Sue Anne Tay is a Singaporean photographer best known for her poignant images of Shanghai's rapidly urbanizing landscape and the people who live in it. Her blog, Shanghai Street Stories, combines photo-journalistic instincts for a story and an artistic eye for the moment that result in an incredibly compelling visual storyboard of the fast-changing city. Following on from her recent success with the Roving Exhibit where she literally took her street photography back to the street, here Sue Anne takes a break from her usual Shanghai beat to take us down south to the sleepy old treaty port of Shantou and neighboring Chaozhou. >>>
Through my photography and prose on Shanghai Street Stories, I have portrayed Shanghai's vanishing old neighborhoods and traditional architecture, which truly reflect the Chinese and Western influences on the city as a thriving treaty port in the early 1900s. During a visit to Shantou, I discovered the heart of another former treaty port, whose vibrant commercial history and dynamic Teochew (or Chaozhou) culture echoes throughout its crumbling architecture.
Shantou is located on the north-east coast of Guangdong, about three hours flight from Shanghai and an even quicker jaunt from Xiamen and Guangzhou. Yet compared to Guangzhou or Xiamen, whose harbor skylines have modernized into indistinguishable metropolises, Shantou's city center remains old and sleepy.
Nevertheless, its intricate mix of beautiful early 20th century Chinese and Western architecture is well worth a visit.
Shantou was one of many vibrant treaty ports set up in 1858 and by the 1930s, it became the 3rd largest port in China. However, unlike Xiamen and Shenzhen which were revitalized under the Special Economic Zone policies of the 1980s, Shantou's economy never quite achieved the level of prosperity of its wealthier neighbors.
Beyond its former treaty port status, Shantou is most widely known for its Teochew culture and peoples, and the long history of overseas Chinese who trace their roots to the Chaoshan region (which includes Shantou, Chaozhou and Jieyang). The Teochew diaspora is estimated to be about 10 million and spreads across the globe including the US, Europe, and Australia. Overseas Teochews have predominantly migrated to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia and have become wealthy businessmen, politicians and prominent literary figures. The most famous overseas Teochew from Shantou has to be Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong billionaire (many times over), who has invested significantly in Shantou's port industry, donated heavily to Shantou University and helped build Chaozhou into a moderately popular tourist attraction.
Singapore, where I am from, also has a large Teochew community and I grew up familiar with Teochew's delicious cuisine, which is heavy on seafood and vegetarian food (Teochew porridge, fishball noodle soup and so on). From street stalls to large family restaurants, you are guaranteed to eat well in Shantou.
As a first stop, Shantou's crumbling old city (Shàntóu Lǎoshì Qū, 汕頭老市區) will give you an idea of its former glory. Stroll along Anping Lu (Ānpíng Lù, 安平路), Shenping Lu (Shēngpíng Lù, 升平路) and Guoping Lu (Guópíng Lù, 国平路) and observe the Neoclassical architecture built with South China urban sensibilities.
Buildings range from two to four stories with the requisite sheltered public corridors for rainy weather. Many of the large residential buildings were owned by Europeans and overseas Chinese up until the Japanese occupation and later, after the Communists took over in 1949.
Neglect has left buildings slightly decrepit and many have been demolished or heavily renovated into less aesthetically pleasing apartment-estates. It will take a significant amount of capital to overhaul the city center, but whether a renewal would maintain Shantou's old city charm remains an open-ended question.
From the old city, head on to the Shantou Customs Museum (Hǎiguān Guān Shǐ Chénliè Guǎn, 海关关史陈列馆) located on Waima Lu (Wàimǎ Lù, 外马路) for a convenient overview of the city's history. Smuggling was, and remains, a long-time occupation in Shantou and the most interesting exhibit has to be the many contraband objects (drugs, porn, Western music records), starting from the early 1900s to the present, that went through Shantou's borders.
There are many other day trips outside of Shantou. Chaozhou city is a popular destination and less than two hour's drive from Shantou. The main attraction is Chaozhou city's Guangji Ancient Bridge (Cháozhōu Guǎng jì Qiáo, 潮州廣濟橋), a structure strung together by many pavilions, each donated by wealthy overseas Teochews and overseas Teochew Clan and Business Associations.
The bridge will lead you into the city's main thoroughfare, but wander deep into the alleys and you will discover traditional homes where generations of families gather at meal times.
Another favorite attraction is the Former Residence of Chen Ci Hong (Chéncíhóng Gùjū, 陈慈黉故居). Located about 10 km north of Shantou in Longdu Town (Lóng Dū Zhèn, 隆都镇), this residence was first built in 1910 by Chen Cihong, a very wealthy overseas Chinese businessman, as a tribute to his father.
Subsequent generations have expanded the grounds to a sprawling 25,400 square meters (or 273,403 square feet). Over 500 halls and rooms are deftly interconnected by pavilions, terraces, verandas and overhead corridors and are adorned with a mix of traditional Chinese design (flowers, birds and dragons in wood and stone carvings) and Western patterns (mosaics, columns).
So if you have a long weekend coming up, avoid the big ticket tourist traps and consider Shantou as an adventurous foray into vanishing treaty port architecture, Teochew culture and cuisine. Next time you encounter Teochew Chinese whether in Canada, UK or Malaysia, you'll have one or two things to share about their lovely ancestral town.
All photos © Sue Anne Tay
To see more of Sue Anne's work and witness the astonishing pace of change on Shanghai's streets, check out Shanghai Street Stories, where beautiful images, insightful prose and interview chronicle the lives of ordinary Shanghainese and their city.