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 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.
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.
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.
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.