Touring the 'birthplace' of Hong Kong: Nantou town, Shenzhen

Touring the 'birthplace' of Hong Kong: Nantou town, Shenzhen

CNNGo tours Nantou town, where Hong Kong was signed off to the British 170 years ago

Hong Kong has a pretty humble birthplace for such a great city: an old stone yamen (a mandarin's office) in the middle of Nantou, a bustling market town near the mouth of the Pearl River. 170 years ago, the yamen was the centre of government for the Pearl River Delta. After China lost the first Opium War, its officials gathered in the yamen to sign the island of Hong Kong away to the British.

Nantou has been around for 1,700 years and it's riddled with historic landmarks: old fortifications, temples and ancient houses. A few years ago, most of the historic landmarks were restored and converted into a history museum. But nobody came to see them, so the museum was scaled back and the old buildings were boarded up. Now they've been swallowed by the frenzy of modern Shenzhen, where migrants from across China flock to do business. You know the old cliché of past and present colliding? That's Nantou, Shenzhen.

Nantou was founded in 331 as the administrative centre of the Dongguan Prefecture, which stretched from Guangzhou to present-day Hong Kong. In 1394, a defensive wall was built around the town to ward off Japanese pirates, and the town's South Gate is one of the few remaining sections of that wall.

Inside the gate, hawkers sell trinkets and vegetables across from a row of Chinese altars.

Up the road is the yamen, which was the seat of the regional government until the early 20th century. Nantou was one of the most important towns in the Pearl River Delta for centuries, but after the construction of the Kowloon-Canton Railway in 1911, the government was moved to nearby Shenzhen, and Nantou began a long descent into obscurity.

Now the yamen is locked up, a convenient open space where street vendors can sell their wares. Mrs Lan has been unemployed since she was laid off from a state-owned factory in Liaoning province. She sells fortune-telling pamphlets and lucky charms out front. "I'm only here in the winter," she says. "It's too cold in the north so I come to Shenzhen to make money for my son in university. I leave again in two weeks." This was her first time in Shenzhen and she likes it enough that she might come back next year.

Next door, in front of an old building that once housed the offices of a long-shuttered county newspaper, Mr Li and a friend sell bags, wallets and mobile phone cases. Both come from Henan province. "Compared to Beijing or Shanghai, the cops here are less strict about street vending. There's a lot of people in Nantou from all over the place -- Sichuan, Shandong, Zhejiang, Fujian. Everywhere."

Peering through the locked gates of the yamen, a mound of debris is visible.

Even though it's shuttered, the yamen still attracts some sightseers. Lu Jing Jing was visiting her local friend Siu Sum from Hubei and he took her to see the building. "It's a nice building," he said. "All I know is that this used to be a museum, but tourism was no good, so they closed it."

Not far from the yamen, Lu Jiang Hai, who moved to Shenzhen from Hubei province six years ago, sells used furniture in the street. Migrant workers sell it to him when they leave and he sells it to other migrant workers when they arrive. "I guess it's a bit like temporary storage," he said. "There are four other shops like mine here and we're all from Hubei."

Nantou's streets are always packed. More than 30,000 people are packed into half a square kilometre. Most of the residents are migrants who live in walk-up apartment buildings built by the indigenous Cantonese villagers, many of whom have moved to Hong Kong or overseas. "The locals here are too lazy to work hard," said one hawker. "They just rent out their homes and leave."

Just about everything is for sale on Nantou's streets: fresh vegetables, electrical appliances, kitchenware, clothes, pets.

Messages scrawled on various walls advertise various services: this one is for counterfeit money. Another one nearby was for a private detective.

Food in Nantou is cheap. Steamed buns stuffed with pork and chives cost just 5 jiao (about 50 Hong Kong cents) apiece.

Handmade dumplings and noodles cost between 5 and 9 RMB per dish.

Oysters harvested in nearby Shenzhen Bay sell for RMB 10 per catty.

Mrs Chou comes from a town on the border with Russia, in Heilongjiang province, where she baked all kinds of savoury breads. When her brother moved to Shenzhen four years ago, she decided to join him and sell her breads here. "It's not a bad place," she says.

Various old buildings are scattered around town, like flakes of gold in a California river: old clan halls, doctor's shops, temples.

Some are genuinely ancient, but others have been rebuilt, like the East Gate, which dates back to 1995.

How to get there

Nantou's South Gate is located near the corner of Shennan Avenue and Nanxin Road (map ). In addition to the old buildings scattered around town, the Nantou Ancient City Museum, on Shennan Avenue near the South Gate, offers a comprehensive look at Nantou's history, with old photos and artifacts. North of the old town is Zhongshan Park, Shenzhen's oldest public park, which offers wooded hillsides, the ruins of a Ming Dynasty wall and big lawns popular with picnickers.

The easiest way to reach Nantou from Hong Kong is to take a cross-border bus from Kowloon Tong or Wan Chai to Shenzhen Bay. After clearing customs, get in a taxi and tell the driver to go to Nantou Ancient City or Nan tou gu cheng (南投古城). The journey should take no more than 15 minutes.

From central Shenzhen, take the 201 or 210 bus along Shennan Avenue. You could also take the metro to Shenzhen University station and take a taxi from there; the journey should take around 5 minutes.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
Read more about Christopher DeWolf