If walls had ears and buildings could talk then the old Butterfield & Swire shipping office, former British consulate, Christian Mission residence and colonial post office in Yichang, on the banks of Yangtze river, would make captivating dinner-party guests.

Instead, you have to make do with your imagination as you run your hand down the Victorian banisters and over the original mantelpieces, pat the walls and tread with purpose on the floorboards: who else stepped here?

You twist the brass knobs of the imposing, built-to-last panel doors, slowly pushing them open onto cavernous rooms, hoping to intrude on the unsuspecting apparitions of the building’s former residents and visitors: the merchants, hongs, captains of ships and industry, sons of empires and religious charity givers, tenacious missionary women in tweed skirts and fine hats mingling with stuffy, pipe-smoking European collars and ties, abacus-clacking Hubei traders and silk-gowned mandarins.

Most travellers to Yichang are in transit, hurrying to and from airport lounges and along pontoons at the Yangtze cruise ship docks a few miles upstream. They have little if any time to ponder the port city’s past and present. You can’t blame them. As in most second-tier Chinese municipalities, history has been muscled out of this city’s modernity-obsessed narrative and is obscured by the shadows of its concrete, glass and steel forest of high-rises, malls and cranes, the echoes of the past muffled by the din of traffic.

Much of the official promotional bumpf gushes hyperbole at the same rate as the Three Gorges Dam – located 26km upstream – discharges water; unfathomable sentences that call on readers to entertain contrived parallels: “Efforts have been made to push Yichang, the vice-centre of Hubei province, into a world-known hydroelectric tourism city and the Geneva of the East.”

The Swiss reference is a nod to the reservoir that has risen on the other side of the Three Gorges Dam, which on completion in 2009 turned the foaming, gurgling, moody, unpredictable, flooding, raging, life-taking, hull-wrecking Yangtze into a passive, chocolate-box picture cover lake, sans sweet alpine air.

If hydroelectric tourism is your bag, then Yichang is your Mecca: the Gezhouba Dam, completed in 1988, lies a few kilometres downstream from the behemoth and is within the city limits, and situated on the nearby Yangtze tributary, the Qing River, is the Geheyan Dam.

There’s more to Yichang than hydro-engineering and “7km of container shipping wharfs”, however. Meandering along its landscaped embankment and clean, tree-lined, easy-walking streets in the old waterfront district, where the foreign legations once stood, the past, present and future are your fellow pedestrians.

Rivers afford metropolises light and add vibrancy, bringing trade and affluence. Yichang also has a relaxed, confident ambience and boasts airy views across the watercourse that has long been its lifeblood to the steep and wooded Wulong (“five dragons”) Hills on the south bank.

The river’s width has narrowed because of the dams and reclamation, and the wide embankment steps – once a tangle of moorings, passengers and cargo arriving from Shanghai – today draw locals to sit and watch the river traffic. Amblers stroll along the water’s edge as the sun rays dance an early evening waltz along the mountain ridges that line the horizon; amateur fishermen wade into deeper water from shallows where children splash under watchful parental eyes.

Yichang has played an important role in shaping China’s destiny over the centuries. It lies, depending on your direction of travel, at the start or end of the mighty Three Gorges – a series of chasm and mountain ranges defined by legend, ghosts and rock effigies, lyrical names, tragedy, warlords, invaders, bloodshed, trade and romance, carved by the “river of golden sand” that snakes its way to Tibet and Qinghai and beyond to, as the ancients believed, the heavens.

Known at various times as Yiling and I-chang, from as early as 278BC, the city was prized territory for the dynasties fighting for dominance of the Middle Kingdom.

Repeatedly razed, ransacked and claimed over the centuries, it wasn’t until 1877 that Yichang began its long, painful transformation from vulnerable riverside settlement and victim of combat strategy into the modern, ambitious metropolis of 1.4 million that it is today.

It became a treaty port with the signing of the 1876 Chefoo (Yantai) Convention with Britain. As the farthest inland trading centre, it was viewed by the foreigners as a launch pad into the untapped western interior and all its bounty – spices, tea, minerals and, of course, customers.

Some refer to the October 1938 Yichang Retreat as “China’s Dunkirk”. As the Japanese invaders rampaged west after taking Wuhan, the city’s officials organised a flotilla of industry, intellect and culture – essential personnel, machinery, libraries and museum collections – to sail upstream to what would become the wartime capital, Chongqing. The Imperial Army occupied the city but it marked the furthest westward advance of Japan, such was the challenge posed by the Yangtze rapids and the gorges.

I meet up with retired Communist Party official and government officer George Lee Mingyi at the Yichang Museum, where one room is given over to the 70th anniversary of the Japanese occupation; a thoughtful collection of old photographs and official papers from that dark period. The museum is small enough to view in a couple of hours and exhibits artefacts saved from the Yangtze Dam flood and mock-ups of bucolic dwellings.

Lee is an amateur historian and his forthcoming book, Memories of International Settlers in Yichang, details the lives of six foreigners who helped shape the city during its pre-war, pre-1949 existence. These notable men and women – a botanist, a sinologist, a missionary, a river pilot, a merchant and an imperial customs official – spent a considerable amount of time in what was considered a remote posting.

“I wrote the book because I think young people need to learn about the foreigners who helped shape their city. They are part of our history yet we know little about them and their work and lives here,” explains Lee, as we visit Yichang’s remaining colonial buildings, most serendipitously tucked away behind gates and walls.

The old post office is a restaurant called Si He Yuan, the British consulate, erected in 1893, the Ai Wei boutique hotel.

The Butterfield & Swire office and the Scottish Missionary residence are now local government offices, though their façades and interior features remain intact.

Lee encourages me to look up as we navigate old Signal Road. Evidence of those frontier days peers down from the balconies and windows that top the neon-festooned small retail and noodle shops of the ground floors.

Lee uses black and white photos from the 19th and early 20th century as reference maps; we pass segments of the old city wall, the first women’s hospital, set up by Scottish-New Zealander missionary Mary Emelia Moore, one of his subjects, and walk across Nanhu Park, the site of a small lake that bordered her orphanage.

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Sunday evening worship is being observed in the imposing St Francis Cathedral, the pews sparsely populated by a handful of locals and five young Indians, visiting engineering students.

The church, built in 1883, is one of the largest in China and as well as the Japanese occupation, it has survived anti-imperialist Boxer rebels, Cultural Revolution vandals and post-Mao Zedong crackdowns.

As evening approaches, Chinese opera singers and musicians strike up in the pagoda and pavilions of the landscaped embankment, dance students waltz across plazas, children’s fairground rides spark into life, food stalls clink and clank as they open for business, and parents and grandparents chase toddlers around playgrounds.

Couples and dog walkers emerge from the dusk and stroll idly to the water’s edge, drawn as if hypnotised to the ceaseless flowing river. If you listen carefully, you can hear the whispers of Yichang’s past in the current of time.