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.

The sweetest of victories, the bitterest of defeats!

For many, it’s been a bit of a struggle to emerge into the bright light of day after this most unexpected of results – another 1992! Activists spent months trudging door to door, talking till hoarse, and having endless campaign meetings. We had a green surge, a UKIP rise and fall, and those final heady days of Labour and Tories running neck and neck, but then the Tories walked away with the prize. Yes, possibly a poisoned chalice but still the prize – an apparent mandate to govern from almost 37% of the population. The total vote of what one may call the progressive left – from Greens to centre left – was about 45%, but not enough seats to hold power with the Lib-Dems being wiped out in terms of seats if not votes in their old heartlands in the West Country. Not the scenario people expected to wake up to!

You may wonder why I’m writing about this as I’m meant to be writing about our precious planet from an Asia- Pacific perspective, but just like all the other bloggers with any connection to the UK I need to have my two pennies worth on this. I do have the benefit of distance in time and thinking. The Confucian ideas of leaders as virtuous sages, who rise to their position on the basis of merit and commit themselves to serving the people, are already beginning to look appealing.

So with the benefit of (some) detachment, I’m going to ask what went wrong and what happened? Why did a seemingly unpopular government win through?

Some say that Miliband wasn’t a charismatic enough leader – would you vote for a man that ate bacon butties that way? Too geeky, not leadership material…..Still some deference for the boys from Eton perhaps! Others say that the party wasn’t business friendly enough or that it had moved too far to the left, though few policies are identified in support of that thesis.

I’ve three points to make. Firstly, echoing Larry Elliot in Guardian there were some very simple answers to the Tory claims that absolutely needed to be made, but they weren’t. To the charge that Labour had squandered the country’s resources and left the UK with a massive deficit, the reply was that the deficit was very modest before the financial crisis. Labour never seemed to challenge that claim with the confidence needed. Austerity-lite didn’t help. It’s good to see this happen now – by Chuka Umuna and Yvette Cooper at least. Similarly with immigration they seemed to buy into the argument that the problems of the UK were somehow created by immigration, without recognising the benefits and the vast numbers of people from the UK that move abroad. Perhaps they were too driven by pollsters who told them that the people didn’t like the deficits and didn’t like immigration. It’s good to see that the Greens were bold enough to challenge the consensus on immigration and advocate a proper living wage that wouldn’t allow local workers to be undercut and upholding our obligations to refugees.

Second, to have charisma perhaps you actually need a vision? And a vision isn’t quite the same as stitching together a loose patchwork of “no to the bedroom tax” with “yes to a mansion tax”, combined with “we’ll save the NHS”, and “we’ll push for a living wage”. Under pressure the loose stitching gives way and there is little to mask what’s underneath. The last Labour government didn’t introduce wealth taxes, it didn’t even try make the remnants of the poll tax – in the council tax – a little bit fairer. It started carving up the NHS and didn’t do anything to ensure that in cities like London the minimum wage was really a living wage. There could have been a positive story – a plan to diversify and make the UK economy stronger and more resilient? A plan to ensure a society that worked for ordinary people not financiers.

Third, and this is a tricky one….there is a degree of commonality on the left-green axis – though also considerable divergence. The Greens see themselves as responding to the many issues of the last 30 or so years from living on the brink of environmental disaster to glaring inequality. They have worked to develop new ideas of social and economic organisation founded on different ideas of well-being and a strong commitment to international environmental justice. The Lib-Dems have left people uncertain where they stand on the traditional left – right spectrum, and the move to the right seems to have destroyed them. Despite the differences there are commonalities, but instead of developing those commonalities – as the Confucian leader in a democracy may have done- what we saw was smug satisfaction when Lib Dems got torn apart blamed for the policies of the Tories, and effort put into getting Caroline Lucas out of Brighton and killing the Greens at birth. There are plenty of differences between those groupings worthy of a good debate, but instead we had tribalism gone mad, trying to climb to the top but in the process pulling each other down. This was pursuit of victory at the expense of the better political outcome. Would a more collaborative progressive left have done better for the population? I hope the progressive left – and I know I am assuming that the Lib-Dems will move back into this space or at least to the centre – can now work together perhaps on those areas where there is real commonality. To me the key issues are electoral reform, the environmental agenda, austerity, and immigration which at least in part is connected with conflict in Africa and the Middle-East.

People are looking for genuine leaders with courage and a clear convincing vision of a real alternative! Caroline Lucas’s increased majority shows the popular support for those with conviction and courage. For too long, Labour has stood on the doorway looking into a Tory vision of the world saying they can do things better, not as nastily, but unintentionally supporting that vision as a result. The Lib-Dems have looked confused and opportunistic. Now the progressive left must rise to the challenge. All should accept that each has a distinctive voice, but can together develop this alternative vision and policy. This isn’t an expectation of sagehood from our leaders, but just a few steps in that direction and a willingness to put the tribal fight to one side and work to be an effective opposition rather than retrenching and awaiting the next election.

Watching out for our water supply!

For those who have not made the journey, climbing Hong Kong Island’s mountains is an enlightening experience. Once you have struggled up the steep slopes and emerged from the trees you see skyscrapers racing as it were to the top of the mountains and endless clusters of high rises housing a population of 7million. If you look the other way you see forests, and reservoirs not large enough for a big city state. The enormity of providing basic needs – water in particular – are ever present. The ordinary resident can hardly forget the challenge.

Now I hear from back in the UK – though I don’t generally read the Mail – I see even it reports: “The UK gets drought warning”, and “the period from February until now has been the second driest in England and Wales since 1921”. The Guardian reports on California now in the 4th year of what seems to be the worst drought this millennium. Taiwan is also suffering drought, and rationing is underway – no water supply for two days a week in Taipei.


However it is another story a couple of weeks back, “In prison for collecting rainwater”, about the Oregon farmer, that trended on Facebook. In effect man charged for that inalienable human right to the rain.  Is big government going one step too far as the Oregon report suggests or is it not doing enough to manage our water supply? Should we in fact criticise our politicians for allowing water prices to fall – or if you’re the USA allowing you to have your swimming pools and green lawns in the desert or in Taiwan fill huge tubs of water for a hotspring bath? Perhaps the state does need to take a tough line to protect our water supplies for the common good?

Let’s begin with Taiwan as I’m out East and looking for signs of the bold green dragon saving life, the earth etc. Drought in mountainous, lush, sub-tropical Taiwan with 2.6x the global average rainfall! Drought doesn’t seem likely.

But, yes there is a problem. Taiwan has had it’s lowest rainfall in 70 years. The vast Ximen dam close to Taipei has all but dried up, falling to 24.5% capacity. Some parts of Taipei will be rationed to having water just 5 days a week.

Water prices are very low and the Taiwanese use huge amounts of water – 350litres a day for ordinary households compared with 150litres in the US and Europe. Farmers soak up vast amounts of water for their rice and the aquaculture industry also led to boreholes being sunk and groundwater used up. Industry happily pollutes it and pumps it into the sea. Hotels use large quantities of water. There is little incentive for investment in water recycling plants and dams are silting up.

This is no doubt in part political. It’s the old issue of thinking its political suicide to put up taxes or indeed utility prices. Perhaps also complacency and a belief that technology will provide the answers. My husband says its not a problem – all that needs to be built is desalination plants! But the costs are high – a 2013 study by the Californian government put the costs as twice that of building reservoirs and four times the cost of saving water through conservation. That’s leaving aside the carbon cost of an energy intensive process. So it doesn’t look as if will allow the citizens of Taipei water in their taps every day of the week or stop the high speed train line from sinking.

Perhaps its also a sign of things to come with a less predictable climate. After a drier period from the 1960s -1990s, Taiwan suffered from floods and high rainfall in the first decade of this century. Now it faces drought. None of this seems a surprise when I turn to UNFCC papers which say: “having the natural environment of a subtropical island, Taiwan is very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The rate of temperature rise in Taiwan reached as high as 1.43°C (1998) in the last century, almost twice the global average (about 0.6°C) …”

So if it’s wastefulness and low prices combined with climate change in Taiwan, what is it in California? The US Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2010 that the state consumes more than 2mill acre feet of water over and above the recharge of water supplies. Once again underlying this we seem to have that lethal combination of climate change and low water prices.

We are forewarned of the impacts of climate change by experts like Stanford University academic, Professor Noah Diffenbaugh. He led a study examining the role of warm temperatures in California’s drought. He explains, “California is in a climate regime where are much more likely to get this kind of drought event again because of the role of temperature rise”(the Guardian, April 2015). Recently Governor Davis announced the need to conserve water, whilst standing on a grassy field which would ordinarily in April still be covered by ice! How are California’s water supplies to be sustained over a hot summer?

On water prices, research by campaign group, Circle of Blue, shows that prices in California remain relatively low. They attribute this to federal subsidies, through extensive construction of dams never charged to the consumer. The prices paid by consumers simply don’t reflect cost.

California has long had measures to encourage water conservation, and is currently seeking to put in place pricing policies to encourage conservation. The City of San Juan Capistrano, Orange County sought to put in place a tiered charging system, so that greater use leads to higher prices. However in a blow to conservation pricing, this was challenged by residents and has been declared unconstitutional by the courts, possibly a huge setback to managing water supplies across the country. The decision will no doubt be appealed.

In this age of an unpredictable climate but also the high demands of industry, agriculture and an affluent population, its clear that bold action is needed. Pricing policies, not always popular with the consumer are vital, as well as regulating abstraction. Good to see California take the lead on pricing, but worrying to see the courts strike this down.

I hope people will not forget the challenge – even if they do not have the Hong Kong view to remind them – and that concerns about this sort of court decision will trend on Facebook, not that of Oregon man diverting rainwater from a city’s water supplies, a luxury sadly perhaps we no longer have.

Beginning as a blogger

Whilst all of the UK is in the throes of a general election, we are out here in the Far East/Asia Pacific missing the excitement.

I thought I’d try and drip feed some snippets of interesting thoughts on what is going on out here, as a minor distraction.

Though we live in Hong Kong, I’m beginning with Taiwan where we spent a week. I’d like to know if my perceptions weren’t quite right.  So please feel free to comment.

Hong Kong despite its small size is monumental and overwhelming, as those who have been here will know! So it will take some time to digest before I can tell you about our story out here.

Taiwan’s public transport – a model for all?

Like me when you hear Taiwan, you probably think HTC, semi-conductors, and traffic and air pollution rivalling China’s smoggy cities. Not mountains, sub-tropical rainforest, all easily accessible by cheap fast public transport, and relatively clean air and blue skies!

On the surface it looks as if this country is doing a pretty good job of enabling people to commute and travel whilst protecting the environment. The Green Dragon appears to live on.

We travel on a quickly pre-booked fast train from Taoyuoshan, a new city, near the airport to Taipei Main Station about 40km away. The train is on time and we even get a seat reservation 15mins in advance. We are in the centre of Tapei in about 20mins for under £4. For a Mumbai commuter, even a Londoner, this is to die for. The train doesn’t however go to airport – to be contrasted with projects in India like the Bangalore high speed line that will begin with an airport link. Primacy isn’t given to the most polluting means of travel.

The city of Taipei itself has a self-financing state of the art mass rapid transport system connecting a huge part of northern Taiwan called New Taipei, used by 2.1mill people a day. A recent study conducted by researchers at UC Merced found that it led to significant reductions in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide levels, rather than just increasing commuter trips.

None of this happened quickly or painlessly. The original proposal came from the Minister of Transportation and Communications Sun Yun-suan in 1968. Works began in 1986 leading initially to the Dark Age of Taipei Traffic. The original budget was US$ 13.4bn but as usual there were costs over-runs. The system opened in part in 1996, and was completed by 2013.

Other than those hiccups Taipei MRT is a success, the no 1 in the world in fact. It has 100% disability access. It is clean, has some good views, and cable cars thrown in too. It pays for itself through the large numbers using the system.

We have a great time of it happily travelling over a holiday weekend from the centre of Taipei, to the end of the line to Wulai up in the mountains in around an hour (and into the hot springs not long after). In terms of the system as a whole, the buses too are good. We travel by bus from Taipei Main Station into Yanmingshan National Park – mountains, clouds, hot springs and hikes in 45mins. There are bikes to hire in Taipei and one can cycle around wide tree-lined boulevards, though I do wonder as we walk in the heat whether Hausmann style boulevards were ever the right thing for the East.

Enough of the commercial for the tourism department – its not all plain sailing! The southern city of Kaoshiung has also built a mass transport system but in this case it’s under-used. Residents seem to prefer scooters and cars. There is still plenty of parking and petrol is cheap – that may explain it. More generally, there remain large numbers of private cars in Taiwan and public transport use is not nearly as high as in neighbouring Hong Kong.

So its not that straightforward – all the chips must be in place to have a self-financing metro. But the Taiwanese have made this largely a success and been bold in taking the lead on mass transport systems. They seem to have designed systems for the people and not just for the car owners and aspiring car owners. Perhaps the transport system reflects the higher level of equality in Taiwan than in some other parts of the world.

Can we get a delegation of Taiwanese transport planners to advise on Nairobi, Goa, and perhaps even the north west of England!


With a country of 23.4mill people on a land area of 36,000km2 you’d be forgiven for thinking the landscape has long been taken over by urban sprawl, congested highways and factories. But in fact the country remains a pretty pristine mix of the urban and the wild.
It is highly urbanised and with a relatively high standard of living, average income $38,200 a year, ranked 29th in the world for its GDP, about 4 countries richer than the UK.
According to the CIA, Taiwan’s ration of top 20% to bottom 20% is 6.1 much more equal than the UK on 13.6, India on 8.6 and Kenya on 18.6.