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.
ut 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.
ventually, 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.