More than a century ago, the Mandarins of Guangzhou designated a 1-km-long sandbank outside the city walls in the Pearl River as an enclave for foreign merchants. The foreigners had previously lived and done business in a row of houses known as the Thirteen Factories, near the present Shamian, but local resentment after the Opium Wars—sometimes leading to murderous attacks—made it prudent to confine them to a protected area, which was linked to the city by two bridges that were closed at 10 every night.
The island soon became a bustling township, as trading companies from Britain, the United States, France, Holland, Italy, Germany, Portugal, and Japan built stone mansions along the waterfront. With spacious gardens and private wharves, these served as homes, offices, and warehouses. There were churches for Catholics and Protestants, banks, a yacht club, football grounds, a cricket field, and the Victory hotel.
Shamian became a fighting ground during the anti-imperialist
Shakee massacre in 1925, but survived until the 1949 Revolution, when its mansions became government offices or apartment houses and the churches were turned into factories. In recent years, the island has resumed much of its old character. Many colonial buildings have been restored, and churches like Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church have been beautifully renovated and reopened to worshippers.
Especially worth visiting is a park with shady walks and benches that has been created in the center of the island, where local residents come to chat with friends, walk around with their caged birds, or practice tai chi.