November 10th, 2013, by Steven in China.

European colonialism has at one point affected most of the world geographically. Entering the 21st Century, developing countries are still dealing with the affects of colonization. While stunting the development and involving centuries of exploitation, it is undeniable that many of the world’s most beautiful cities are European colonial, today blending traditional European urbanity with local culture and food. Today’s colonial cities are some of the most fascinating to visit.

In the early 1800s, China continued to dismiss trade with Britain, assuming that the China, or The Middle Kingdom, was more advanced and needed nothing else from outside. Growing frustrated, the British introduced opium and instigated the Opium Wars, defeating China militarily and opening up the coast and waterways for foreign trade. Foreign powers moved in and kept China fragmented until the Communist Party took power in the late 1940s. However, Europeans and Americans left behind some handsome traces of China’s colonial past.

Before I had the chance to travel to China, I assumed that the cities were all modern, concrete and rather grim. While this reality does exist in many places, I was very surprised to find many physically articulate, historic and human-scaled neighborhoods, much like I’d find in Europe or the older cities of North America. I was surprised to learn that China has quite a history of foreign powers coming in and setting up shop.

Additionally, many “overseas Chinese” who had worked abroad had brought back to China the building techniques used in foreign contries. The communist party stopped foreign colonization after World War II, yet today some very handsome remnants remain. These are inhabited by Chinese shops and residents and make for an interesting juxtaposition: an Italian-looking street filled with oyster omelet restaurants, for example.

Let’s take a look at some of the most fascinating and beautiful:




Old Street in colonial Beihai (photo by Steven)

Tropical Beihai, in southern Guangxi province, makes a great destination, and is visited by few. The city is said to be the fastest growing in the world, but the colonial heart has remained preserved- even revitalized with some incoming bars and restaurants.

In 1876, the Treaty of Yantai, signed between the Chinese and British, allowed for eight Western nations to set up amenities and embassies in Beihai. Today, these civic and residential buildings remain along “Old Street”, which is tastefully lit in the evening.




British colonial buildings in Tianjin (photo by TJAchi-STUDIO)

British colonial buildings in Tianjin (photo by TJAchi-STUDIO)

Tianjin, much like Chongqing, is a somewhat-forgotten Chinese megacity. Travelers are often turned off by it’s sterility and lack of a true center. They’re also in a hurry to get to Beijing. A stopover of one night is certainly worthwhile here, however.

Tianjin’s colonial past began after the Second Opium War in 1858. A rather puzzling dispute over a British ship The Arrow docked in Tianjin prompted the British to seize some forts near Tianjin. Soon Tianjin was opened up to Britain and France. Over the next 40 years, Tianjin included a fabric of colonial districts from European and Japanese powers. In 1900, the anti-colonial Boxers controlled much of the city and by 1902 the city was again controlled by the Chinese Qing government.



Yantai's vibrant colonial district (photo by Steven)

Yantai’s vibrant colonial district (photo by Steven)

Yantai is a city on few travelers’ lists. I visited here for the sole purpose of boarding a ferry from Shandong Province to Dalian city. I was pleasantly surprised to find a cool, piratey colonial district as well.

Yantai’s colonial past is also linked to the Second Opium War. Germany had a strong influence here until their defeat in WWI. Japan moved in until their defeat in WWII.



Zhongshan Square in Dalian (photo by )

Zhongshan Square in Dalian (photo by MR+G from Wakayama, Japan)

DA – lee – an is the most fun city in China to pronounce. It’s also one of China’s most livable, vital, and wealthy. You have to search a bit here to find the colonial heritage- a cool mix of Russian and Japanese. Looking at a map, it becomes apparent why these two influences would converge here over time.

Dalian’s precarious location between superpowers let to its colonialization. Dalian’s colonial heritage began when the British colonized the peninsula in 1858. Control went back to China in the 1880s, followed by Japanese and Russian influences. Russia spend the equivalent of 12 billion usd developing the port to be the “Paris of Asia”. Power then bounced between Japan and Russia, as the two countries fought it out. After Japan’s WWII defeat, the USSR took control and then handed it back to China in 1950.




Shamian Island in Guangzhou (photo by Steven)

Today, much-maligned Guangzhou is famous as the trade center of the industrially-fertile Pearl River Delta, by some counts the world’s largest urban area. Though the city has it’s drawbacks, mainly it’s intimidating size and opportunism, the city still harbors some of China’s best colonial architecture and weirdest food.

Guangzhou was under foreign influence long before the Opium Wars. Portugal arrived here in 1517, but they left a bigger footprint in nearby Macau. Europeans, muslims and Indians were all using “Canton” as a port for centuries. Shamian Island here remains the city’s most well-preserved colonial district. The pleasant island district was developed by the French and British in the 1700s and 1800s and retains its pedestrian-friendly, leafy qualities today.



Wuhan in 1940

Wuhan in 1940

Wuhan is absolutely enormous. If you’re like me, you had never heard of it before visiting.

The history of Wuhan goes back 3,500 years. It is one of China’s most ancient cities and features some great Chinese pagodas and towers. The district of Hankou in Wuhan, was designated as an international trading port in 1861. Today, the riverfront of Hankou contains a lovely old colonial quarter somewhat comparable to the Bund in Shanghai.




European design old and new in Harbin (photo by Steven)

If the frozen corpse of Walt Disney ever needs a winter break, he can be wheeled up to Harbin in January. It’s cold up here. The summer’s are amazingly pleasant, however, and Harbin is one of China’s greenest and most friendly cities. The food is hearty, the beer of high quality and the architecture reflects the city’s proximity to Russia. A European influence is maintained throughout, even in the newer apartment buildings built to the scale of what you’d see in Eastern Europe.

Harbin was founded by a Polish guy named Adam Szydłowski in 1898, making it one of China’s youngest major cities. Located strategically along a connection to the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Harbin became a hub for international investment and attracted a diverse population. Russians outnumbered Chinese in the city up until the time that the Japanese invaded the province in 1931. The Soviets later took over after WWII, but it went back to Chinese communist power in 1946, its foreign population fleeing Harbin, and China altogether. Today Harbin is developing quickly, yet the center retains much of its Russian and Polish charm.




The Bund in Shanghai (photo by Steven)

Shanghai is the NYC of China. It’s a glamorous port city with an iconic skyline and home to the most fashionable people in China. It’s colonial past is being overshadowed by its responsibility as a financial, industrial and cultural center. However, The Bund still stands as the most impressive skyline of colonial architecture in Asia. Additionally, there are some fascinating old colonial neighborhoods throughout.

Shanghai’s colonial heritage began following the First Opium War and the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. It was opened up as a favored port and French, British and US powers built districts outside of Shanghai’s walled city, which remained Chinese. By the 1930s, Shanghai was the trade center of Asia and home to 70,000 foreign residents. Japan invaded in 1932, not ceding the city back to the Chinese until 1945. Today, Shanghai is China’s global financial center and the world’s busiest port.




German backstreets in Qingdao (photo by Steven)

Qingdao, located near the peninsular tip of northeastern China’s Shandong province, is now the producer of the world’s #1 selling beer: Tsingdao Lager. It’s also a fascinating seaside mix of affluent new development and decaying German colonial architecture and urbanity. And a draft beer here costs a damn $0.15. How’s that for motivation?

Qingdao’s colonial past began in 1898 when German troops took control of a naval fortification that the Chinese Qing government had been developing. Between 1898 and 1914, Qingdao was controlled and developed as a German colony. They built Protestant and Catholic missions, beer halls, tight neighborhoods of European-style row houses, and most importantly, the Germania Beer Company, today known as Tsingdao, still going strong, as is its annual beer festival.



(photo by MR+G from Wakayama, Japan)

(photo by MR+G from Wakayama, Japan)

Richard Nixon referred to Xiamen as “The Hawaii of China”. Though you’d have to squint a bit to see the Hawaii’s dramatic volcanic landscape here, Xiamen does feature plenty of dramatic topography, water, islands and lush tropical greenery to remind a visitor of the Mediterranean, at least.

Xiamen’s colonial past is tied to its traditional use as China’s best port for exporting tea. After the First Opium War between Britain and China (1841), Xiamen, and more-specifically Gulangyu Island, was one of the five entry points into China for foreign traders. The city contained Christian missions, colonial architecture and some grand residences, as seen on Gulangyu Island today.



Steven (84 Posts)

Steven is a roaming traveler, writer and urban planner based out of Asia. Connect with Steven on Steven Muzik on Google+!

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