Get to know the new Guangzhou
One thousand years before Hong Kong became the hyperactive gateway to southern China, a small port on the Pearl River was a starting point on the “Maritime Silk Road” that linked East Asia with the Middle East – and thereby Europe – through commerce. By the 16th century, the port had grown into a city, known then as Canton, and the first Portuguese seafarers were allowed to enter and trade in what was one of China’s most prosperous regions.
Since then, centuries of international exposure have resulted in the freewheeling metropolis – now called Guangzhou – we witness today. Located just 120 kilometres northwest of Hong Kong and the capital of Guangdong province, the city was also ideally positioned when the People’s Republic liberalised its economy in the late 1970s, rapidly becoming a manufacturing base attracting migrant labour from across the nation.
Cosmopolitan Guangzhou has also pulled in international talent in droves, and the urban population now hovers at around 13 million, making it China’s third largest city and an economic powerhouse. That said, dynamic Guangzhou has retained its eccentric personality, and its Cantonese people, cuisine, and long-held traditions are unique in the Middle Kingdom.
“The best thing about living and working in Guangzhou? I think it’s the people,” says Jocelyn Richards, deputy editor and a Guangzhou specialist at That’s PRD, a popular Time Out-like magazine servicing the booming cities of the Pearl River Delta. A fluent Mandarin speaker from New York state and a graduate of East Asian Studies, the 25-year-old has been based in Guangzhou for two years.
“We’re in the south, so there’s the hot, muggy climate that tends to make people easy-going. The Cantonese are, even though they have a very distinct and exclusive culture, very welcoming. And because of that tolerant attitude, locals here don’t treat outsiders like the ‘other’ but embrace them and invite them to explore the local culture. It’s a healthy cycle of exchange that enables progressive change,” says Richards.
City of tomorrow
With one foot in the past and the other constantly probing into the future, Guangzhou is a complex metropolis of striking contrasts. Here, ancient Chinese temples and colonial-era churches – built by European traders in the 19th century – stand side-by-side, increasingly in the shadows of immense and hyper-modern architectural statements in reflective glass and steel.
In Zhujiang New Town, Guangzhou’s shiny new central business district, most of its cluster of cloud-busting skyscrapers are less than six years old. Here you will find the neo-futuristic Pearl River Tower, one of the most environmentally friendly buildings on the planet that are powered by built-in wind turbines and solar collectors, with energy saving raised-floor ventilation, radiant heating, and cooling ceilings.
Nearby looms Guangzhou International Finance Centre, which at 439 metres is the loftiest building in the city. (Not counting the elegant, twisting Canton Tower that rises just across the Pearl River; the 596-metre spire is not officially considered a building but a multi-purpose observation tower and is the fifth-tallest freestanding structure in the world.)
But Zhujiang New Town is not all about commerce, and some of the most impressive structures are dedicated to arts and culture, such as the Museum of Guangdong Province – block-like and imposing in bold scarlet and black – that features a square atrium allowing natural light to flow around exhibition rooms housing calligraphy, pottery, ceramics, and more.
The quirky New Guangzhou Library’s design echoes a pile of open books, but arguably the most impressive architectural marvel of all is Guangzhou Opera House. The work of celebrated British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, the low-slung structure is characterised by swooping curves to give the appearance of two river-polished pebbles.
Attached to the opera house is Arte Place gallery, one of many independent art spaces popping up across the city like mushrooms after rain. When the gallery opened, the ribbon was cut by Ian Liska, a 32-year-old artist of Czech and Guatemalan heritage who has made Guangzhou a creative base since 2012.
“Guangzhou has changed dramatically in just a few years,” says Liska. “I see things happening faster than ever. Interesting things are developing everywhere, not only in art but in all areas of the city. Los Angeles director and photographer Camilo Him is currently in Guangzhou filming a documentary about China’s rapid modernisation: The New Modernity.”
Liska chose Guangzhou over the Chinese capital Beijing – long the epicentre of the nation’s contemporary art scene – because he saw it as the best place to grow and perfect his abstract style, employing ultraviolet-light effects to recall stained-glass windows. “I am grateful towards this city. Career-wise, Guangzhou took me in,” he says, adding, “I’m seeing Guangzhou bloom, and it’s beautiful to be a part of the Guangzhou scene today.”
Two centuries ago, Shamian Island – a sandbank on the Pearl River in the centre of the city – might have been considered the Zhujiang New Town of its day. Here, foreign traders were permitted to reside and do business in a row of godowns known as the Thirteen Factories, and eventually, in 1859, the Qing-dynasty government granted concessions to France and Britain.
Trading houses from Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Portugal, and the United States built stone mansions along the waterfront, and churches that would not look out of place in Dover or La Rochelle were also constructed: the British Protestant church, Christ Church Shameen, was built in 1865; the French Catholic chapel, Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel, was completed in 1892.
Today, Shamian is a gazetted historical area that’s a must-see for visitors to Guangzhou, its leafy, pedestrianised avenues serving as a relaxed reminder of the colonial period.
Also on the waterfront, neon-lit Zhujiang Party Pier is one of a number of nightlife hotspots in the city. “I’ve noticed the rise of interactive venues over traditional nightclubs, which don’t tend to do as well as before,” says Richards, reflecting on Guangzhou’s speed of change, and how that is impacting on nightlife. “We now have a luxury F1 racing centre and bar at Party Pier, as well as a new bowling alley with a club, and an indoor golf arena and club in town. These have all opened in the past six months.
“I believe this reflects changing attitudes: young people in Guangzhou are becoming more active and looking for new outlets to spend their free time. Party Pier, for example, which used to be primarily a party place, is remodelling as an ‘arts’ district, with classes in oil painting and design, and a huge showroom that hosts fashion shows and art festivals.”
Guangzhou in the 21st century, it would appear, is as innovative and open-minded as it’s always been.
Text Gary Jones Photos Tuomas Harjumaaskola
Best of health
No look at Guangzhou would be complete without mention of food. It is said, after all, that the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs except the table.
Guangzhou’s dim sum is to-die-for, and delightful mini-treats include red-bean buns, fried crab puffs, egg-custard tarts, and rice noodles with barbecued pork. Special mention must also go to Yumin Restaurant, a gargantuan live-seafood eatery where dozens of aerated tanks are filled with clacking lobsters, immense garoupa, Japonica shrimp, writhing eels, and more.
Jocelyn Richards, deputy editor of That’s PRD magazine, however, notes that many Cantonese eateries are increasingly catering to the health-conscious. Chaly’s Daily, for instance, is a diner-like venue with modern decor that serves up Cantonese classics of the type traditionally found in cha chaan teng tea houses, but with contemporary spins. Joy Vege restaurant incorporates traditional Cantonese herbal ingredients into soups and intricate vegetarian dishes.
“There’s definitely a health trend [in Guangzhou], with the arrival of new organic, vegan, and lifestyle companies,” Richards says. “We now have Go Vegan, which delivers vegan food. CA1 is a popular café that imports all of its produce from organic farms in California, and Linwards is a juice cleanse, yoga, and wellbeing operation.”
Guangzhou’s Huaisheng Mosque is one of the oldest in the world, and ancient manuscripts say the structure was built by the prophet Muhammed’s uncle, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, in the 7th century AD.
Canton, and therefore the word Cantonese, is derived from the Portuguese word Cantão, which is believed to be the Portuguese-tinged romanisation of Guangdong.
Mao Zedong lived briefly in Guangzhou during the 1920s, when he was in the city to lecture students at the Peasant Movement Training Institute, where his old bedroom can still be visited.