Visiting Guangzhou – success in creating a city with a sense of place?

To Eastern readers it’s the powerful trading city at the eastern end of the maritime Silk Route. Its first recorded history is in the time of the Qin Dynasty 221 – 206BC, before passing into the hands of the Tang, then the Song, before becoming the capital of the Southern Han. To Western readers it’s Canton of Britain’s infamous gunboat diplomacy and the Opium Wars. But it traded right across the world with the Middle East and India and Africa long before the Westerners arrived.

The question that I ask as we arrive along with so many others – daytrippers, visitors to the Canton Trade Fair etc – is whether the technocrats and planners of this city have been able to meet the huge challenge of urbanisation and poverty as well as draw from the city’s own history and learning.

Its a city that’s been more open and willing than many in China to accommodate and take from others. So we follow in the footsteps of many travellers and traders when we arrive on Labour Day 2015, in this city of industry and commerce.

Now it’s a city of 15million people one of the biggest in the world, a city that has grown 10 fold in the last 50 years. It has 1900 people per square km and an average income of US $18000. Contrast this with Mumbai which has about 20,000 people per sq km and an average income of US $ 2000 per year. Just imagine the scale of the challenge of housing, feeding, providing services, housing and gainful employment for that number of people! It has been a success on many fronts.

I tried to find a Chinese poem – the simplicity and the calligraphy are striking – that may encapsulate the city of the past. I don’t find anything – perhaps Guangzhou was not a city of poetry. But here is something from 7th century poet, Du Mu, with a feel of the south… hopefully from somewhere along the Pearl River Estuary.

“Orioles call for a thousand li, green reflected in the river
Waterside village, hillside rampart, wine, a banner in the wind.
In the time of the southern dynasties, there were four hundred and eighty temples
How many pavilions there are now in the mist and the rain.”

(li = mile)

As tourists do, I look for those streets and parks and temples that haven’t changed for a 150 years, for remnants of the poets of the Tang and Song periods. I am desperate to find the harbour at Huangpu – Whampoa to the West – and see the hulks or ghosts at least of old ships that travelled the seas for centuries. It seems that our journeying is about looking for the past, some fixed points in time, that steady us in a world that is constantly moving and changing. As long as there is that continuity as well as difference from home, the authentic of our imagination, we will be happy.

Shrugging off the sentimentality, have those highly skilled technocrats – that only get in after tough examinations just as in the old days – managed not only to address poverty, sanitation and pollution but also draw from the old and retain a sense of where we are?

I expect people who know the city will think that’s unlikely. The question is what hasn’t changed in this city over the past 35 years or so, since the reforms of Deng Xiao Ping? Which other Chinese City is as modern, unless of course it’s Shanghai? Having last visited 25 years ago, I can tell you that it has changed even in recent times. The city I remember from 1990 with only it’s first and tiny shopping mall, rebuilt temples, markets full of unimaginable stuff that Marco Polo must have written home about, and multi storey Chinese restaurants is hardly recognisable.

However, the little streets around Ximenkou and Changshou Lou are lined with fruit stalls and little restaurants, perhaps just a little cleaner than many years back. There are people happily cycling around; most of the ordinary and delivery bicycles are electric these days. The trees are huge and shade the streets making mid-afternoon seem like early evening.

The Buddhist temple at Guangxiou – Temple of Bright Filial Piety – is a spacious and tranquil place, and I sit on the stone steps and listen to the monks chanting. There may not be many other visitors early evening, but there are some. The monks, the Buddha, the lions, the green dragons live on.


Shamian Island – where the foreign merchants lived and worked in their dark high-ceiling buildings – you can imagine the swishing fans and rosewood tables laden with yellowing papers – is well-preserved along with some sculptures of the traders. It makes a perfect spot for selfies and Starbucks for the young of Guangzhou.

Probably the most remarkable change since my last arrival, when we came out of a dusty old station to negotiate a fare with a taxi driver and Shamian Island looked modern, are the high rise housing estates, the shopping malls and the Metro sometimes all piled up on top of each other. We visit the mall in Huangsha, after crossing the canal and elevated highway by footbridge from Shamian Island. We walk along a row of shops that looks straight out of the 30s with beautiful calligraphy and almost all the aquatic life of the south china sea in dried up form, – hard to believe there is much left -with a few sacks of deer antler chips thrown in, to the Huangsha Mall . It has an upmarket collection of shops – Muji and cafes that are replicas of those from Paris or London. Unlike in neighbouring Hong Kong, which it resembles, the cafes don’t entirely belong and the staff seem uncomfortable in the space. Its in the exotic and colourful variety of soft drinks – fresh fruit juices or milkshakes with sago or tapioca that we see something local.

The central business district, the CBD, is a striking, shiny place. There are the glass and steel skyscrapers and a small collection of buildings – opera house, museums, art gallery – by famous architects. We eat our lunch in the coolest Pizza Hut on this planet at least – in Zaha Hadid’s opera house. Its a stunning angular but amorphous form, between jelly fish and hardened liquid glass. Its not western or eastern or anything just pure sculptural form! The boulevards just like in Taipei are far too wide – an umbrella is needed to keep you out the sun – but they are lined with trees, have cycle lanes and the odd cyclist too. I’ll be taking my Brompton next time, though that must be setting off alarm bells in the Brompton factory back in the UK. The bicycle driven fruit stalls are just what one needs, and we eat loads of mango and pineapple sitting on the green grass, till asked to move on.

Guangxiou Temple

One thing that seems plentiful is space. This is a city with a density of a mere 1900 a square km, not the 24,000 per sq km of Mumbai. This is no doubt helped by the Hukou system of passes, which restrict where in China people are allowed to live. The space is evident in the parks and it is in them that history still pervades the city. At Yuexiu the old tower of the Song Dynasty watches over the woodland of bamboo and dark leaved trees. Here on a public holiday hundreds maybe thousands of people walk on this hillside with an exquisite traditional garden of pagodas and ponds, and the statue of the ram (though having found no women characters in the museum I am not too keen on statues of rams!). People exercise on the outdoor exercise bars and play table tennis on a flat space at the top. Tai Chi practice is notably less common than HK and we don’t see so many joggers. But young and old, if not so many kids as you may expect, enjoy the space.

Then there is Baiyun Mountain just 9km from the centre with 30 peaks and 28km2 – though we only find it after taking the metro, and finding a young lady (who understands my Guantongwah!) and takes us through a huge exhibition space and then onto another road and then a bus. Here we find forest, tea plantation, demonstration lavender fields, and views over other hills. From the top we hardly see the city. This has been a scenic spot since ancient times. It was known for its beauty in the Jin Dynasty (265 – 420 AD) and a tourist attraction in the Tang Dynasty – much more recently – 618-897 AD!
It has a fishing pond with a basic traditional café – nothing special at all. I drink fragrant black tea from a thimble poured out ceremoniously by a lady working there, and eat silky soya in a fragrant syrup. As we emerge from the steep downhill and walk on the tree-lined pedestrian path – there are no cars but a little electric bus like one of out of a fairground – we see some new buildings towards the gate. I am delighted to see the vernacular emerge in these lovely park buildings – one a vegan restaurant and another an art gallery. Not pastiche but some references to the old and natural looking materials.

We never make it down to the old harbour and I struggle to find out what has happened to the site. It may just be full of factories. Instead we take an ultra modern LED-lit boat down the Pearl River standing on the deck to see the city in the night, admire the cycle ways along the river, and finish having drinks in the strip of restaurants/bars by the Pearl River. They are fine but could be anywhere. Here we see a night time traffic jam and a fair number of flashy cars, but on the whole has not seemed at all congested in terms of vehicles and the air quality is remarkably good. The city’s decision to limit vehicle permits in 2012 may have helped!

Its hard to be critical of this huge success of a city! The lack of reference in most areas to the history and culture of the City is disappointing. However, in the back streets, in the few but precious temples, and in the natural but clean and orderly gardens, the poetry of the Tang and Song poets continue. Those little signs and symbols of “place” combined with the benefits of the new from homes, sanitation and a great Metro to Muji (with its recycled socks!) and electric bicycles point to a hugely impressive success story. Going forward I hope that Guangzhou will manage to translate it’s own vernacular into a style and design that works for the 21st century.



  1. Peter Barker May 26, 2015 / 1:51 pm

    Thanks for this fascinating read!

    It is heartening to read such a positive view of Chinese city development. There are lots of problems — lets not go over those — but covers environmental issues very well. Guangzhou and Shenzhen were nothing like they are now 30 years ago, and their development, like the rest of China, can be attributed to the people and to the government, which assigned Shenzhen as a development area and allowed individual provinces to develop at different rates to each other, and so set loose the development which makes Guangzhou and Shanghai what they are now.

    The perception of the city’s lack of history is part of our Western view of the world, and of China’s troubles since liberation, especially the Cultural Revolution which saw the destruction of historic buildings on a grand scale. We see old buildings, of which we have a lot, as often worth preserving and often preserving with much of the original building remaining. It’s a common approach in China now to rebuild ancient sites, especially temples, from the ground up on their original sites. Often, what you see may be no older than a decade, though this may not be the case in the buildings you saw.

    What remained after 1976, because it could not be wiped out, was a firm core of Confucian values and wider Chinese cultural values which make it very different from the West. The Temple of Filial Piety is a great example — just one character catches a concept that is less easy to define in Western culture, but which is important for Chinese. Your discovery of the poetry and the temple captures something very Chinese, which is now set among glass and steel and which really wants to be 21st century.

    I interviewed two of the architects on the Guangzhou opera house project after it was completed, because it was nominated for an international award (it didn’t win). It represents a desire to reach the highest global standards, and also an openness in Chinese society and governance to engage with the outside world. Set that against the latest news from the FT ( about uber being shutdown by police in Guangzhou and a municipal-backed app being launched to drive traffic to the four city taxi companies and you have a complex picture of a city and society that is running very fast into the 21st century with confidence and shrewdness.

    What matters is money and commerce, and who controls that. The Portuguese and The Dutch with the East India Company were the first Westerners to do business in China (the VOC’s first trading post on the mainland was in Guangzhou), and after several wars over trade the Chinese created the Canton System in Guangzhou to trade with foreigners. Scratch the surface and not much changes over the years.

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