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.