Oct 26, 2016
In centuries past, Guangzhou bustled with foreign merchants long before the rest of China opened for trade. And today, the port city formerly known as Canton thrives again.
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 Road, Yuexiu, Tel: 86 20 8356 3578), 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.