide, velvety green roads…”, broken only by a single path, made by the bare feet of the chair-carriers.”
More than 150 western-style buildings — consulates, churches, banks, post offices, telegraph offices, hospitals, residences and hotels — were built on Shamian. Proud of its colonial heritage, the little island signposts its splendid past seen in gracious foreign consulates that have since opted for Canton’s soaring Central Business District (CBD).
Many of Shamian’s fine buildings are labelled — directing you straight back to colonial times. I found the former American Consulate where Nellie challenged her companions.
“Here for the first time since leaving New York, I saw the stars and stripes. It was floating over the gateway to the American Consulate. The moment I saw it floating there in then soft, lazy breeze I took off my cap and said: “That is the most beautiful flag in the world, and I am ready to whip anyone who says it isn’t.”
“No one said a word. Everyone was afraid,” she wrote. “I saw an Englishman in the party glance towards the Union Jack, which was floating over the English Consulate, but in a hesitating manner, as if he feared to let me see.”
Many of the places Nellie saw on Shamian 125 years ago still exist in their original roles — the tennis courts, Christ Church and Queen’s Park.