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  • Thirteen Factories of CantonAn Architecture of Sino-Western Collaboration and Confrontation
  • Johnathan A. Farris (bio)

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Figure 1.

Panoramic view of Guangzhou (Canton) from the southwest looking northeast. The white buildings along the river in the foreground are the Thirteen Factories. Gouache on paper, circa 1800, anonymous Chinese artist, Peabody Essex Museum.

Port cities have historically been hubs of and spaces for cross-cultural interaction. One place whose architectural history is only just beginning to be written is Guangzhou (Canton), China, a city that witnessed the earliest and longest settlement of English-speaking Westerners in China. Mid-eighteenth-century Chinese imperial decrees restricted foreign residence to a set of Chinese-built dwellings on the banks of the Pearl River known as the Thirteen Factories (in Mandarin, Shisan Hang).1 Factory is used here in its original sense as the premises of a factor, or merchant. One-time resident merchant William Hunter explained: "Not the least remarkable feature of Old Canton life was the 'Factory,' as the common dwelling and common place of business of all the members, old and young, of a commercial house."2 The Thirteen Factories remained the primary center for Western trade well into the mid-nineteenth century. The necessity of close collaboration between foreign merchants and Chinese employees and peers on the one hand, and the tensions created by attempted foreign interventions in the face of a fiercely independent local populace on the other, helped shape the factories and their surrounding urban spaces. By the late eighteenth century, the factories had, in terms both of appearance and habitation, evolved into a [End Page 66] culturally blended space reflecting both Chinese and European traditions. However, pressures that would culminate in the Opium and Arrow Wars also shaped this environment. Violence would lead to spatial barriers between the Cantonese populace and the foreign merchants who resided on this edge of empire.

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Figure 2.

"View of the Hoppo Returning" (detail). Old and New China Streets are indicated by gated entrances recessed from the buildings on the left (western) side of the row of factories. Watercolor on silk, late eighteenth century, anonymous Chinese artist, Hong Kong Museum of Art.

The Thirteen Factories lay in the southwestern suburbs of the city (Figure 1), near the hangs or business premises of the Chinese cohong merchants. These were the people who had the monopoly on trading major export commodities with the foreigners and who were the actual landlords of the buildings. The factories, where Westerners and Chinese employees dwelt in close quarters, followed closely Cantonese vernacular precedents in structure and form. The spatial hierarchy of the factories, though, also matched Western conceptions of divisions between work and service. When Pehr Osbeck, chaplain to the Swedish East India Company, stayed in one of the factories in 1750, his description made it clear that the building form was foreign to him.3 By the time of the first visual depictions of the factories in the late eighteenth century, many had acquired Westernized facades, though the precise origin of this change remains a mystery (Figures 2 and 3). In the eighteenth century, the great national joint stock companies such as the British and Dutch East India Companies inhabited a factory for the brief trading season each year and then departed to their home countries. These two giants of Sino-European trade occupied premises on the eastern end of the site, announced by large pediment-capped porticoes that were called "verandahs" or "terraces" in contemporary [End Page 67] parlance. After repeated seasons of trade, the factories acquired names that reflected the nationalities associated with them. They might also have Chinese names, some of which referred to the country of origin, while others were simply an indication of good luck or prosperity.4 From west to east (reading Figures 1 and 2 left to right) are the Danish Factory, the Spanish Factory, the French Factory, Chunqua's (later Mingqua's) Hong (a Chinese merchant's premises where he rented rooms to Westerners), the American Factory, the Paoushun Factory, the Imperial Factory, the Swedish Hong, the Old English Factory, the Chowchow Factory, the English or...


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