May Blossom Cigarettes Billboard On Shamian Island: A Journey Through Guangzhou's Colonial Past

1930s Japanese postcard of the "West Bridge" leading to Shamian Island in Guangzhou, China with a May Blossom cigarettes billboard.. From the MOFBA collection.
1930s Japanese postcard of the "West Bridge" leading to Shamian Island in Guangzhou, China with a May Blossom cigarettes billboard.. From the MOFBA collection.

This postcard from our collection shows a billboard ad for May Blossom cigarettes on the “West Bridge” leading to Shamian Island in Guangzhou, China. An opportunity to explore the charming former concession area that retains much of its historic atmosphere to this day.

But first, some background on the May Blossom brand (五华牌 or Wǔ huá pái in Chinese), which was created by the British tobacco manufacturer Lambert & Butler, established in 1834. In 1901 it was merged with other UK manufacturers to form the Imperial Tobacco Company, which again in 1902 together with the American Tobacco Company created the British-American Tobacco Company (BAT) for export markets including China.


It is no surprise, that a British brand was advertised on the West Bridge as it was the gateway to the British Concession section of Shamian and was also referred to as the „English Bridge”. So, what exactly is Shamian, where is it located and why was it established you may wonder?

Historical depiction of the "Thirteen Factories" in Guangzhou.
Historical depiction of the "Thirteen Factories" in Guangzhou.

To answer this, we have to travel back to the early 16th century when Guangzhou, which then was called Canton, was the first major Chinese port involved in foreign trade. Initially foreigners were not allowed to set foot on Chinese ground, but since around 1684 they received permission, but were confined to a small area called the “Thirteen Factories” outside the city walls. The "factories" were not workshops but the word derives from "feitoria" which means trading post in Portuguese. During the Second Opium War (1856-1860) the factories were attacked and destroyed.  

1860 map of Canton (Guangzhou) with "Shamin" and the former ground of the "Old Factories" visible.
1860 map of Canton (Guangzhou) with "Shamin" and the former ground of the "Old Factories" visible.
Japanese postcard of Shameen Island from above.
Japanese postcard of Shameen Island from above.

In 1859, to create a more defendable location for the foreign settlements, Britain and France dug an artificial river above a small Pearl River sandbank to the west of the Thirteen Factories, creating Shamian island. The name Shameen, as it was spelled then, literally means "sandy surface" in Chinese. The British occupied 3/5 of the island and the French the remainder. It was connected to the mainland by only two bridges one to each section of the concession area and they were closed at 10pm as a security measure.

Detailed 1920s map of Shameen (Shamian) Island in Guangzhou, China.
Detailed 1920s map of Shameen (Shamian) Island in Guangzhou, China.
Architect A.W. Purnell
Architect A.W. Purnell

Today, the island is a gazetted historical area that serves as a tranquil reminder of the colonial European period, with quiet pedestrian avenues flanked by trees and lined by historical buildings. So, let’s go for a short virtual walk with photos from our recent visit to the idyllic island:


Here’s how the English Bridge looks today. To the left of it is the former A.S. Watsons drug store building, who’s history in Guangzhou goes back to 1828. Next to it the first hotel on the island the Victoria Hotel, which is still in operation today and is now called the Victory Hotel. To the right lies the former Griffith building, designed by Australian architect Arthur William Purnell, who lived on Shameen since 1903. Purnell was responsible for the design of several notable edifices on the island with his partner, civil engineer Charles Souders Paget, as Purnell & Paget.

Behind Watsons on Shameen’s main street, the “Central Avenue” lies unsurprisingly the building of the aforementioned BAT. Let’s first turn right towards the West, strolling along the verdant tree-lined Central Ave, where we find the location of the German trading firm Melchers, later rebuilt for the City Bank, then the building of yet another trading firm Shewan, Tomes & Co.,  and besides that, a building which today serves as a cosy Starbucks reserve. Next to it, the imposing former HSBC building, erected in 1920 and to this day one of the most iconic structures on the island.

The next block includes a residential building No 55 (now renumbered to 58) and then a structure erected in 1893, which housed the Yokohama Specie Bank and later the US Consulate and H.F. Dent.

Besides it the beautiful Canton Club, built in 1865. It featured a tennis courts, a bowling green, according to Nicholas Kitto, perhaps also a small swimming pool.

Residential buildings, the old Swiss Consulate as well as more former trading firms follow as we wander further on Central Ave, incl. the Sir Robert Hart building and the building of Deacon & Co, also designed by Purnell. All of his designs were generally in the Far East British Colonial form known as 'compradoric', featuring multi-level verandahs supported on solid pillars or arches, with Italianate or Edwardian Baroque detailing.

Finally, we reach the former Russian consulate, erected in 1916. 

Across from it the British “Christ Church” still stands tall at its original location since 1865 and continues to be used for sermons. 

Next to it as we walk back East on Central Ave. is the large former building of the Commissioner of Customs. Behind it the residence of the “Associate General Inspector of China Salt Trade”, which is now a tea museum and open to the public. 

As we head on, there lie more former trading firms such as Dodwell & Co, the building of Siemssen & Co, which, to its back is now the Polish consulate, followed by the former German consulate and then the Asiatic Petroleum Co’s old building. On the same block, on the main street side we find the former building of Danish trading & construction company Andersen, Meyer & Co. It is now a restaurant and can also be accessed. 

Next to it, Jardine & Matheson’s former offices and the Arnold Karberg building from around 1908, designed once again by Purnell. The final buildings on this block were the Chartered Bank building on Central Ave., as well as Butterfield & Swire’s office on the Front Avenue, built in 1906 with two stories and a third that was added in 1923.

The entire next block was occupied by the British Consulate General but the building was destroyed during riots in 1948. It’s annex though survived and so did the consul general’s residence. 

Back on Central Ave, there lie a row of buildings with among others one of the former US consulate buildings, erected in the 1940s. 

On the next blocks on both sides of Central Avenue are the former buildings of among others the International Bank, the Société des Missions Étrangers, later occupied by Hansen & Co and now a coffee shop, the old Sassoon building and SOCONY premises. 

Next up the Osaka Shosen Kaisha building and the former Bank of Taiwan, completed in 1913 as well as other former Japanese trading firm buildings.

We have now reached First Street and the border to the French Concession, where the first building that jumps to the eye is the beautiful Our Lady of Lourdes Church, built in 1892. 

Across from it, the International Banking Corporation, later Calyon Bank building, which contained offices and residences and was completed around 1910. Another magnificent creation of William Purnell and once again open to the public today as a coffee shop, bar and exhibition space. 

Besides the church on the other side of the avenue lies the former French Customs Residence and Club built in 1908, which marks the last Purnell design on our walk. It has some amazing original art nouveau stained glass windows.

Finally next to it, in the middle of Central Avenue, the former French police station, now also a coffee shop. Following the 1911 overthrow of the Qing dynasty foreign residents on Shamian felt insecure and occasionally an Indian regiment was deployed to the island by the British and who were presumably housed in the large barracks next to the police station. 

The following building is the iconic old French post office, depicted on many post cards from days gone by. 

As we turn the corner to the “Front Avenue” facing the river, the first building is from the French trading firm Vaucher Co., followed by the building of the Banque de L’Indochine. The former French Public Garden across from it, today still serves as a green space with a passable Thai restaurant. 

The rest of the Front Avenue towards the West is lined with the former French Consulate building, erected in 1890 and still standing today, then more trading firm offices and private residences such as the 1913 China and France Industry Bank and former Japanese Consulate, followed by the Pallonjee House, which served as HSBC staff quarters as well as the former Thai Club. 

Sadly, the once scenic promenade alongside the former football grounds and tennis courts as well as the British Public Garden, had to make way for the 33-story high White Swan Hotel in 1983, spoiling the otherwise almost untouched historic atmosphere on Shamian island.

Some of the information for this post was taken from Nicholas Kitto's excellent book "Trading Places", which we highly recommend and where you can find his photos of Shamien and many (most) other Chinese treaty ports here:

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Comments: 1
  • #1

    Robert Nield (Tuesday, 30 April 2024 10:03)

    This is excellent! I have just been introduced to your site by my long-time friend Nick Kitto. He and I travelled to nearly all the former treaty ports over the course of many years. For him, the main output was 'Trading Places', which you quite rightly refer to. For me, it was 'China's Foreign Places', published a few years ago by HK University Press. Whereas Nick's book concentrates on the visual aspects, mine is on the history of each place. I wonder if you have seen it?