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Exhibition takes visitors back to Canton of old

About 50 sets of paintings and artefacts depicting the daily life and landscape of Canton of the 18th and 19th centuries are currently being showcased at the Hong Kong Museum of Art from today (September 14) until March 28 next year.

The exhibition, “The Ultimate South China Travel Guide - Canton”, serves as a holographic travel guide offering practical destination information complete with the do’s and don’ts of days gone by and a shop-till-you-drop directory catering specifically to the needs of foreign travellers in the 1800s. Visitors can imagine travelling back in time and visiting the Canton of old.

Canton, known today as Guangzhou, was once known as the “London of the East”. Opened as a trade port under the Qing regime, Canton enjoyed a monopoly on foreign trade for about 80 years from 1757 to 1842. Before the First Opium War, it was the most accessible city in China.

The fastest way to Canton was by boat during that time. It took only about four to five months from European countries. China trade was so profitable that the East India Companies of various countries conducted regular fleets to and from Canton each year. This in turn connected Canton with ports all over the world. Ships sailed only during the trading season, which started in summer and ended in January or February of the following year. Under Chinese law, foreigners who failed to leave Canton on time had to spend the off-season months in Macau. Whampoa was the final stop before Canton, where the ship anchored throughout the trading season. All goods and passengers were offloaded and transported further upstream to Canton on boats and barges. The ship was measured for port fees. Crews and sailors had to stay there or within surrounding Danes Island and French Island, where fresh supplies and material for ship repairs were provided.

Whether visitors there were on holiday or on a business trip, their choice of accommodation was the factories. To cater for the needs of travellers, the majority of whom were traders, the factories adopted a concept of “business-and-bed”. The lower floors were work zones which housed offices, warehouses, the vault, rooms of the comprador, valets, servants, coolies and so on. The upper floors were residential which provided dining rooms, sitting rooms and bedchambers. These factories, usually two or three-storeys, were long rectangular blocks that extended to the north with a façade facing south. The factory architecture was Eurasian in style, but the structure was totally Cantonese.

Since Canton opened for foreign trade, the Qing government requested foreigners to abide by a number of rules and restrictions to keep them from troublemaking. For example, no females or weapons were allowed in the factories. Excursions were only allowed on the 8th, 18th and 28th day of the lunar month. All trips outside the perimeters of the factories had to be in the company of a Chinese translator, locally known as a linguist. Their accessibility was limited to Fati, the Sea-screen Temple at Honan, villas of the Hong merchants and the Pearl River.

The favourite excursion for every foreigner in South China was a trip to a Hong merchant’s estate. Banquets and parties hosted by the Hong merchants were frequent there. These grand soirees were usually complete with treats including fireworks and Cantonese opera. The wealthy hosts set up a large stage in their private residence, with guests seated to view from a raised platform. Before the show, there was a performance menu from which the audience was invited to pick their favourite show.

Hong merchants were the few wealthy Chinese merchants licensed to deal with foreigners, acting as “security merchants” responsible for foreign ships, for prepaying all government duties and fees, setting prices for imports and exports, hiring staff for the factories, ensuring the safety of foreigners, and getting punished instead if the latter misbehaved. Compared with all these duties, the foreign Supercargo only needed to settle his accounts before leaving Canton.

Shopping was a big deal in Canton, whether it was for official business or private trade. Company business concerned bulk purchase for export to foreign markets. The three main export commodities, usually shipped out in tonnes, were tea, silk and porcelain. Under the order of the government, deals had to be made through Hong merchants instead of directly with plants or manufacturers. Sailors and other travellers were free to buy all kinds of Cantonese arts and crafts, local produce, wine and food, tea in small quantities for personal use or for sale upon their return. About 70 to 100 shops made this small quarter one of the greatest shopping centres of all time. To make it easier for foreigner customers, many shops added a small plaque by the door, with the shop’s name in English, or briefly listing the type of goods for sale.

Foreign visitor mainly dined at the factories which provided four to five meals every day. Canton was a city for gourmands. It hosted the international forum of fine food. Visitors could easily enjoy a taste of the world at a dinner table, where could be found Shad from North America, oysters from Macau, Bombay Duck (a dried fish from Bombay), bird’s nest from Southeast Asia, dates from Nanking, and frogs from the region.

People interested in seeing more about the old Canton, should visit the exhibition before it ends.

The Museum of Art is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm from Sunday to Wednesday and Fridays, and from 10am to 8pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Thursdays (except public holidays). Admission is $10 and a half-price concession is available to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

 For enquiries, please visit the Museum of Art's website at or call 2721 0116.

Ends/Monday, September 14, 2009


This painting capturing the ranks of soldiers outside a British Factory shows the large verandahs dressed with blinds, which give viewers a feel of how nice and cool the rooms were.


The favourite excursion for foreigner in South China was a trip to a Hong merchant's estate. This painting depicts the villa and garden of Howqua, just a stone's throw from the Sea-screen Temple. This was a family of immense wealth who had produced a few generations of Hong merchants, a hereditary post. The villa was furnished in English style, with a fireplace and floors of imported marble, where European chandeliers echoed a collection of Italian paintings, counterbalanced by elaborately carved and gilded Chinese interiors.


Banquets and parties were frequent in Canton's Hong merchants of the 19th century. Grand soirees were usually completed with treats including fireworks and Cantonese opera. The painting shows the wealthy host who set up a large stage for Cantonese Opera in his private residence, with guests seated to view from a raised platform.


The New China Street in this painting shows both sides of the street lined with two-storey shops. The upper floor usually had a small verandah bordered with windows in glass or with shutters whereas the ground floor or façade of the shop decorated with wooden carved lattice panels. Visitors could find all kinds of shops on one street.



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