HK Museum of Art takes you back in time

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 January, 2010, 12:00am

Ah, Canton. The word evokes a sumptuous realm of oriental exotica. The city will be called Guangzhou again one day, but right now we're still in the 18th and 19th centuries - it's the heyday of Europeans' colonial adventurism and blatant Latinising of foreign place names.

But time is pressing and we'd better get moving.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen! I'm the Hong Kong Museum of Art and will be your guide. Let's begin our journey. An ancient port city on the Pearl River some 120km northwest of Hong Kong, Canton is regarded as the 'London of the East' by the many European merchants who have frequented this splendid city since the late 17th century.

They intend the comparison as a compliment, obviously. Still, Canton has little resemblance to a rain-lashed, fog-bound, grimy city where straitlaced, melancholic residents brood over cups of tea, imported from China, where else?.

No, sir, life in this prosperous Asian city during its halcyon days from 1757 to 1842, when Canton enjoyed a monopoly in China on foreign trade, is a vibrant cavalcade - an exotic medley of sights and sounds and tastes. Whether you arrive as a travelling sightseer or a hard-nosed merchant, you'll find much here marvel at.

On your left are examples of neoclassical European architecture rubbing shoulders with exquisite Chinese pagodas. On your right are splendid Dutch, British and Portuguese galleons and merchant ships among Chinese junks and barges plying the Pearl River.

It's regrettable we can't take pictures, but photography hasn't been invented yet. Instead, for a taste of rich period detail, immerse yourself in exquisite contemporary oil paintings, watercolours, prints and sketches. They depict the bustle of daily life and panoramic cityscapes in all their lavish particulars.

Let's not forget the markets. Canton is a labyrinthine warren of streets, alleys, promenades and thoroughfares where warehouses, retail stores, family shops, open-air bazaars and curbside stalls ply their wares.

Everything that contemporary citizens of the world crave is to be had here. The finest products of the Occident mingle with the treasures of the Orient, bought, traded and bartered ceaselessly with fervid banter. Fortunes are made - and sometimes lost. The language barrier between the natives and the Dutch, Swedish, Prussian, English, Portuguese traders is surpassed with the idiosyncratic Pidgin English locals have invented for the foreigners' benefit.

Canton is dominated by the Thirteen Hongs, or Factories. Several of these local manufacturers bear auspicious names such as Factory of Tranquility and Precious and Prosperous Factory and occupy two- and three-story buildings on the riverfront. Notice their Eurasian architecture. Constructed of white or beige low-fired bricks, their external walls are covered with neoclassical elements, topped with a greyish white or brick-red tile roof. Windows are framed in teak wood.

Whereas the exterior of many a building sports Western elegance, their interior follows traditional Cantonese design: a narrow lot punctuated by small courtyards.

In Chinese shop-houses, ground floors contain warehouses, offices and the sleeping quarters of valets, servants and labourers. Upstairs, on the second and third floors, merchants and their families live in elegant residences serviced by maids and butlers. The factories offer lodgings to visiting traders. Note, however, that the d?cor and amenities of the factories vary. The Imperial Factory is allegedly quite bare, even such basics as mirrors, soap and towels are said to be missing. The British East India Company's New English Factory, meanwhile, offers opulence in spades with its huge chandeliers, broad internal staircase, large verandahs, lavish dining hall, library and billiard room.

A word of caution: overstaying your welcome in Canton will incur penalties. Under Chinese law, foreigners who overstay their official permits will be carted off to Macao for the off-season months. But local authorities generally turn a blind eye to such transgressions.

Any questions? Very well then; now, off we go on our sightseeing tour of the city and the surrounding Pearl River Delta.

We'll visit attractions and historic monuments: landmarks, pagodas, ports and forts. All these have been immortalised on oil and watercolour paintings, and etched or painted on trade commodities such as silverware, ceramics, lacquers and handheld fans.

Canton also boasts a fine international cuisine, including oysters from Macau, Bombay duck (a dried fish from Bombay), bird's nest from Southeast Asia, dates from Nanking, and frogs from Canton.

One more thing: during their stay in the city, foreigners are confined to The Square (right in front of the factories), the Sea-Screen Temple at Honan, villas of Hong merchants and the Pearl River.

For all trips outside the factories' perimeters, foreigners must be accompanied by a Chinese translator. So please never wander off by yourself.

If by any chance you're called a fan kwae (foreign devil in the southern Chinese dialect) to your face by a local, do not retaliate, but rather turn tail and beat it.

Now, enjoy your stay!