AN AMERICAN IN CHINA: 1936-39 A Memoir

An oasis of green in the heart of modern Guangzhou. It seems cars, banned before the war, are now allowed.

Shameen - Shamian


Slide Show

Until the Japanese seized it in 1941, Shameen, now called Shamian, had been the home for the foreign residents of Canton since 1863. Before that time it was no more than a patch of sand used as a garbage dump. It is said that the remaining foreigners in 1941 were piled onto boats at what is now the luxurious White Swan Hotel and dispatched by the Japanese to concentration camps in northeast China.
In the previous era, addresses were either B.C., or F.C., for British or French concessions, the primary divisions of the island, for it was Britain and France who were chiefly responsible for its development.. There was room for banks, offices with residences, country clubs, schools and churches on the island, many of whose residents would leave it only for quick shopping excursions in the nearby city. Tess Johnston writes in her book “The Last Colonies”:

Much has been lost but there still remains a little island of tranquility and loveliness, an anachronism anchored at the edge of the bustling modern metropolis of Canton.

Original Victoria Hotel, Shameen

A rate photograph of the old Victoria Hotel, on the canal in the British Concession.
G.H. Thomas stayed here for several months after the fall of Canton in October 1938.
The Chinese, ever resourceful, have renamed it the Victory Hotel. The present hotel
is now based in a modern building not far
from the original.

The beautifully restored French Church on Shameen.





On Dec. 5, 1938 G.H. Thomas, transferred to the Texaco office in Canton from Chungking, writes:


"Canton was subjected for a whole year to what was probably the most intensive bombing of the war. Their attacks reached their culmination in June, when the planes came in relays of 15 or 20 at a time very two hours. Moonlit nights were simply a hell for the Cantonese and stormy days their only blessings. ..."

The old Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.

Dec. 9, 1938

"We are virtually prisoners here and I feel bound up and choked by the situation after just one week. This “island” of Shameen is about five blocks long by three blocks wide, with sandbags and barbed wire all about and armed guards at the two small bridges to the mainland. .. No motors or rickshaws are allowed — or have ever been allowed on Shameen. There are a few bicycles, but most people just walk.

With no traffic of any sort, no streets are needed, so we have nothing but sidewalks, with wide boulevards of grass and trees and flowers in between.
It is really quite a lovely, restful spot.




An unidentified restoration in Shamian.

Canton Bund in the 1930's showing its proximity to leafy Shameen, just beyond the buildings at center.

AA view of the modern bridge circling the old English Park that
leads to the White Swan Hotel, tower at left. There is talk that the bridge will be removed as it destroys the view.

This building appears to be the old Texaco Office, where the author and his wife and two children lived after the war in 1947. The verandas, once open to the air, appear to have been filled in, as they frequently are in the old colonial buildings in China. This building was also once home to the Danish firm of Anderson, Meyer.

A distinctive feature of the building is the curved cement bay below the windows. In the recent restoration, many Shamian buildings, painted in a previous effort in rather garish colors, seem to have reverted more or less to their original appeaance.

Above is the old Asiatic Petroleum Building. It has evidently
been carefully restored to its orginal grandeur. According to Tess Johnston in her book “The Last Colonies,” it was built at the turn of the 20th century as the German Consulate
It also served as the Dutch consulate at one time.
At the current time, numerous buildings are being renovated in a giant project to be finished in 2008.

Here is the old Texaco Office building as it looked in 1947 in a photograph taken by the author. It contained apartments on the upper floors for the chief employees. It appears to have been painted all white. The elegant wall with grillwork opposite surely belong to the Asiatic Petroleum Building. See photograph at above left.

Shameen from the Air in the 1930s.

This aerial photo, taken in the mid-1930s, shows, white ships from left to right,
the daily ferry to Hong Kong, a British gunboat and an American gunboat.
Notice the abundance of greenery (in stark contrast to the surrounding city), a trait
prized to this very day. If you look carefully, you can see clusters of sampans off the Shameen bund.
These boat people, once a part of life around the island, have long since vanished.

A view of the old English Bridge connecting Shameen
to Canton City in the early part of the 20th century.
At one time there were hundreds of boat people
surrounding the island. They have all gone.

A handA hand

Since the early 2000s, Shamian Island has become well known for the many Western couples who reside there while seeking to adopt Chinese babies and young children, most of whom are orphaned and female. Their hotel of choice is the White Swan.


A rare early view of the French Bureau de Poste, or Post Office in the French Concession of Shameen.

It is easy to see how Westerners took to Shameen in the prewar days.
It was a European transplant on the edge of, but separate from, bustling Canton.
In fact, it still is, as this contemporary photograph shows.


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