Fire in the port city: the impact of different population groups on the destruction and revival of Canton city in the nineteenth century

Xueping Gu, Carola Hein*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Canton (present-day Guangzhou) has long flourished as a port city. As the city expanded in the nineteenth century, the risks of conflagrations increased; streets became more crowded, buildings were more often made of wood, and there was more use of open fires. The reconstruction of Canton after conflagrations provides an excellent way to observe the resilience of urban space, understood here as the result of interactions among different stakeholders. This paper explores how authorities, local communities, foreigners, and Hong merchants addressed fires and rebuilt through laws, regulations, technologies and cooperation, and how responses to fire destruction shaped urban space. Divers stakeholders affected the reconstruction of buildings and streets. The government made laws to widen streets, communities built watchtowers, and foreigners made new plans for Thirteen Factories, a neigbhorhood along the Pearl River. At the same time, conflicts between communities and foreigners obstructed plans for urban transformation and maintained the stability of urban structures. The communities kept the traditional local community organizations the ‘Kaifong’ (local organization in street) who opposed the widening streets and fought against proposed fire zones around Thirteen Factories, thus pitching local interests against those of the foreigners in a complex social, political, and cultural context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)695-708
Number of pages14
JournalPlanning Perspectives
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Canton
  • conflagration
  • disaster and rebuilding
  • port city
  • urban transformation

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