Over the past three decades, the southern metropolis of Guangzhou has been built anew on the profits of China’s seemingly boundless industrial revolution. Iconic monuments like Canton Tower boldly proclaim the city’s return to the world stage. Ascend the tower to a viewing platform on the 108th floor and be awed by a sea of glass and concrete, which reaches to the horizon in all directions.
Even when viewed from close to 433m above ground, Zhujiang New Town is visibly one of the most ostentatious neighbourhoods of all. Extraordinarily, the area was until relatively recently an urban village in a state of decay. But things change fast in southern China.
Walk through Zhujiang New Town today and you’ll be forgiven for feeling disorientated by the array of venues spilling onto the streets. From hipster haunt Revolucion Cocktail to Bosphorous Turkish Restaurant (Zhaoqing Building, 304 Huanshi Middle Rd, Yuexiu), where Middle Eastern merchants talk shop over hookahs, all around the evidence is clear – Guangzhou is back in business.
But how did old Canton, as foreigners have long called the city, become opulent Guangzhou? It’s a question best navigated via the tributaries of history, which still flow between its luxury-car dealerships and dim sum restaurants.
The story begins inside a gaudy red building, the exterior of which looks like an old-world theme park, with wall carvings of snakes and heroes. But this is a site of genuine historical interest. The Museum of the Western Han Dynasty: Mausoleum of the Nanyue King houses more than 1,000 ancient artefacts, including the tomb of King Zhao Mo who died in 122BC. These are the remnants of the Nanyue Kingdom, an independent state that incorporated Guangdong and parts of Vietnam, and thrived between 204BC and 111BC, before Han troops took over.
The Nanyue Kingdom is, in many ways, a parable of what would become the capricious Cantonese character – Chinese of course, but ever ready to forge its own path. The distinctive geography of the southern province of Guangdong abetted this sense of detachment, as the Nanling Mountains acted as a barrier between the province and the rest of the country.
So it was perhaps inevitable that the outward-facing southerners fostered a maritime culture that became the envy of the ancient world. By the time of the Tang dynasty, Guangzhou had forged strong trade links with South-east Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East along what became known as the Maritime Silk Road.
In the old heart of the city, various religious sites speak of ancient Guangzhou’s uniquely cosmopolitan character. Huaisheng Mosque (56 Guangta Rd, Yuexiu), for instance, is the earliest suggestion of Sino-Arab dealings. It was built close to 1,400 years ago, making it one of the oldest in China.
Nearby, the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees (87 Liurong Rd) is another suggestion that Guangzhou’s spiritual side blew into town on the trade winds. Conflicting reports state that the complex was built to house the relics of Cambodian or Indian saints. Either way, it is a clear indication that the Cantonese were closely acquainted with the world by the time of the Tang in the seventh century. The temple could also be seen as an expression of wealth – its iconic Flower Pagoda was, after all, the Canton Tower of its day.
When the Mongol hoards vanquished China’s Song rulers in the 13th century, the Celestial Empire fell into gradual decline. For Guangzhou, this sense of atrophy was exacerbated by the inward-facing character of the ensuing Ming dynasty, which curtailed seafaring. But a new era of foreign dealings would begin when the Portuguese, who first used the term “Cantonese”, arrived on southern China’s shores in the 16th century. They were soon followed by the Dutch, Spanish, French, British and other Europeans hungry for made-in-China produce such as tea, porcelain and silk.
This period of foreign dealings is recalled in Huangpu on Pazhou Island. Superficially, it’s an unassuming place where locals shop at wet markets, fish and chat on street corners. But nestled between modern tenements are clan residences and temples bearing the humped roofs common to Nanling architecture of the Qing period, suggesting this area also had a mercantile past.
In one such restored old residence, the Yuehui Customs Museum (Gugang Scenic Spot, Buxing Jie, Haizhu) chronicles the maritime history of Huangpu, from the archaeological remains of Qin shipbuilding to becoming the bridgehead for Western learning in China, when European trade flourished here.
The new world
I’m lodging not far from the village at Langham Place. The strikingly modern hotel is located in a new commercial district, where several enormous exhibition halls host the biannual Canton Fair. It feels a world apart from Huangpu. Since the 1980s, this trade fair has helped spearhead economic reform. Guangzhou once again hosts merchants from all corners. Nowadays, they do not seek tea but made-in-Guangdong handbags or the latest electronic gizmos.
But reopening to the modern world after a century or so hasn’t been without its growing pains, as a retrospective exhibition (till October 7) at one of the city’s coolest art galleries, Times Museum, suggests. The sculptures, installations and photographs of ’90s art collective Big Tail Elephants document the decade of the city’s most dramatic transformation, and issues such as class disparity play heavily in their works.
“Looking back, we realised a big part of what defines us today started then,” says chief curator Nikita Cai. “It helps us look at the process of modernisation in China because there has been this absolute optimism about development. But what is interesting is that this group of artists, living on the frontier of change, remained a bit unsure and didn’t immediately celebrate.”
I seek to find out what this meteoric rise has implied for everyday Guangzhou and am directed to the Central Business District in Tianhe. I soon find myself lost in Taikoo Hui, navigating the luxury-brand stores in an air-conditioned cocoon that could just as easily be in any other city in the world. But I am, in fact, in search of culture.
Eventually, I find what I’m looking for in Fang Suo Commune (MU floor, Taikoo Hui), an ultra hip bookstore, gallery and cafe. Over afternoon tea, I watch young metropolitans sift through the pages of world literature while sipping lattes, adrift in their cerebral worlds. I consider that a more affluent Guangzhou has nurtured a class of gallery-goers and bookworms.
It seems fitting to conclude a tour of Guangzhou with a Zhujiang beer in Taojin, a name that figuratively means “make money”. The neighbourhood may look a bit worn these days, but it was the city’s original expat hub. Luxury establishments such as LN Garden Hotel were erected here, as was one of its earliest malls, Guangzhou Friendship Store, which recalls a time when foreigners could spend only Foreign Exchange Certificates in the country.
Viewing a black-and-white photograph in the hotel’s foyer, of what had been rural land until the ’70s, you can see how much the area has changed. Nowadays, there’s Perma (No. 38, Jianshe 5th Rd), a French bakery, and People’s Cafe (No. 35, Jianshe 5th Rd), a Korean-run eatery with a menu as diverse as the nationalities that roam the neighbourhood.
There are sports bars such as The Brew and The Paddy Field, where teachers, traders and old-timers sip imported beer and discuss the news of the day, while expat bands like The Sleepwalkers rock till the wee hours. Old Canton, it seems, is once again the mercantile melting pot it was a millennium ago.
– TEXT BY THOMAS BIRD
PHOTOS CHARLIE XIA
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.