A Chan (Ya Zhen) in Guangzhou

A Chan’s studio and other shops, Heavenly Peace Street (天平街), Guangzhou (廣州). HPC ref: UB01-20.

This nice view of a commercial street in Guangzhou (Canton), that has been on the Historical Photographs of China website for a while, has been identified as the work of A Chan (雅真 Ya Zhen), an early Chinese photographer who worked in South China. A Chan’s authorship – confirmed by other versions of the image (see here and here, for example) – was cleverly hidden in plain sight, but it took a closer look to see this. The big shop sign on the right reads 香港 Xianggang [Hong Kong] / 雅真影相 Ya Zhen yingxiang/jing soeng [A Chan (Ya Zhen) photography]. It likely as not marked the entrance to A Chan’s studio in the city, with the reference to Hong Kong suggesting that it also operated in the then British colony, or possibly even that it had begun its activity there.

A Chan’s work is reasonably well known, and the information which had eluded us before had actually been mentioned in a couple of places. For example, in Terry Bennett’s History of Photography in China, Chinese Photographers 1844- 1879 (2013) and on the website Jiu yinzhi 旧影志 dedicated to the history of early Chinese photography.

The street in the photograph was 天平街 Tian ping jie, known as Heavenly Peace Street in English. The street is described in a 1904 guidebook as follows:

‘天平街 Heavenly Peace Street

In this street are shops for making bronze vessels (黃銅 [huangtong]), working in marble (雲石店 [yunshi dian]), and making palm-leaf fans.’

Dr. [John Glasgow] Kerr, A Guide to the City and Suburbs of Canton (Hong Kong: Kelly & Walsh, Ltd., 1904), p. 17

A Chan advertisement in A Pictorial Handbook to Canton (1905), p. 35

However, an advertisement published in the guidebook A Pictorial Handbook to Canton (Middlesbrough, Hood & Co., 1905), which also reproduces the same photograph of Heavenly Peace Street, lists ‘A. Chan’ as based on ‘179 Tai Sun Street, Canton (New City)’. The advertisement’s note that the studio ‘had always on stock a large assortment of Photographs[,] Views[, and] Post Cards[,] Etc., Etc., of Canton, Macao & Hong Kong’, suggests that he worked around the Pearl River Delta.

‘Tai Sun Street’ was likely 大新街 Da xin jie, or Great New Street, also known as Tai Sen Kai (an old romanisation from the Cantonese pronunciation) – today’s Da xin lu (大新路). It is listed in Kerr’s 1904 guidebook right after Heavenly Peace Street (both in the section on the New City). In Great New Street, that guidebook ensures, ‘the stranger will find much of interest, and the variety of articles made and exposed for sale will repay a careful survey of the shops’. One of them, it seems, was A Chan’s.

The Historical Photographs of China Projects holds several other photographs by A Chan, all of which were taken in Guangzhou.

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