Tag Archives: Opium Wars

Ghazipur to Guangzhou: The opium trail

Magnificent Canton Tower in Guangzhou, briefly the tallest building of the world, stood in front of me. Inquiring, it seems, why I looked so familiar. 

It wasn’t because I came from Hong Kong, just 129 kms away, I told him. Yet, I had to look familiar as the real, left behind home of the boy from Babhnan is a mere 190 kms away from Ghazipur. A small sleepy town the boy knew so well. A Kasba he has been to many times for things big and small- from family weddings to a pit stop on the way to Varanasi- a major pilgrim centre. 

This is the Canton Tower, briefly the tallest building in the world.
Canton Tower

This is where this story started. A story that would change the world. It wasn’t one of those beautiful stories of the travellers and knowledge seekers who went from China to India- their Buddha’s home. 

This was not a story of great scholars like Faxian or Xuanzang. It was a story of the Opium and the Raj. A story of wars and blood. Of Colonials and the Natives. Of victors and the vanquished for centuries to come.

Yeah, the story formally began in Ghazipur, still one of the single biggest opium producers in the world. It began with ith the Ghazipur Opium Factory, established as Benaras Opium Agency, an East India Company entity in 1820. The idea of exporting opium to China was that of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of British India, in 1780. Yet, the first few shipments, hardly found any takers. Ten years down the line, the scene had completely changed with scores of Chinese already addicted. The Qing dynasty was already cracking down threatening death sentences to smugglers, including the foreign merchants. 

This was an almost unbelievable sequence in the Chimelong International Circus! My heart skipped a beat many a times!
An almost unbelievable stunt from the Chimelong International Circus

The British opposed this in the name of Free Trade and parity of the nations (sounds familiar, no?), and continued engaging in the illegal trade. 

By the early 1820s, opium processed in Ghazipur would be sent to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for auction, then smuggled to the south China coast via the port of Canton (now Guangzhou). Canton was the only port through which the Chinese empire allowed, and regulated, foreign trade for centuries. Macau was the only exception with a small concession for a Portugese post in 1557, but not allowed to trade in China. 

The skirmishes over opium escalated. The Qings sent Lin Zexu, from Fuzhou (aah, the world is so small) as Viceroy in 1839 to crack down on the illegal trade. He would appeal to the conscience of the Queen Victoria to stop the trade in a letter that would never reach her. He would try to forfeit opium offering tea in exchange, the British won’t listen to him. He would then use force: and a war would break out- the First Opium War- with the Qing’s defeat in 1842. The Qings would sign the Treaty of Nanking granting indemnity and extraterritoriality to the foreigners in China, would open 5 more ports and cede Hong Kong, my home now, to the British in perpetuity. 

All I could get was this horrible photo despite trying a `100 times! Those were the days!
I tried so hard to get this! Beat if you can! That’s Pearl River…

Oh Ghazipur and Gwanjhou, you changed the history of the world. And also personal history of the small boy from Babhnan. Had you both not played your role, Hong Kong would not become a British colony and would be one of the most unlikely places he could call home! This even as Charles Cornwallis, then Governor General of India sleeps in his grave overlooking the graceful Ganges in Ghazipur! Talk of the journies! 

Anyways, back to Guangzhou, with a history of over 2200 years. Though the Canton part is perhaps the most fascinating part of its life, it is not the only one. Neither is the modern megapolis- one of the biggest foreign trade centres in China again! Sitting in the heart of Pearl River Delta, Guangzhou too has been one of the earliest cradles of the civilisation, with all its bounties.

Once in the city, start with a stroll by the river. Then go up in the sky, in the Canton Tower, and watch it flow down with grace. 

Miss the old Circus days? You are at the right place, provided you could make that morally difficult decision- and vouch for yourself if animals, and humans are treated well. Once done, head to Chimelong International Circus, and/or Safari and/or resort. Want to imagine what Canton looked like? Head to Shamian Island- a major abode for the foreigners- a European oasis in the orient! 

Don’t miss the over 2000 year old Mausoleum of Nanyue King Zhao Mo, discovered only in 1983! Nanyue, incidentally was an ancient kingdom encompassing parts of southern China and northern Vietnam And is considered to be a Chinese one by them, and a Vietnamese one by them.

This was after watching a circus performance in decades!
After watching a circus after decades!

Squeeze in some time for Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall as well and pay tributes to the city that played a major role in changing  the history of China, and the world, yet another time with strings of revolutions against the Monarchy followed by the establishment of first, Republic of China and then, Peoples’ Republic of China.

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Fuzhou: A fortunate surprise

Fuzhou was not really in my bucket list. To be honest, I hardly knew about this city, like most of the travellers and even more of the tourists. This, despite it being the capital of Fujian province and one of the biggest cities in South China- my neighbourhood for last 8 years now.

This is one of the entrance of Sanfang Qixiang- roughly translated as the "three lanes and seven alleys" aka  Beverly Hills of Imperial China! Founded in 708 AD, the 40 hectare complex has been home of over 400 of China's richest and most powerful!
Sanfang Qixiang- roughly translated as the “three lanes and seven alleys” aka  Beverly Hills of Imperial China

But one fine day I found myself in Fuzhou. I had just spent a few days in Yongding county famous for its community houses called Tulous whom the USA mistook for nuclear reactors at the height of Cold War. (You can read about my travels to Tulous here). Next in line was Xiapu, beautiful beyond words for its scenic mudflats and life on the sea- with entire villages on sea! (My Xiapu Mudflats memories are here). And the road connecting them passed through Fuzhou making me wonder why not give the city a chance as well! 

And lo and behold: It turned out to be one of the best of the decisions I had made in ages! Here I was in a city with a history of over 2200 years with the first settlements recorded here in 2nd century BCE! 

Some of the restored houses in Sanfang Qixiang decorated with lanterns
Buildings decorated with lanterns in Sanfang Qixiang

And then there is over 1400 years old Sanfang Qixiang- roughly translated as the “three lanes and seven alleys” aka  Beverly Hills of Imperial China! This one complex, slightly over 40 hectares in total area, founded in Tang Dynasty (618-907) and inhabited ever since is what over 400 of Imperial China’s the richest and most powerful men called home. Sadly, men alone as I found no mention of women despite repeated ‘family houses’. 

Inside Lin Zexu Memorial Hall: Remembering the man who destroyed Opium Trade and thus caused the First Opium War
Inside Lin Zexu Memorial Hall: Remembering the man who destroyed Opium Trade and thus caused the First Opium War

Talk about the man who sparked the First Opium War, Lin Zexu, a Qing official, Yan Fu, a Chinese scholar who translated Darwin’s theory of natural selection in Mandarin or Bing Xin who translated our own Gurudev, Ravindranath Tagore: they all called this complex home! 

Lin Zexu: The man who started the opium wars!

Ironically, many of these historic houses had been abandoned and become subdivided squatter homes before their restoration in late 2000s, a telling comment on the power of time. 

I had entered the complex doubting the famous saying that “One Sanfang Qixiang equals half of China’s modern history,” kept returning to it fully convinced. Exploring the lanes and alleys throughout the day and then a couple of drinks in one of the bars dotting An Tai Canal, marking the boundary of the Sanfang Qixiang. 

Then there is a majestic manmade lake West Lake- excavated in 282 A.D. by Yan Gao (Yán Gāo 严高), an official of Jing Dynasty. Yeah, in 282 A.D.! Go to the lake in the morning and it would be a riot of colours both on the water turned golden by the morning rays and people: People practicing Tai Chi, aunties learning ballet in groups, the elderly reading, couples on morning walks! Name it! They are there! And true to Chinese quirks when it comes to traveling- they have built a Dinosaur Park at one corner of the lake! Believe it or not, I could not hold myself back from getting clicked with one of them! 

majestic manmade lake West Lake- excavated in 282 A.D. by Yan Gao (Yán Gāo 严高), an official of Jing Dynasty. Yeah, in 282 A.D.! Go to the lake in the morning and it would be a riot of colours both on the water turned golden by the morning rays and people: People practicing Tai Chi, aunties learning ballet in groups, the elderly reading, couples on morning walks! Name it! They are there!
West Lake

Fuzhou has so much more to offer, sadly the small boy from Babhnan was short on time. So he passed by the majestic mosque so many times, yeah Islam is not banned in China despite whatever morons claim! In fact one of the most happening places I have ever been to in China is the Muslim Quarters of Xi’an with a huge, centuries old mosque that looked more a pagoda than a mosque!! 

Fuzhou Mosque: :Legend has it that Prophet sent emissaries to Fuzhou in 628 A.D.
Fuzhou Mosque: :Legend has it that Prophet sent emissaries to Fuzhou in 628 A.D.

There is Drum Mountain in Gu Shan revered for its Buddhist Temple at the top, about half an hour away from the City Centre. In the very centre of the city are 3 mountains and a lake- which actually is a river Min! 

A rather cheerful Chinese restaurant owner served me Onion Bhaji and Butter Naan and then sang a beautiful Bollywood song! Aah you gem of a woman, I miss you!
Butter Naan , “D”nion” Bhaji and live music : What else could one ask for?

Do try to steal a visit to China Shoushan Stone Museum for having a rare look at Shoushan stones and understand its history- how they are mined, carved and so on. These stones, also called agalmatolite are rare treasures and one carved stone may fetch millions of dollars in today’s market.

Of course the small boy from Babhnan could not squeeze the last two in his sojourn in Fuzhou. Mudflats in Xiapu were calling him. As it is, one life is never enough to see it all, but Fuzhou is close enough for a second visit! 

See you again, Fuzhou, and you too, mates, perhaps in Fuzhou! 

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