Taikoo Wharf, a distinctive legacy of Guangzhou.

As you get out of Shayuan metro station in Guangzhou, the typical trappings of a big Chinese city come into view. Contemporary office towers loom over swathes of residential buildings, streets throb with traffic, sprawling roads stretch as far as the eye can see. But when you head westwards and reach Taikoo Wharf, you find yourself entering a different world. Standing in front of the red brick godowns, with their slanting roofs and a quaint old atmosphere, you are easily flung back into the past, to a time when old Guangzhou was part of a larger global network of port cities that strung from London to Aden to Singapore.

Completed in 1908, Taikoo Wharf, also known as Taigucang, is a distinctive legacy of Guangzhou. It is located in Haizhu District, a central island flanked by the Pearl River. Built by the British firm Butterfield & Swire, now Swire Group, the wharf has borne witness to the remarkable history of China’s foreign trade – and of Guangzhou as a major seaport. It reflects the city’s glorious past, creates relevance in the present, and is set to play a part in shaping Guangzhou’s future.

Making the Past Present

In the grey morning light, Taikoo Wharf looks grand and austere, quite unlike the modern skyscrapers around it. The compound consists of three T-shaped concrete bridge piers and seven godowns, covering a whopping area of 71,200 square metres (including a land area of 52,500 square metres). It is roughly 10 times the size of a football field.

In 2005, the wharf was listed as a protected heritage site by the Guangzhou Municipality. As with a growing number of heritage buildings around the world, Taigucang has been transformed into a stylish and cultural quarter, housing upmarket restaurants, design studios, a wine cellar, a yacht club, an exhibition centre and more. Now the space reflects a contemporary lifestyle that appeals to trendy urban types. Yet the smell of history is always in the air. There is something about the wharf that is preserved in the stillness of the past, luring the curious visitor to explore its history.

Merchant Adventurer

Let us step back to two centuries ago, before the days of telephone, elevator and airplane. In 1816, John Swire, a Yorkshireman from Halifax, UK, founded a modest import-export business in Liverpool. A prudent, industrious man, Swire always remembered the hard lessons of the bankruptcy of his textile merchant grandfather, also named John, who speculated heavily in real estate and went bankrupt in 1795. At the time he set up his business, the 23-year-old merchant focused on textile trade between the UK and US. The Far East was not on his business radar. Nevertheless, in those days a growing number of Swire’s fellow countrymen in the import-export trade were venturing to China – Guangzhou to be precise – to capitalise on the trading opportunities there. After the First Opium War ended in 1842, even more British companies and firms from other countries went to various Chinese cities to set up trading businesses.

The flood of foreign traders into China was a direct result of the signing of the Treaty of Nanking by China and Britain in 1842. Under the deal, China was to open five so-called treaty ports, namely Fuzhou, Guangdong, Ningbo, Shanghai and Xiamen, to British trade. Soon afterwards, China’s foreign trade began to grow rapidly. It was around this time that China started to matter to the Swire business. It was, however, not Swire but his two sons who took the firm to the East.

Swire died young from cancer in 1847 and his business was passed to John Samuel and William Hudson Swire, then aged only 21 and 17. When William Swire came of age in 1851, the company took the name “John Swire & Sons”. The two young men reckoned there was potential for exploring trade links with the Far East. So in 1855, John Swire, who played a more active role in the firm than his younger brother who was plagued by illness, opened an office in Melbourne, Australia. By the early 1860s, John Swire & Sons had begun to ship woollen goods and cotton shirting material to China. In Shanghai, goods were consigned to the firm Preston, Bruell & Co. However, John Swire, frustrated by the lacklustre performance of this agent, was soon determined to run the business himself. He travelled all the way to Shanghai by ship and arrived towards the end of 1866. In just a few days, the merchant adventurer established Butterfield & Swire in partnership with Richard Shackleton Butterfield, a Yorkshire worsted manufacturer, for whom John Swire handled exports to China.

Where the River Runs

The partnership was short-lived. “He was grasping and he bothered me,” said John Swire, speaking of Butterfield. So merely 18 months after its inception, Butterfield & Swire was dissolved. John Swire & Sons on its own went on to thrive, eventually becoming one of the largest firms on the China coast in the early 20th century. It would be more than a century before Butterfield’s name was removed from the business, but, as with many foreign traders at that time, the firm adopted a Chinese name, Taikoo, for its Chinese business.

Soon the enterprising John Swire was struck by the potential for steam shipping along the Yangtze River, which provided the only access for foreigners to China’s hinterland. In those days, most cargo was transported by sailing junks, with a few foreign steamer companies just beginning to make their foray into the Chinese shipping trade. There was much room for growth in steam shipping, John Swire reckoned. So in 1872, he set up the China Navigation Company to operate a modest fleet of Mississippi-style paddle-steamers on the Yangtze. Three paddle-steamers were ordered for the new venture. John Swire was also quick to acquire a newly bankrupted line, Union Steam Navigation, with assets including extensive waterfront property in Shanghai and elsewhere.

The growing diversity of its shipping trades encouraged Butterfield & Swire to spread its tentacles in China. Between 1872 and 1929, the company established branches in numerous cities across the country. Among these operations, the one in Guangzhou, or Canton as it was known among foreigners, would play a particularly important part in consolidating Taikoo’s dominant position in the shipping industry of China.

Canton Affair

The choice of Guangzhou was, for Taikoo, a natural one. For hundreds of years since the 16th century, when the Portuguese established trading activities there, Guangzhou had held a monopoly on trade with foreigners who intended to seek their share in the lucrative trade of Chinese tea, porcelain and silk. But for the Qing court of China, Western trade was a lowly activity to be tolerated, not sought after. In 1757, Emperor Qianlong of China issued a decree ordering that Guangzhou be the only port opened to foreign commerce, in response to a British attempt to expand their trade to some seaports in Northern China. Under this so-called Canton System, all foreign trade in China was restricted to Guangzhou. From 1757 and 1842, foreigners could only carry out trading activities in a neighbourhood called Thirteen Factories, or Thirteen Hongs, “Hong” being the Cantonese term for a properly licensed business.

Following the First Opium War, with several treaty ports opened, Guangzhou’s importance as a port of foreign commerce began to decline. The whole Thirteen Hongs area was even burnt to ground in 1856 during the Second Opium War. Yet Guangzhou always had a place in the world of international trade. The port city’s strength stemmed from its wealth, size and longevity as a business hub. It also remained a leading point of contact between foreign nations and China. In the 1870s, nine countries had a consular presence in Guangzhou.

Taikoo’s Guangzhou office was situated in Shameen (now Shamian), a small artificial island established as a foreign settlement after Thirteen Hongs’ destruction. The office was a short walk from the British consulate. It was a relatively small operation to start with, being responsible for the Guangzhou side of Butterfield & Swire’s shipping business. But as the company’s shipping operations continued to expand, the Guangzhou branch soon found itself taking on a weightier role: it was charged with the important task of establishing a wharf and running it. The eventual completion of the enormous facility would solidify Taikoo’s position as a leading shipping company in the Far East – and testify to Guangzhou’s underlying strength as an international trading port.

It Wasn’t All Smooth Sailing

Throughout the first three decades since its birth, Taikoo had been without its own wharf. That became a growing problem as the company’s shipping operations in the region kept expanding.

By the mid-1870s, Taikoo’s shipping activities had extended beyond the Yangtze River and became more and more involved in the coastal trades. A few numbers may speak volumes of this flourishing business of the firm. In 1883, Taikoo ran five vessels on the Yangtze and 15 on China coast; by 1900 the numbers were seven and 41. Trade stretched as far as Australia, Singapore, Japan and Siam, but the China coast and the Yangtze remained the focal point.

Meantime, market competition was intense, especially around 1884, when Taikoo created a rival sugar refinery in Hong Kong so as to break the monopoly of its biggest rival Jardine Matheson, a trading company founded in Guangzhou in 1832 by two Scotsmen, whose shipping business in China was also booming. The competition soon spread into shipping.

The fierce but gentlemanly competition with Jardine, together with Taikoo’s fast-growing shipping business, meant the firm needed greater support on the logistics side. There was a big stumbling block to overcome, though: Taikoo did not have a wharf of its own. Whether Taikoo’s steamers could be berthed to upload and unload cargo upon arriving in Guangzhou depended on the availability of berth space that belonged to other industry players. All too often, the company’s vessels were on anchor for days, resulting in significant delays in shipping. A secondary issue had to do with Taikoo’s warehouse on the north side of the Pearl River, leased from the Imperial Maritime Customs Station. Over time, the space proved too confined, which exacerbated the shipping delay.

Genesis of a Wharf

Obviously, the solution to the nagging problem was to build a wharf. So around the turn of the century, Taikoo began to look for a suitable site. An initial plan to construct a wharf on Honam Island (now part of Haizhu District) involved reclaiming land and dredging the river bed. The scheme, deemed “our only chance of ever having any control over the discharging of our ships”, failed to impress the Chinese authority. Edward Bangs Drew, a non-Chinese civil servant from America who served in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service from 1865 to 1908 as commissioner, wrote to Taikoo in January 1899: “I do not consider your plan a practicable one, neither would I permit a wharf which is practically an obstruction to the passage of native boats up and down the river to project out 250 feet from the river side.”

Eventually, though, Taikoo got the official green light. In 1902, Taikoo’s Guangzhou agent J.R. Greaves was able to purchase on behalf of the company a tract of land on Honam. It is said that Taikoo’s good relations with Chen Jinghua, then police commissioner of Guangzhou, had played a part in helping Taikoo secure the official approval. Construction took place between 1904 and 1908. John Swire, however, was not involved in this exciting development – he passed away in London in December 1898.

Full Steam Ahead

The acquired site was ideal for Taikoo. It was located in an area called Pak Hin Hok, on the back reach of the river and to the south of Shameen. It had a deep water frontage of some 1,800 feet. Formerly dominated by a village of lime burners, the site already had some warehouse facilities on it. Between 1902 and 1908, improvements were carried out on the property, to the order of eight godowns – four made of iron and four of bricks, with a vast amount of storage capacity. The godowns were well ventilated and by and large fireproof. In sum, they were “a great boon to shippers”. The compound also included three steel piers, nine hardwood piers, native quarters, and two brick bungalows, which were presumably for lower-level foreign staff, such as the “tallyman” in charge of enumerating cargo (the managerial staff had their own residence at Shameen). One of the piers even had a tramway designed to facilitate movements of heavy goods.

With this typical late 19th century warehouse complex firmly in place, Taikoo was now able to accommodate its numerous ocean-going steamers that called at the port and “deal very expeditiously with cargo, and, instead of it being necessary for the steamers sometimes to remain at Guangzhou for upwards of a week, they are now generally ready to continue their journey a few hours after arrival”. Continued expansion and improvement of Taikoo’s shipping trade through the 1910s attested to the facility’s important value. In the 1920s and 30s, the wharf was number one among all wharves in Guangzhou in terms of both tonnage throughput and vessel arrivals.

Changing Phases, Face Unchanged

The Second World War brought Swire’s business worldwide to its knees, with its head office in London gutted during the blitz and many of its properties throughout China damaged or destroyed. Taigucang was not spared either. It suffered some damages though none were fatal. Over the years, it would remain largely intact (the second and last time it came under attack was in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, when one of the warehouses was burnt down). During the war, the wharf’s practical value was even recognised by Japanese troops, which used it to transport military supplies and personnel after Guangzhou fell to Japan in 1938.

After the war, Swire wound up its interests in mainland China and consolidated its businesses in Hong Kong. Taigucang was changed hands several times and, all the while, it proved itself to be a facility of great practical value. In 1947, the food authorities of Guangzhou turned the wharf into a food warehouse. Five years later, In 1952, Taigucang was nationalised and came under the Guangzhou Port Affairs Bureau. In 1955, a tonnage throughput of one million tons was recorded. While that was nowhere near the amount of cargo handled in modern times (in 2010, for example, the tonnage throughput of the whole Port of Guangzhou was 410 million tons), it was an incredible feat in those days. A few years later, the wharf came under the management of the state-owned Guangzhou Port Group.

Over time, cargo shipping in Guangzhou had gravitated to other parts of the Guangzhou Port, leading to the gradual decline of Taigucang’s cargo volume. But the wharf’s raison d’être goes beyond being a wharf. In 2003, when Zhang Guangning, then mayor of Guangzhou, visited Taigucang, he made it a point that efforts should be made to preserve and make good use of the complex. Two years later, Taigucang became a protected heritage site.

The Legend Lives on

Today, as the leisure and pleasure-seeking urban dweller relaxes into an aperitif or gets absorbed in an exhibition at Taigucang, the historical context of the very space he is in may be of little relevance. But all the same, history is all around. The historic environment is not merely a matter of material remains. It is a record of how a city came to be what it is. It allows people to better understand previous generations and the history of where they come from.

The Guangzhou authorities have over the past decades done a critically important job of preserving Taigucang, effectively preserving a slice of the past of Guangzhou as a famous port city and commercial hub in Southern China. This prestigious status of Guangzhou will be remembered by the many generations to come, as long as Taigucang stays alive and kicking.