A walk in Guangzhou in search of the real China.
By Marcel Concierge. Guest travel blogger.
The taxi from my hotel dropped me off at the Starbucks behind the hulking Garden hotel. Taxi drivers in Guangzhou always drop westerners at a Starbucks, in ten years it will be Sinobucks, but beggars can’t be choosers, the taxi drivers do not speak any English (some don’t even speak Cantonese as they hail from the inner provinces). I actually wanted to be dropped off at the riverbank, but the note that I had was from the previous night, when I had asked the hotel concierge to write down the name of the best area for nightlife. In any case the river had to be close, so I thanked the driver and then walked.
The streets of the Huanshi Dong Lu zone-where I was dropped off-are wide and ultra modern, with plastic Mc Donald’s and Sino-graphic Pizza Hut neon signs. I walked past many trendy lounges and even an Irish pub, among a many European style restaurants (French, Italian, Tapas, etc), all closed because it was still early on a Saturday morning.
Guangzhou: Huanshi Dong Lu zone at night.
The European restaurants came as a surprise, I had been in Guangzhou for a week already and all my meals had occurred in Cantonese restaurants, the one exception had been a Macao style place. Not that I am complaining, having Cantonese food in Canton is almost a religious experience, akin to having a plate of Spaghetti Bolognaise in Bologna, only better.
Those of you familiar with Cantonese restaurant back at home, can leave your preconceptions there, Cantonese food in Guangzhou is worlds away from fried rice and egg rolls.
The food here is based around the freshest ingredients, even the smallest hole in the wall restaurants have a tank for live fish. I have been taking most of my meals al fresco, in a restaurant that looks just like a Japanese tea garden. The restaurant is located inside a park next to my hotel. You sit by a garden pond full of fish and after selecting a plump one, the chef will then stir fry it on a wok with fresh vegetables.
It all occurs right in front of your eyes and all the punters are local families, this is no fancy show for the tourists, in fact, that is exactly what I like the most about Guangzhou, almost nothing is done only for tourists; Absent are your typical tourist traps that normally lurk in most world cities of the same size. And that is exactly why tourists should come here: To soak in the real China. A China with a Cantonese urban culture that is remarkably civilized.
Guangzhou today is populated by a well educated and urbane youth that is familiar with American pop culture (Gossip Girl seems to be a hit). The bustle of rush hour white collar commuters and the sprawl of stocky apartment buildings, next to inner- city aerial freeways, can be reminiscent of Japan in the late 1960’s.
The rapid economic expansion of the last ten years has left Guangzhou with a legacy of gleaming skyscrapers that are lit up at night and a network of aerial freeways that crisscross the inner city, four stories above street level. They even have roundabouts in the sky and looking trough people’s apartment windows must be a national pastime during peak traffic.
I had decided to walk to the riverfront because I’d been told that there was a large island on the Pearl river that housed the earliest western trading companies that arrived in China in the late 18oo’s and that some of the Dutch colonial architecture remained and was reminiscent of old Calcutta in the Cantonese heat.
I had already walked several blocks away from Starbucks but was still inside a neighborhood that looked more like Manhattans’ upper west side than old Calcutta: Posh apartment buildings with trendy sushi restaurants and car parks at street level.
I finally arrived at the edge of a very busy dual carriageway and stopped on the sidewalk to ask directions to an attractive local girl that was waiting for a bus. My Mandarin is nonexistent and the poor girl could not understand me. She shrugged her shoulders in embarrassment and surprise. I saw a pedestrian overpass straddling the dual carriageway about a hundred yards away, so I said good bye to the girl with the only two words that I know in Mandarin: Xie Xie.
I pronounced it “Zhay Zhay” and headed towards the looming overpass as huge Chinese made buses roared down the freeway.
Reaching the top of the overpass, I could feel the rush of traffic under my feet as the Blade Runner skyline of Guangzhou loomed all around me in the crisp morning sun.
I had about two hours to find the river front and make it across the Pearl River to my Chinese host’s apartment on a Posh residential building with a river view on the yuppie area of Shemian island. My lunch hosts were a modern Guangzou couple, she was an attractive office girl, and her fiancée, was not only the CEO of one of the largest search engines in China, he was also a ‘Party Chairman’, it said so on his business card.
I followed the morning sun as it streaked above the gleaming skyscrapers, I was trying to keep heading south until I hit the river, but it was almost impossible to find a bearing in the jumble of aerial freeways, overpasses, and imposingly tall glass towers with crumbling tenements crammed at their feet, like urban foot fungus.
This is typical of most cities in the developing world; shantytowns next to gleaming office buildings. A relatively common sight in Latin America and India, but in Guangzhou, these working class tenements have a quaint charm to them, it’s like entering your typical Chinatown in the west and just as chock full of shops selling every possible trinket and live seafood imaginable.
The side lanes off the main drag I was walking on lead into dreary four story tenements with hanging laundry. I noticed that middle aged ‘neighborhood guards’ with a red armband and a large wooden night stick manned the entrance to every single one of them. The tenements existed under the shadow of silver skyscrapers of futuristic design; there was one looming above my head, a silver glass tower with a phalanx of policemen guarding its entrance.
But the modern architecture ended about half a block away from the base of the skyscraper. Right at the border between the modern and the old, stood the entrance to another row of low rise tenement buildings built in the 1930′s.
A yellow and red sign with simplified Chinese logograms had an English translation below: “Hang Tong Chamber”. I hoped that ‘Chamber’ was a poor translation for alley or passageway, as the narrow corridor ahead of me was pointing directly towards the riverfront.
The narrow alley was lined with little shops and restaurants and hanging laundry. I walked slowly among the Cantonese locals as they talked, slurped noodles, picked out live fish from grimy green fish-tanks, purchased SIM cards and male tonics made out of strange roots and sorted through plastic anime toys.
The alley was interrupted by multiple side corridors that led into more communal tenements, and each corridor was manned by a night-stick guard.
The small shops gave way to a large, once grand, five story mansion originally built in the 1920′s, that might had once been a grand hotel, but as I walked pass it,- trying to avoid eye contact with the uniformed guards at its entrance-, I saw the red, and gold, circular emblem of the People’s Republic of China: A bright red dot with five starts above Tiananmen Gate, framed by wheat, sprouting from an industrial cogwheel and every window of the once grand hotel was stuffed with hanging laundry. The guards only gave me a curious glance as when I walked past them. The luxury hotel of old, now only housed retirees and veterans of the Chinese civil war.
My gamble paid off, a ‘chamber’ did indeed turn out to mean an alleyway and the river had to be very close by.
Morning sunlight greeted me outside the mouth of the alley; I could see an elaborate Chinese gate, about half a block to the south, and behind it, a flash of greenery. I headed towards the gate; it was an entrance to a city park and being that it was a Saturday morning, the park was packed with local children and senior citizens. I walked right in, ignoring the booth and the English sign asking for a 3 Yuan entrance fee.
Classical Chinese music wafted along the park, mixed in with Hong Kong pop music. Groups of local youth practiced synchronized exercises with what looked like a ceremonial racket and a small ball. A group of senior citizens played footsy in a circle, they laughed out loud when they kicked a large feathered shuttlecock into the air, trying to keep it constantly aloft with their feet. People danced in large groups all over the park, some waltzed to the sounds of a portable CD player while other groups tried the fancier footsteps and faster rhythms of mambo or salsa, I could even hear Cantonese hip hop and saw a group of young kids break dancing, one of then tried to do a head spin.
As the sweet and sour classical Chinese music wrapped around me, I was filled with the strange exhilaration of been the only westerner in the whole park.
I stopped by a large sign with a map of the park and studied it for the shortest route to the south gate exit. I knew that the south gate had to be just a few feet away from the Pear River and the bridge that crossed over into the modern residential buildings on the Vancouverized bank of Shamian island.
I then found myself standing in the middle of a placid lake, walking on a wooden foot bridge. The clearing of the lake gave me a clean view of the skyline. I could see the twisted metal of the half built Guangzhou tower, gleaming in the morning sun, lined by a wall of skyscrapers that stretched as far as the eye could see. And these weren’t the stately art deco skyscrapers of the Manhattan metropolis of my youth; these were the shiny towers of light of a 21rst century Megalopolis.
The wooden foot bridge had lead me into a large pagoda located in the center of the lake. The whiny sound of Chinese classical instruments filled my ears. The instruments were been played by old men in Mao Jackets. At the center of the pagoda was a large group of female Cantonese senior citizens singing as a choir, while an energetic, younger man led them into a patriotic Chinese song.
I could not believe the sight of this large group of old timers, stringing Chinese instruments and singing along without a care in the world, while the twenty first century roared around them, right outside the park gates and 45 stories up in the sky from their little pagoda of peace in the middle of a man-made lake.
At last I exited the park. I was now facing the South bank of the Pearl River, the modern suspension bridge was just a few yards upstream, it lead to the up-market residential towers on the north bank of Shamian island.
As I crossed the bridge I had the strange sensation of walking out of the China of old, the China of men with Mao suits and patriotic songs and was entering the new China of ubber-modern residential high rises that were virtually indistinguishable from the glass towers on the Vancouver waterfront, only that in Guangzhou, the skyline of glass towers just keep going, right into the horizon. It is an awesome, brutalist, sight.
“China is just like a young, pretty, flirtatious teenage girl from a good family” Theresa Chang had said to me on the ride from Baiyun airport to the Dong Fang Hotel, just two days before, “It is full of promise, youthful exuberance and fertile potential, and on the lookout for a suitable husband on which to focus all her energies into the future”
“And America is an old and gray grand dame with wild mood swings and heavy addictions to oil, so what is your point?” I had retorted as the aerial freeways of Guangzhou floated us along an endless line of tightly packed buildings. We were driving four stories in the air and we could look right into people’s living rooms.
“My point is” Theresa Chang told me “Democracy is messy, look at Thailand, protesters closed the airports, It’s bad for tourism, it’s bad for business, China is far too vast and too diverse for that, we can’t afford the same nonsense here, not now, not at this point”.
I remember that I had gotten angry at her. How can you say that?” I asked “I have never understood that point of view; America prescribes democracy or else for Iraq, spends billions and kills thousands in the name of Democracy. Demand Democracy for Cuba, for North Korea, for Zimbabwe, but not for China? Why not? Isn’t it a bit hypocritical, to say the least?”
Theresa Chang was fifty years old; she was very short but had a cheerful, respectable face that was framed with expensive Prada spectacles. She wore a very short, executive haircut that matched her dark blue business suit and she gave an air of quiet authority. She spoke in a perfect American English with only the slightest trace of a Cantonese accent.
“I was born here, in Guangdong” Theresa Chang said “I can still remember the Cultural Revolution, I was only a little girl back then, but I can clearly remember that everyone dressed the same and there was nothing in the shops. We often went hungry and my father rode a bicycle to work. My father was a teacher, but he never got any respect and he made absolutely no money, and when he made the mistake of complaining, he got shot for his troubles. I managed to escape to Hong Kong, with my mother and eventually we immigrated to the US. Now I am the Chief operations officer of Silicon Valley based fortune 500 company and in charge of our China marketing strategy. And let me tell you, let go of these foolish notions. If they want to call it Communism, let them call it that, I don’t care what they call it as long as it works and brigs prosperity for their people. I mean, just take one good look around you; this is not Zimbabwe, far from it! This country is booming, this is the future, and the future of a lot of European and American companies are linked to China’s success, and if it works for China, great, it works for China, so don’t try to fix it if it’s not broken”.
I had finally reached the north bank of Shamian Island and I could see my host’s tall residential tower just a couple of blocks away. The entrance to their building had a small guard post with the red emblem of the People’s Republic, as all of the posh buildings seemed to have.
As I registered my name with the guard, I thought of my hosts yuppie status, of their cushy job, their posh apartment with a guard post, of their close business relationships with European and American companies, of their freedom to travel abroad and ultimately of their higher standard of living than most executives doing the same work in the west.
Maybe Theresa Chang was right after all; don’t fix China it if it’s not broken. What do you think?
Next Week: A drive in the Cantonese Countryside.
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