Wuhan, China, in 1895. It lies at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers .

Editor’s Note: Paul French is the author of “Midnight in Peking” and “City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir,” both currently being adapted for TV.

CNN  — 

Before the novel coronavirus outbreak hit Wuhan in December, the exact whereabouts – and even existence – of the central Chinese city had slipped from the general public’s awareness in the West.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Two generations ago, this city of 11 million people, on the junction of the Yangtze and Han Rivers, 600 miles upstream, in central China, was known through the West as a major industrial city.

It was somewhere many European powers had a consulate, a place where major Western and Japanese trading firms, and international textile and engineering companies, had factories and sales offices.

It was a regular overseas posting for customs officers, steamboat captains, traders and consuls. Wuhan was also a cradle of China’s revolution in 1911. A quarter of a century later, it stood defiantly as the beleaguered wartime capital of nationalist China.


From the middle of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, Wuhan was a city that regularly appeared in the international press and, as a trading hub for teas and silks among other commodities, it directly impacted the lives of people in the West – it made the tea in their teapots, the powdered egg in their birthday cakes, the silk for their pajamas.

After the chaos and destruction of the Second World War, the Communist Revolution brought the Bamboo Curtain firmly down. International trade stopped, the foreign business community left, and the Western world largely forgot about Wuhan.

The Chicago of China

In 1900, American magazine Collier’s published an article about the Yangtze “boom town” of Wuhan, calling it “the Chicago of China.” It was one of the first times – if not the first – the Chinese city had been given this moniker, and it stuck.

In 1927, the veteran United Press Shanghai correspondent Randall Gould used the moniker in a dispatch about political turmoil in Hubei province. After this, the term appears hundreds of times in just about every paper around world.

Minnesota-born Gould was fairly fresh off the boat in Shanghai when he journeyed up the Yangtze to Wuhan for the first time. Gould was in town because a revolution was going on – the second in Wuhan in 15 years. The Nationalist government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, had split over the bloody suppression tactics used in its brutal war against the nascent Communist Party.

A steamer is loaded in Hankow.

Left-wing sympathizers established the breakaway Wuhan Nationalist Government, while Chiang formed his own majority government in Nanjing. The alternative government in Wuhan only lasted six months, but it revealed the long-running divisions within the Chinese Nationalist Party. To foreign correspondents like Gould, it looked like the young Chinese republic was about to wrench itself apart.

Their editors in London, New York, Paris and Tokyo agreed. Wuhan was front page news.

That editorial decision was partly influenced by the long list of companies with substantial stakes in Wuhan in 1927 – the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (HSBC), John Swire & Sons, British-American Tobacco, Standard Oil of New York, Texaco, Standard Chartered Bank.

Wuhan was China’s major industrial powerhouse, producing iron and steel, silk and cotton, tea packing and food canning.

It was the Chicago of China.

An image believed to date back to 1906-1907 of Hankou, one of three cities that merged to become Wuhan.

The West’s introduction to Wuhan

The West came to know Wuhan in 1858 as part of the unequal Treaty of Tianjin, extracted from the weakened Qing Dynasty during the Second Opium War.

The treaty allowed foreign ships to sail up the Yangtze River, and the British had surveyed the waterway as far as Hubei province. They particularly examined the riverside conglomeration of Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang, collectively known as the “Three Towns of Wuhan.” Liking what they saw, they demanded the city be opened to foreign trade.

Robert Bickers, a professor at Bristol University, who studies the foreign presence in pre-1949 China, explains the British thinking: “After the First Opium War the British annexed Hong Kong as a colony and opened Shanghai, on the coast at the head of the Yangtze in eastern China, as a treaty port. Sixteen years later they understood the importance of inland China better and so zeroed in on Wuhan, as well as Tianjin.”

Wuhan became essential to the coastal port cities, feeding them commodities (tea, meat, tobacco etc) and produced outputs (iron, steel, silk etc). Wuhan was China’s largest inland entrepôt.

A group of laborers in front of the first blast furnace of the new steel-producing center being built in Wuhan, China, in 1959.

Wuhan was already a massive in city in 1850 – approximately 1 million people lived in the three towns half the size of the world’s largest city at the time, London.

From the 1860s, foreigners flooded in, though the city always had a Chinese majority population.

The new arrivals clustered in Hankou creating a tree-lined, two-mile long Bund, which largely remains today, building their warehouses, docks and offices as well as a race track, clubs and public gardens all adjacent to the Hankou waterfront.

The British Concession was adjacent to concessions run by the Germans, the French, the Japanese, a rather disputed Belgian concession, and the Russians, who had been active in Wuhan trading tea from Siberia since the 12th century. All these nations, including the Americans, had consulates.

Holt House was the office for Butterfield & Swire, one of the biggest and best-known British "hongs" or trading houses in China.

While Wuhan became a cosmopolitan place, it was always essentially a business town – it never developed the nightlife or the movie industry, publishing houses, and art galleries that clustered in Shanghai’s more Bohemian quarters; it wasn’t quite the scholarly center that was Beijing. The foreigners were present, and their soldiers guarded the consulates, but the city retained a more dominant Chinese feel.

Center of revolt

In 1911, the republican revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty was, albeit accidentally, sparked in Wuhan.

The initial catalyst for the revolt was the accidental explosion of a bomb that occurred when a careless anti-Qing/pro-republican revolutionary dropped a lit cigarette in the workshop of some rebel conspirators in Hankou’s Russian Concession.

The ensuing explosion alarmed a nervous German butcher who called the police, who in turn uncovered a revolutionary plot. Seals, plans and documents were seized implicating members of the city’s Wuchang Garrison of Chinese soldiers as revolutionaries preparing to mutiny. As police had seized their membership list, the rebels were faced with a choice between arrest, torture and probable beheading or putting up a fight. They decided to act immediately to preserve themselves.

The anti-Qing rebellion took hold and eventually ended the 267-year-old Qing Dynasty.

In general, foreign business welcomed the new republic and saw it as a harbinger of greater support for modern industries.