Ever since the Ming Dynasty agreed to permit oceanic trade with the West on limited terms at Canton (today’s Guangzhou), foreign adventurers and traders called upon the Chinese coast. The evidence of their heyday can still be seen on the banks of the Pearl River in Guangzhou. During the Qing Dynasty imperial edict restricted the foreign traders to a row of 13 warehouses and offices known at the “13 Factories” (十三行). All of the usual suspects in the China trade were there: the Brits, the French, the Americans, the Spanish, and then a few of the smaller powers including the Danes and the Swedes. The name itself – the 13 factories – is somewhat confusing. The facilities were not production sites. The name is derived from the Latin descended word “Factor” meaning “one who does.”
The factories are no longer present although their original location can be seen in the vacinity of Guangzhou’s Wenhua Park (文化公园). During the era of tea clippers and the fabulous fortunes to be made in the China trade, foreign factors were limited in their movements within China and restricted in the amount of time they could even reside within China proper. The factories were located outside the city walls of Guangzhou and foreign factors were only allowed to reside there during the trading season. The rest of the year they had to return to their countries or else to Macau. Trade was conducted between the foreigners and Chinese through a state approved monopoly merchant guild called the Cohong (公行). An imperial official called the Hoppo oversaw the trade and ensured taxes and duties were properly paid.
And so it went until the foreign powers decided they no longer wished to obey Chinese trading law. The 1793 Macartney Mission by the British attempted to convince Emperor Qianlong to open northern China to trade as well. Qianlong refused. The British in particular became increasingly incensed at the restrictions on trade – particularly the rule that all tea and silk had to be purchased in silver.
The requirement to conduct all trade in silver proved highly problematic for the British. The national appetite for tea and other Chinese luxuries was bottomless but the national treasury and store of precious metals was not. They solved the problem in the fields of Bengal – then a British colony. By growing vast amounts of cheap opium and flooding it illegally into the Chinese market for silver, the traders could then purchase Chinese trade goods using their own silver.
As much as the West wants to romanticize the era of tea clippers and China traders, we must remember what they really were: drug traffickers. Opium was illegal in China and the addiction was crippling. The British, Americans and others peddled the drug in order to gain access to Chinese goods. Plain and simple – drugs for tea. For a modern view of life in the 13 Factories and the role of the China traders, opium, and war in the creation of modern China, check out the 1997 film: “The Opium War” (鸦片战争).
After the First Opium War (not the finest hour for the British; think about it: they started a war with China for no reason other than China dared to begin enforcing its own law regarding an illegal drug – one also illegal in Britain), trade began to shift away from Guangzhou and further up the coast to Shanghai and elsewhere. The factories burned down in 1859 during the Second Opium War. The British, ever resourceful, strong-armed their way into getting a concession in Guangzhou. A small sand spit in the Pearl River adjacent to the old factories called Shamian Island was divided between the British and French as a consession – an area for foreigners outside Chinese jurisdiction. The island was connected to the mainland by two bridges, guarded by British Sikhs and French Vietnamese soldiers.
On the island, the colonial powers created a tropical and Imperial version of their home architecture. Wide verandas and high ceilings helped air to circulate and provided places to socialize in the relative cool of the evening. They built offices, mansions, warehouses and churches – many of which are still preserved to this day. Today, Shamian Island is a pleasant escape from the hustle and bustle of Guangzhou. Many of the buildings have been restored and reopened. Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church – built by the French in 1892 holds Mass every Sunday at 9:30 AM.
Pick a sunny day or a peaceful evening and take a stroll through Shamian Island – you won’t regret it.