Most book milestones are measured in time—six months to deadline!—or word count. For Nicholas Kitto, author of Trading Places: A Photographic Journey through China’s Former Treaty Ports, the pertinent metric was step count: in the process of searching out the subjects for his photographs, Kitto walked 2,784,010 steps in the course of fifty-one different journeys from his home in Hong Kong—which must have amounted well over a thousand miles on foot.
Kitto’s motivation, he writes in his preface to the book, came from his family’s history, specifically the years spent in China by his paternal grandparents. Kitto began to assemble the photographs for the project in 2008, and by 2016 he had collated over 4,000 images. Around 700 of those are presented in Trading Places.
Despite the urban transformation that has taken place in China over recent decades, with many historic buildings, both colonial and Chinese, razed for redevelopment, a remarkable amount of architecture remains from the era of the “Treaty Ports”. As Robert Nield writes in the book’s “Historical Overview”, this period lasted roughly from 1840 to 1943. There was a diverse range of agreements allowing for foreign trade, diplomacy, military and religious missionary activity in China, and thus the history of these areas is complex. And of course the architectural styles deployed were also diverse, drawing on individual national influences: the old part of Qingdao still retains a Bavarian flavor today, while when standing in front of the St Sophia Orthodox cathedral in north-eastern Harbin, one could imagine oneself in Tsarist Russia.
What is particularly appealing about Kitto’s book, however, is that he focuses mainly not on the better known sites of foreign architecture—the “big four” of Shanghai, Tianjin, Hankou (Wuhan), and Guangzhou—but rather on some of the less famous and visited Treaty Ports. The rainy side-streets of Shashi on the Yangtze; the warehouses of Zhenjiang—Kitto has traveled there (and photographed them) so you don’t have to. Often the photographs are accompanied by historical images of the same site, which show either how well preserved these buildings are—and certainly preservation and restoration has improved in recent years—or form an evocative contrast to past glories.
Kitto’s contemporary photograph of the old Fuzhou Club, for example, shows a precarious array of drying racks strewn with clothes outside the faded building, with residents sheltering from the sun under the grand porch, bicycles and scooters parked alongside. One diverting activity the book encourages is searching old photographs of the sites on the wonderfully rich archive collected at Historical Photographs of China (project director and author Robert Bickers contributes a foreword to Trading Places). And there is the Fuzhou Club, photographed just after it opened in 1870: gleaming white in its newness, its members arrayed in bowler hats and dark suits in front of that same porch.
The history of the Treaty Ports is not well known outside specialist and academic circles; despite the widespread coverage of Wuhan in 2020, few people know that Hankou, one of its three constituent cities, had once been a prosperous and globally famous international trading city.
Nicholas Kitto’s book is a wonderful archive of the last physical reminders of this significant era, but also offers a unique visual tour of China: over the last months of confinement here in Britain, I found myself regularly dipping into the book—it is a lavish hardback which lives on my desk—and taking a brief trip across the world, and back in time.
Jonathan Chatwin is the author of travelogue Long Peace Street: A walk in modern China. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin.