A brief history of international Amoy | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

A brief history of international Amoy


First let's clear up the various different English versions of Amoy's name.

Traditionally, though Chinese pronunciation varied according to your dialect, everyone wrote things the same way. So, the place we're talking about is 廈門. If you lived there you spoke the local dialect of Hokkien, and pronounced it something like "Amoy". If you're from Beijing you say "Xiamen", today's official name. And if you're Cantonese it sounds like "Ha-moon". Just to add to the fun, in simplified Chinese it is now written 厦门.

I'll use Amoy.

First contacts with the West

Amoy has a long history of international trade. The Japanese and Portuguese were already trading here in the 16th Century, and the 17th century saw the the Dutch join in. [1]

The amount of trade rose and fell according to Beijng's policies of the time, but by the 19th century the port was well known to international traders.

Amoy becomes a Treaty Port

When Pottinger arrived in Hong Kong in 1842, one of his tasks was to open up more Chinese ports along the east China coast to British trade. [2]
With this in mind, his expedition headed north from Hong Kong on 21st August, 1842. Their first destination? Amoy.

Initial impressions were not good, with well-constructed defences visible on the smaller islands, the beaches, and the city of Amoy itself. However the British attack met little resistance, and the City was soon in their hands. [3]

The expedition continued north, notching up several more military victories. These led to the Treaty of Nanking [4].  In the Treaty, China conceded Hong Kong to the British, and also gave the British rights to trade in five ports – the first of the Treaty Ports. Here they are on a map, running along the length of the China coastline:

A. Canton
B. Hong Kong
C. Amoy
D. Foochow
E. Ningpo
F. Shanghai

But where will the foreigners live?

To answer that question, let's take a closer look at Amoy:

The Chinese city (Marker 2) was, and still is on the main island. A short distance away is a smaller island, Kulangsu (Marker 1), now known as Gulangyu (Hokkien / Beijing pronunciation at work again). Kulangsu had first drawn British attention as the site of a large battery of 76 guns, guarding the entrance to Amoy harbour. But "Luckily for the British, the guns on Kulangsu were clumsily mounted and poorly serviced." [2]

After taking Amoy, Pottinger's expedition headed north but left behind a garrison of 300 troops based on Kulangsu island. That must have been a reassuring sight if you were a foreigner in town. Sure enough, by 1844 Jardine's agent in Amoy, Captain Forbes, had built a house on Kulangsu, and other merchants had followed. When the first British Consul, Captain Henry Gribble, requested that he be allowed to build a house there too, it seemed that Kulangsu was set as the location for foreigners to live.

But the second Consul, Alcock, had different ideas. He wanted to see the Consulate built on the main island, and so have the British flag flying within the old city walls. He got what he wanted, and the new consul's residence was completed in Amoy city in August 1845.

Despite this, and the fact the garrison had moved out in March the same year, Kulangsu remained the preferred location for foreigners to live. "Years later, the point of residence in the city having been gained, the British consulate was moved back among the pleasant breezes and vistas to be enjoyed on the [Kulangsu] island, which formally became an International Settlement in 1903". [5]

The Japanese take charge

In 1895, nearby Taiwan was ceded to Japan, increasing their influence in the Amoy area.  By 1937, Japan and China were at war, and in 1938 the Japanese captured Amoy after an amphibious landing. [6]

For several years the international settlement on Kulangsu continued relatively untouched... Then: "At 4 A.M. Monday morning, December 8, 1941 armed Japanese Marines crossed the narrow harbor from Amoy and landed in the International Settlement of Kulangsu. With the aid of Consular police and Formosan interpreters began to round up all American and European Nationals. " [7]


After Japan's defeat in 1945, at least one missionary returned to Kulangsu in 1947, and stayed on "until expelled in October, 1951" [7]. I'm not sure whether there was a serious effort to by businesses to re-establish themselves on Kulangsu. Even if they did, they would have suffered the same fate as the missionary, and have been pushed out sometime around 1949-51.

Cold War

The title 'Post-war' on the previous paragraph didn't really apply to China, as the end of the fighting between Chinese and Japanese just meant an increase in fighting between communist and nationalist Chinese.

As the nationalists retreated to Taiwan, they left large garrisons near Amoy, on the islands of Kinmen (Marker 3 on the map above) and Matsu. They repulsed the communists' attack in 1949, and to this day the islands remain under Taiwanese control.

During the cold-war, there were regular artillery exchanges between the communists and nationlists. Fortunately, though Kulangsu must have been within range of Kinmen, it doesn't appear to have been a target of the Nationalist guns.

Kulangsu today

Today the local government recognise the island's value as a tourist draw, and recently announced their desire to get the island listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. [8]


  1. Trade and society, the Amoy network on the China Coast, 1683-1735
  3. Sir Henry Pottinger: first governor of Hong Kong By George Pottinger
  4. The Treaty of Nanking
  5. Trade and diplomacy on the China coast: the opening of the treaty ports ...  By John King Fairbank
  6. Axis history forum
  7. Theodore V. Oltman, M.D.--RCA's Last Missionary in Amoy
  8. Gulangyu to apply for World Heritage Site


As a friend of mine had studied Chinese there for a year, we took a trip up about 9 years ago.  It was a really lovely place, particularly Gulangyu, which is also called "piano island" apparently due to the huge number of people playing the instrument there!

At the time there were lots of gorgeous old buildings which progress and greed hadn't yet knocked down, if I have any digital I'll try and upload them.

The Brian Seed website has six of Thomas Allom's prints of Amoy. [Affiliate link]

You've probably seen Allom's work before, as he also has several well known prints of early Hong Kong. I was surprised to read that:

Allom travelled in the Near East, but never reached China. His book illustrations are based on sketches by others.

So, allow for a certain amount of poetic licence as you look at them.

Allom based his Amoy works on sketches made by a Captain Stoddart of the Royal Navy. I guess Stoddart arrived in Amoy with Pottinger's expedition -  can anyone confirm?

Yes, I liked it too. I'd happily recommend it as somewhere to go for a short break from Hong Kong.

Captain James Stoddart served in the First Opium War and went on Pottinger's expediton up the coast. See:


Besides Amoy, he also did other sketches of Nanking (Nanjing) and Chusan (Zhoushan) during that period,

Dr. Patrick Mason the "Father of Tropical Medicine") was in Amoy at the Baptist Missionary Hospital and private practice for 12 years before he came to Hong Kong in 1883 where he started Dairy Farm and the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese (Later Hong Kong Univeristy).

Moddsey & Annelise, thanks for the extra information.

I've found a good document by Chen Yu that gives a lot more information about foreigners in Amoy and Kulangsu around this time: Land, Title Deed, and Urban Transformation: Foreigners’ Acquisition of Real Property in Xiamen (1841~1945)

One part talks about the the initial British Concession area, and how it was parceled out:

Because the undeveloped beach ground was leased to the British Government as a whole, the British Consul proposed a plan in the six-clause regulations on 20th February, 1852. Initially, he intended to divide “the space between the Kong-ao Row and Ta-me landing places (Gangzaikou Wharf 港仔口路头 and Daomei Wharf) into four regular parts to a depth of 200 feet into the sea from the fronts of the Hongs.” Lot No. 1, 2, 3 were respectively subleased to three English firms - Tait & Co., Dent & Co. and Syme Muir & Co. And Lot No. 4 was reserved for the British Government. And the land between the Gangzaikou Wharf and the Xin Wharf was separated into half with a similar depth. Lot No. 5 and 6 were under the name of Jardine Matheson & Co. and Robert Jackson respectively.

Dent & Jardines I've heard of before, but not the others.

So the history of Amoy at this time was certainly intertwined with Hong Kong's. Maybe after we've run out of things to talk about for Hong Kong's history (!) we can make a start on amoy.gwulo.com...

Just found an interesting connection to add to Annelise's note above. Carl T Smith writes in Wanchai: In Search of an Identity:

Amoy and Swatow lanes were opened on the part of ML 40 which was nearest Queen's Road East. In 1915, the lanes were extended through the rest of the lot to the Praya East, and became streets. The land was owned by Dr Patrick Mason, who came to Hong Kong in 1883 from Amoy where he had been serving as a medical officer in the Chinese Maritime Customs.

Amoy we've already talked about. Swatow (now known as Shantou) was another treaty port on the China Coast, between Hong kong and Amoy. The two streets still exist today, running north from Queen's Road East and meeting Johnston Road opposite Southorn Playground.