From one-time Chinese capital to coronavirus epicenter, Wuhan has a long history that the West had forgotten

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

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.