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Museum of Art launches final edition of "South China Travel Guide"

     Following the success of the exhibition "The Ultimate South China Travel Guide – Canton" held last year, the Hong Kong Museum of Art will launch from tomorrow (September 10) the "last episode" of the series, in which another 50 historical pictures will be introduced to visitors.

     To tie in with the previous edition, this exhibition focuses on the history of and travelling in the Canton region from the middle to the end of the 19th century, when China was in regular conflict with Western powers. Serving as a holographic travel guide, the exhibition offers tips and information crucial to travelling in the region after the Opium War, detected and unlocked from the historical paintings and artifacts on display.

     By the mid-19th century, wind-driven merchantmen vessels had gradually been replaced by steamships which made travel in South China much easier. The journey between Europe and South China had then been shortened from several to about two months. Ocean steamers normally made their South China destination Hong Kong, and passengers then transferred to Canton by river steamers that operated on a regular and convenient schedule.

     Lodging arrangements and location were determined by the consequences of diplomatic and military conflicts between China and Britain. Between 1839 and 1856, lodging was offered at the factory site reserved for Westerners in a western suburb outside Canton. Unfortunately, this site burned down in December 1856 during the Second Opium War. The foreign settlement was temporarily located at Honam (Honan/ Henan), a large island across the river from Canton. In 1859, the reclaimed mud bank of Shameen was leased by Western merchants to rebuild their settlement.

     The foreign community had believed that the right to move freely within the treaty ports had been won, granted and settled through Britain's victory in the First Opium War. But in reality, there were many on-going disputes over this issue between the Chinese and British authorities. Sightseeing was in general restricted to Honam, Fati and the grand private mansions and gardens of the hong merchants. During the Second Opium War, while Canton was occupied by British and French troops, many scenic spots, especially those in the circumference of the city walls, were discovered, initially by members of the army and thereafter added to the itineraries of civilian travellers. In 1860, when the war ended with China's second defeat, foreigners gradually gained access to more places and sightseeing destinations multiplied.

     Shopping was a big deal in Canton. If travellers were in a rush, they could go to streets devoted to selling a single commodity, like furniture, jade-stone, chinaware, silk, etc. For those who had sufficient time and wanted to hunt for things other than export art, then Physic (or Curio) Street was worth venturing into. Shops were amply stocked with curiosities such as traditional Chinese crafts, antique (and imitations of) porcelain and bronzes. 

     In Canton, rowing and sailing were a big hit with Westerners. The Canton Regatta Club, founded in 1837, organised regattas and sailing contests. On Shameen, a large variety of sports was practised, including pony-riding, lawn tennis, croquet and bowling. Balls and wildfowl shooting expeditions were also favourite activities for Westerners.

    During and between the two Opium Wars, increasing hostility exhibited by the Cantonese people towards foreigners was often a very real and present source of danger. On December 7, 1842, for instance, a fire resulting from a riot destroyed the British, Dutch and Greek factories. During the Second Opium War, the factory site was totally destroyed in a conflagration. Foreigners’ safety was at serious risk during this period.

     Macao was a peninsula at the southern tip of Heung Shan County (Xiangshan), located to the west of the mouth of the Pearl River. Portuguese had long been settled there but Portugal's sovereignty was not formally recognised by China until 1887. Back in the days when foreign merchants were not allowed to stay in Canton beyond the winter trading season, Macao was where they resided, some with their families who were strictly forbidden entry to Canton or the foreign factories settlement. Over time, Macao managed to retain a pleasing European ambience cherished by visitors who enjoyed its quiet walks, fresh sea breezes and delightful gardens. Since the 1850s, the Macao government had been vigorously supporting the gambling industry to augment its tax revenue. Travellers could entertain themselves with various gambling games.

     For travellers of the postwar period, there was a new port of call -- a small island on the southeast coast of the Pearl River Delta named Hong Kong. Ratified as a colony at the defeat of the Chinese and the subsequent Treaty of Nanking in 1842, this British outpost was named Victoria, in honour of Queen Victoria. With one of the finest harbours in the world, Hong Kong was the sea port for ocean steamers in South China. Most travellers would stop by, before and after their journey to Canton. They would set aside a few days and savour the town before they drew their own conclusions about it.

     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/Thursday, September 9, 2010


The Façade of the Church of St. Paul featured in this painting was a favourite scenic spot in Macao in the 19th century. Built by the Jesuits, the church was damaged by fire a few times and reconstructed. The costly structure built in the 17th century was razed by the great fire of January 1835, leaving only this granite façade.


This painting, created by Yonqua in 1854, captures a panoramic view of Victoria City (Hong Kong was named Victoria City after it was occupied by Britain in 1842). Compared with other works by Yonqua, it shows that by 1854 Hong Kong's landscape had undergone an astonishing transformation from a small colony into a Western city within a few years. Splendid buildings of trading firms line the shore, while handsome European-style houses terrace the mountain slopes.


This painting shows a street scene near the Canton Foreign Factories in 1851. The streets are very narrow, crowded and paved with large, smooth, granite slabs. Large wooden signboards hang in the shops' doorways, bearing the name of the business in black or gilded characters.




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