It turns out Hong Kong has got nothing on Guangzhou. In that city’s ancient Liwan District, where leafy, winding streets are lined by family-run wholesale businesses, just about every shop has a jumble of tables and chairs outside. They’re used for meals, boisterous card games and, in the middle of the afternoon, a kind of furtive siesta. (Unlike in southern Europe, most businesses in southeastern Asia don’t close in the afternoon — workers just sleep on the job.)
There’s a remarkable variety of furniture found in the streets. Disassembled sofas are common, along with beat-up lounge chairs and plain dining room chairs. But there are also some beautiful wicker recliners and elegant wooden chairs. After all, when you spend your days sitting the street, you’d better do it with style.
Shenzhen from above
“China to create largest mega city in the world with 42 million people,” announced a breathless headline in Sunday’s Telegraph, detailing plans to combine the cities of Guangdong province’s Pearl River Delta (PRD) into a massive urban conurbation. “Over the next six years, around 150 major infrastructure projects will mesh the transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks of the nine cities together, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan,” the British newspaper reported, noting that the new megalopolis would be “26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.”
The news generated quite a bit of chatter as it circled around the Internet, much of it predicated on the mistaken assumption that China would be building an entirely new city of 42 million. “What about all the cities already constructed but still empty?” wrote one commenter on CNNGo in reference to the master-planned, never-lived-in city of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia. “Time to beef up security on the Hong Kong border,” tweeted a former Hong Kong resident.
The reality is less exciting. The PRD is already home to more than 42 million people and it already functions as a megalopolis with an economy worth a little under US$300 billion (about the same as the metropolitan areas of Shanghai, Boston, San Francisco and Milan). The billions of dollars in new infrastructure will complement an already well-developed network of highways, railways and waterways. In fact, the concept of a huge megalopolis tied together by roads and rail is nothing new: the Taiheyo Belt in Japan is an interconnected urban area of 80 million people linked by shikumen trains running every few minutes. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington form a mostly interconnected urban region of more than 50 million people.
Like most Chinese cities, Guangzhou is sliced up into large blocks by big streets, and each of these blocks is dissected by lots of tiny, meandering alleyways. (It’s like a more fine-grained version of American suburbia, with its arterial roads and spaghetti subdivisions.)
Chaotic, polluted, the cradle of Cantonese culture — these were some of the ways I had heard Guangzhou described before I visited last month. Reality was a bit different. It wasn’t chaotic at all; in fact, it was rather calm and orderly for a Chinese city. It was also less Cantonese than I expected. Cantonese is still the language of the majority, and this is reflected in subway announcements and TV commercials on outdoor video screens, but Mandarin has become the lingua franca in large parts of the city and some areas, like around Sun Yat-sen University or the in the orderly streets of Tianhe district, suffer from a generic “anywhere, China” feel, a kind of placelessness.
The one thing that was true to my expectations was the pollution, which blankets the city in a near-constant grey haze. Despite the air quality, though, I was amazed at how green Guangzhou is. Trees take pride of place in many of the city’s streets; apartment balconies are filled with potted plants; elevated expressways are covered with vines. It seems that, unlike Hong Kong, Guangzhou never dispensed with greenery as it urbanized. The warm, humid climate certainly helps: dilapidated buildings are covered in moss and plants grow out of cracks in the stone or cement. Nature, it seems, is keeping pace with Guangzhou’s incredible economic growth.
Last Saturday, I stumbled into Cinema du Parc after fighting a losing battle with some serious wind-chill. I found myself watching Lixin Fan’s documentary, Last Train Home, a jarring film that expertly chronicles the world’s largest human migration.
Every year, 130 million Chinese migrant workers attempt to make it back to their homes in rural China in time to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The last decade has seen China catapulted into a new economic reality as its GDP and infrastructure experience sustained and unprecedented growth. This has resulted in the dismantling of families in China’s poverty stricken countryside as younger members leave their homes for the city.
The film follows the lives of one family, the Zhangs, as they take part in this annual migration. The mother and father have gone to pursue jobs in Guangzhou and they have left behind their children and aging grandmother. Through the story of this family, Fan addresses the much bigger story of globalization and a country’s struggle between old values and new realities.
After Hong Kong, mainland China came as a major shock. Hong Kong is user-friendly with a Westernized veneer whereas Guangzhou (also known as Canton) was the real China: a difficult crowded place with no English signs and clouds of brown smog.
Ninety-nine percent of the storefronts in Hong Kong are spotless and air-conditioned, most of the filth relegated to back rooms. In Guangzhou, things come raw, in-your-face, and it’s all quite strange: sun-dried snakes; stretched-out sea horses; sliced up deer antlers; giant plastic bowls full of live scorpions; cat, dog, and owl butchers; barrels of chicken feet; steaming turtle shells. Somehow the Cantonese manage to find a culinary use for all this. Semiconductor shops sit next to dried seafood stalls. Two-storey ten-lane highways zoom next to quiet flagstone alleyways shaded by clotheslines where old people play mahjong. Life happens on the street, things flow organically, and interiors are indistinguishable from exteriors.
As I made my way out of the crowded alleyways of Qingping market, I came across a group of cops kicking a handcuffed old man in rags, scowls of anger on their faces as the victim yelled out obscenities in Cantonese. A circle of bystanders stood by, watching. The man was writhing in pain, yet the cops kept kicking him in the crotch. It was barbaric and unprofessional. I was horrified. God knows what he had done. He probably hadn’t paid his weekly bribe to stand on the corner selling pickled eel heads.
One of many groups on a weekday morning, in a beautiful lakeside park in north-central Guangzhou.
Sticky summer days in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China. Guangzhou’s an old city with lots of outdoor life, especially in the parks and smaller neighbourhood streets.
Mahjong players on Guangzhou’s Shamian Island, once the European district. The set back buildings create a many wonderful places to while away a summer afternoon playing mahjong.
Lighting incense in front of a Guangzhou temple.
The fast ferry between Hong Kong and Macau is disorienting. It is essentially a floating airline cabin, with neat rows of preassigned seats in which you are expected to remain for the duration of the trip. Roving attendants offer drinks and sandwiches. There is no outside deck on which you can stand and taste the salt air, or feel the wind on your face as you move inexorably towards your destination. Instead, you sit down, take a nap and then, one hour later, emerge into a city that in theory shares a language and culture with Hong Kong but in practice is so much more exuberantly Latin.
Macau is an disorderly but very intimate city, especially in the labyrinth of crowded streets and laneways that make up its oldest, most interesting and thankfully least-touristed section. The first thing you notice when you leave the ferry terminal and emerge into its streets is the abundance of motorcycles and scooters, giving Macau the feel of a grimy Mediterranean port that somehow washed up on the shores of the Pearl River Delta.
From a practical standpoint, scooters make sense in Macau because the city is so dense and compact. The Macau Peninsula, home to 390,000 people, covers just 8.5 square kilometres—in the Santo António parish, 104,200 people are squeezed into a single kilometre—so scooters are the fastest and most space-efficient way to move the population. In fact, scooters are so popular they outnumber cars 66,000 to 64,000. Something about the constant buzz of tiny motorcycles speeding down impossibly narrow streets and leafy boulevards gives Macau an unpredictable edge that even Hong Kong lacks.