Shantou is a coastal city in the eastern part of Guangdong Province, situated about 300 kilometers farther along the coast, east-northeast of Hong Kong, near the border with Fujian Province, and thus facing Taiwan across the Taiwan Straits. As one of China's 5 Special Economic Zones, Shantou is one of China's - as well as Guangdong Province's - most important port cities. Through the ages, Shantou has played a pivotal role in the regional trade between coastal south China and the nearby inland area (Shantou lies at the confluence of the Han, Lian and Ron Rivers), and between Guangdong Province and the neighboring coastal provinces, though, before the era of the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), there was little trade between this part of China and the rest of the world.
With the development of an extensive railway system in China, especially under the government of the People's Republic of China, Shantou became a crucial railway hub, with two of China's main railway lines intersecting the city. Shantou is also a regional hub for the transportation of goods by highway, with excellent connections to other major regional centers such as Beijing and Chengdu. It is little wonder, then, that the Chinese people think of Shantou as the gateway to eastern Guangdong and the transportation and communication hub of south China. Curiously, Shantou owes its existence as a major trade port to the Americans, as the following section explains.
A Brief History
Shantou was a quiet fishing village during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, when it belonged to the Jieyang District of the then town of Tuojiang. Tuojiang changed its name to Xialing during the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty and the fishing village was eventually completely surrounded on its land sides by the slowly expanding town. Later, in 1563, during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, Xialing became a part of the Chenghai District of the then Chao Prefecture (the present-day city of Chaozhou). As part of the coastal defense of south China, the town was fortified in 1574 so as to make it easier to repel attacks from pirates and other marauders, when it became known as Shashan Ping, or Shashan Platform.
A century or so later, the town was fortified further still, with cannons, at which time it became known as Shashan Toupaotai (or Sha shan Tou pao tai, as was the writing convention at the time), which was eventually shortened to Shan tou, or Shantou, as it is written today. Just as Guangdong was bastardized by foreigners to "Canton", Shantou became bastardized to "Swatow" by foreigners, especially by English-speaking sailors and merchants. In 1859, at the end of the Second Opium War (1856-60), the Americans, who otherwise did not hold any territorial concessions in China (unlike most of the other foreign powers that had conducted what was essentially a trade war that ended in a military conflict - which is what the Opiums Wars were all about, despite their nominal raison d'être, the highly resented opium trade), requested of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty government that the otherwise sleepy fishing village of "Swatow" be designated a foreign trade port, with permission to erect foreign residences in the village, and permission was thus begrudgingly granted.
The two main articles of "trade" that passed through the new "Treaty Port" of Swatow were the hated (by the Chinese government) opium, and "Coolies" or Chinese workers who served not only on foreign vessels, but who worked, as Chinese emigrés, on a multitude of construction projects the world over as the result of this first major opening of China (the second major opening of China would come with the thaw in relations with the West, when, under Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), China engaged in expanded commerce with the West, and gradually moved toward a market economy). It was during the era of "Coolie" trade that the Chinatowns of the world's major cities came into being, and Chinese culture was spread to the 4 corners of the earth.
In spite of the odiousness of the opium trade, this trade, together with the trade in Chinese laborers - and together with the wealth that was thus repatriated to the city of Swatow (i.e., to relatives back home in Shantou) - helped to create a major Chinese trade center out of a sleepy fishing village. Being one of present-day China's most prosperous regions, Shantou has produced more than its fair share of successful Chinese expat businessmen, many of whom return to their natal city to retire. Some 2 million Shantouese expats currently live abroad. Shantou's most famous son and philanthropist, Chen Ci Hong, was instrumental in helping to develop the city.
The architecture of the present-day city of Shantou reflects in part its "Colonial" past. A number of historical buildings from the era in question remain, and are mixed together with elements of the orginal fishing village and - of course - the hypermodern metropolis that Shantou has become, as the seat of one of China's 5 Special Economic Zones. Shantou is a major manufacturing base with a broad mix of industries, from textiles to plastics (including plastic toys, Shantou's primary export industry) to canned food production and other special industries such as electronic waste (Guiyu, one of the suburbs of Shantou, is the site of the world's largest electronic waste recycling industry).
Shantou is one of China's most densely-populated urban areas. The residents speak a daily Chinese language variant called Teochew rather than Cantonese - which is the lingua franca of the rest of Guangdong Province - or mainstream Mandarin Chinese, though most younger Shantouese are conversant in Mandarin as well. Teochew is an ancient Southern Min (the Min being a cultural, if not ethnic, group comprising the inhabitants of present-day Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan and Fujian Provinces, as well as Taiwan) language that preserves many of the original linguistic characteristics of the ancient Chinese language (if a Chinaman from, say, the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty were to reappear, he could more easily communicate with a present-day resident of Shantou than a present-day resident of, say, Beijing).
The most prominent cultural attractions of the city of Shantou include the following sites:
* The Former Residence of Chen Ci Hong (1843-1921), a navigator and sucessful businessman who became very wealthy (a Guangdong saying claims that "there is no richer man in Chaozhou and Shantou than Chen Ci Hong". Chen Ci Hong, known as 'the No. 1 Repatriated Overseas Chinese Resident of Lingnan' ("Lingnan" being an older designation for the area comprising the present-day provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Hainan and Taiwan), donated funds for the building of roads, bridges and schools in his natal city of Shantou (to learn more about the Former Residence of Chen Ci Hong, click here),
* The Temple of Guan Yu, Guan Yu being a famous general who served under the even more famous warlord, Liu Bei, during the Eastern Han (CE 25-220) Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) period. Guan Yu's life and times was made famous in the fictionalized historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms
* The Palace Temple of Laoma Gong ("Ancestral Mother") on Dezhou Island (aka Mayu Island), which is dedicated to the goddess Matsu (alternatively, Mazu), who is the Guanyin figure of this part of China, i.e., ancient Lingnan (note that Guanyin is known as the Goddess of the Sea, and is the patron saint, as it were, of seafarers - statues of her, some of enormous proportions, can be found all along China's coast - to learn more about the Palace Temple of Laoma Gong/ Mayu Island, click here),
* The Tropic of Cancer Symbol Tower (Beihuiguixian Biaozhita), aka "The Tropic of Cancer Slips Through Centipede Mountain", is located some 20 kilometers from the city proper,
* Nan'ao Dao (Nanao Island), rated as Guangdong's most picturesque island by National Geographic magazine, it is home to a quaint, preserved fishing village.
Other sites worthy of a visit in and around the city of Shantou include Shantou Little Park, which features architecture from the "Colonial" era as well as quintessentially Chinese architecture; Lingshan Temple and Dafeng Scenic Site, both age-old religious sites; Queshi Scenic and Historical Site (to learn more about Queshi Scenic and Historical Site, click here); Qing'ao Bay Tourist Resort; Lotus Mountain Hot Springs Resort; and Zhongxin Golf Seashore Holiday Village (to learn more about Zhongxin Golf Seashore Holiday Village, click here). But wherever you visit in Shantou and its environs, you will be reminded - by the vast number of tea emporiums located everywhere you turn - that Shantou is China's tea-drinking capital, a distinction of which the city is justly proud.
Lastly, the weather in Shantou is of the subtropical variety, with hot, rainy summers and cool, dry winters, so if you visit Shantou and its environs during the peak summer season, remember to dress lightly and to take along an umbrella wherever you go, as the rain showers can seemingly appear out of nowhere. If you forget your umbrella, don't worry, there will surely be a tea shop within a short running distance where you can take refuge.