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Johnathan Andrew Farris, Enclave to Urbanity: Canton, Foreigners, and Architecture from the Late Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries

Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016
Sylvia Chian
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Johnathan Andrew Farris, Enclave to Urbanity: Canton, Foreigners, and Architecture from the Late Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016

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1Johnathan Farris’s Enclave to Urbanity: Canton, Foreigners, and Architecture from the Late Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries presents a meticulous and amusing account of cross-cultural interactions in Guangzhou (Canton). During the period covered by the volume, Guangzhou was transformed from a late imperial Chinese port city for Euro-American trade into a rapidly modernizing city in China’s Republican era. Farris’s thoroughly researched book focuses specifically on the changing architecture, urban landscape, and daily lives of foreigners residing in Guangzhou, revealing the shifting boundaries between Chinese and foreign inhabitants in both spatial and cultural terms. Through this work, the author draws attention to how architecture, urbanism, and cross-cultural relations were inevitably intertwined with each other in shaping the city’s history.

2The goal of this work, as stated in the introduction, is to explore architecture as a conceptual frame for understanding Chinese-foreign relations. Farris’s justification of Guangzhou as a significant case study on the subject is convincing. Guangzhou was a port along the Maritime Silk Road and the only port open to foreign trade in China after the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799) closed all other ports in 1757. Guangzhou’s largely uninterrupted history as a global trading hub made it a major site for China’s cross-cultural interactions in the period studied.

3Cross-cultural interactions and their implications for late Qing China's architecture and urbanism are popular subjects of scholarly enquiry. Farris distinguishes his work from previous scholarship by depicting not only Guangzhou’s architectural and urban development under foreign influence, but also how foreigners and locals in the city acted within the urban setting. The author’s attempt to situate architecture within China’s broader social context makes the book of interest both to scholars of architecture and a more general audience.

4Farris draws on a wide range of primary-source materials to construct the history of Guangzhou’s foreign presence. Apart from analyzing maps, as well as paintings, sketches, and photographs of buildings—typical material for any scholarly investigation on architecture and urbanism—Farris also unearths and examines a variety of plan drawing sketches by foreigners living or travelling in Guangzhou, as well as their letters and diaries. The author stitches these otherwise fragmented sources together to recreate multiple scenes of cross-cultural interaction—a history for which architecture provided a major backdrop.

5Farris has organized his analysis into four chapters, which presents a chronological narrative of Guangzhou’s history. Chapter 1 spans from the late eighteenth century to the 1850s. This chapter focuses on the Thirteen Factories of Canton, which were the first Euro-American neighborhood in Guangzhou. Farris discusses the segregated compound for foreign trade, which was eventually burned down by the local Chinese during the Arrow War (1856–1860), as an architecture that paradoxically represented both an emblem of Sino-Western collaboration and confrontation. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the city’s development following the end of the Arrow War until around 1905. Here, Farris explains how China’s defeat to Britain and France in the Arrow War led to an increased foreign presence in Guangzhou, and the shifting nature of interaction relative to the Thirteen Factories era. While construction of a new foreign concession on Shamian Island further isolated foreigners from the local Chinese, the relative freedom afforded to foreign missionary practices and tourist activities at the time enabled greater interactivity among residents, architecture, and the urban environment than ever before. In chapter 4, Farris delves into the city’s modernization from 1905 to the 1930s, a period in which foreign influence came to play a more active role in China’s transformation from an imperial power into a young republican nation-state (1912–1949).

6Farris ties the four chapters together with his proposed theory that “cross-cultural relations are spatial relations” (p. 1). In the book’s conclusion, Farris suggests that the interplay between physical space and cross-cultural activity continued through Guangzhou’s urban development over the course of the twentieth century up to the present day, where foreign and local interactions shaped the contemporary city’s urban fabric.

7Farris’s abundant selection of primary-source material is supported by 29 full color plates and numerous black and white images. The anecdotes highlighted present valuable, first-hand accounts that illuminate foreign perceptions of Guangzhou’s people, architecture, and urbanism. Each story is highly captivating, and the images included are invaluable material for investigation.

8Relating such material to the broader theory of cross-cultural relations as spatial relations occasionally proves challenging, however. For example, Farris provides detailed descriptions of text and images produced by foreign inhabitants in an effort to point out that the spatial organization of the Thirteen Factories reflected hierarchies between foreigners and the local people. He also notes that the emergence of spaces of domesticity revealed the presence of foreign women and children in Guangzhou over the course of the late nineteenth century. As Farris focuses on illustrating his intriguing observations, he misses an opportunity to conceptualize broader theories of how these social relations may have served as active agents for architectural and urban production, and how architecture and urbanism possibly shaped the behaviors of those living there.

9Farris’s rich stories of foreign lives in Guangzhou inevitably draw the reader’s attention to the absence of local Chinese sources. Although some texts by foreigners reveal how the local and the foreign populations interacted, these materials are told from a foreign perspective. The voices of Chinese observers remain muted in most cases. The architectural examples that Farris includes, almost all of which are foreign-derived designs, constructions, or interventions, also fail to show how Guangzhou’s foreign presence may have influenced the architectural practices of the local Chinese.

10Despite these cavils, Farris’s comprehensively researched book remains a significant work that deepens our knowledge about Guangzhou’s architectural and urban history from China’s late imperial era, and the role of the foreign presence therein. Farris’s methodological framework, and his use of documents produced not only by design professionals but also by laypeople that interacted with architecture, make the book an important reference for art and architectural historians interested in situating their work within a much broader social context. Casual readers who may be curious about Guangzhou or the foreign presence in China will also find much to enjoy in the book’s engaging and accessible narrative and impressive plates and images.

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Sylvia Chian, « Johnathan Andrew Farris, Enclave to Urbanity: Canton, Foreigners, and Architecture from the Late Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries »ABE Journal [En ligne], 12 | 2017, mis en ligne le 26 janvier 2018, consulté le 25 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Sylvia Chian

University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

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Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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