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Shamian Island: Lost in Time

Is it the absence of direct sunshine, the oblique, halfhearted way the frail light falls, that makes this island float in and out of focus, like a dream, on the opaque waters of the vast Pearl River Delta?

You have to cross a bridge to get there, a solid concrete arch over the slow khaki- colored canal separating Shamian island from the ancient, crowded alleys of Guanghzhou alongside it. Many of the city’s over ten million bustling inhabitants trade in much the same way as their ancestors did centuries before them; dwarfed by shoulder high sacks of petrified starfish, seahorses and enormous brown rolls of papery cinnamon thick and long as a man’s arm.

Above the modern traffic nightmare hawkers on the pedestrian bridge hunch over foul-smelling tiger claws, horns, and other gruesome paraphernalia arranged meticulously on tired cloth.

Once over the bridge we turn sharp left along a narrow paved road that winds around the entire island. Here in this abrupt and astonishing sanctuary the sounds are different. I hear low voices in slow conversation, the shrill ring of high heels on old stone, birds sing in the gnarled branches of ancient Banyan trees lining the street, a remarkable slow peace seems to hold the place. It’s uncannily hushed, compared to the chaos across the bridge.

But then, the island has a history of setting itself apart. After the notorious Opium wars in 1859 this sandy land mass was split in two giving four fifths to the British and a mere one fifth to the French. The Chinese didn’t even come into the equation.

During that colonial period, the island cut itself off from the mainland at 10pm sharp every night, a security measure to keep its cluster of European traders safe and separate from the churning masses of the mainland.

Once we deposit our luggage at the Guangdong Victory Hotel – an old colonial-style outpost that has had some glorious ups and sincerely shabby downs -- I waste no time. I’m out on that street, this time on foot in flat sandals. I follow the canal on its way to its final surge into the Pearl River itself. There are some empty restaurants with empty chairs spilling out onto silent jungle-like gardens hung with rows of red lanterns hinting at busier more festive evenings. Even in China, particularly here on this somewhat un-Chinese outpost, this is the quiet time between meals. It is late afternoon and the blear of sun offers scant opposition to the oncoming night.

My plan is not a plan. I simply weave my way up and down random side streets leading off the river road. In places the quiet is broken by the surprising cacophony of school children at play in a street otherwise deserted.

I round a corner coming to what I imagine is the shady green center of the island; a series of picturesque formal gardens. Things hot up here a bit. People stroll by at an island pace and everywhere I turn, brides in white seem to appear. They are posing everywhere, dainty and perfect as china dolls and surrounded by large attentive entourages of photographers and family.

Further down the road I come to a major bridal hub, photographers and brides are streaming out of the main door. Through the windows I catch glimpses of serious pre-wedding tête-à-têtes, brides and grooms sitting stiffly across the tables from immaculate young wedding consultants in black pencil skirts and pointed high heels, between them piles of massive, unwieldy, hard covered catalogues. A part of me thinks it wonderfully ironic that this tiny island, a shameless memorial of European colonialism, should be so popular a background for well heeled Chinese bridal couples whose history and traditions could not be more different.

Back on the Pearl River, right up near the White Swan Hotel, famed as the preferred accommodation for foreigners adopting Chinese babies, I turn left again and follow the river. Its getting dark and the multi-storied buildings across the water light up in bright ripples of changing color.

I come across one of many recreational areas, cement tiled but broken by the green sweep of some very old trees. I hear music, old fashioned sounding music, loud but distorted. Couples, men and women, women and women, straight-arm formally in the fading light. Red lanterns bob overhead.

Such an otherworldly place Shamian Island, quaint and old fashioned. If it weren’t for the very contemporary animation of sudden brides and school children, I would think it lived only in the imaginations of the timeless couples who earnestly dip and sway along the stone banks of the languid Pearl River.

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