Detour: Guangzhou

ISLE MATTERS Shamian Island came into the world as drug runners' booty. Lead by the British, foreign traders in Canton, as Guangzhou was called, had been banking opium-trade profits for almost half a century—and going to war to preserve them—when in 1860 they extracted Shamian from the Qing as spoils of the Second Opium War. They built a granite wall around what was then a sandbar—essentially building an island.

During a mid-1880s visit to Shamian, the Shaoguan-based Wesleyan missionary John Turner described "a beautiful island, fronted with lawns and flower gardens, with the foreign consular and merchants' houses standing behind them,...

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