Sunday, September 11, 2011

Guangzhou: Cantonese Capital of the World


Note: I wrote this post on less sleep than normal after having way too much MSG in my dinner. Oh, China.

Shenzhen might have more people than most US metropolitan areas, but culturally, it’s hardly a center. Why is this? Well, it’s stuck between Hong Kong, a major world financial center and cultural, economic, and media crossroads, and Guangzhou (also known in the West as “Canton”), the provincial capital of Guangdong province and a major center in South China for over one and a half millennia. I’ve been to Hong Kong quite a bit this trip and on the other trips to China. But Guangzhou, I decided, was definitely worth at least a daytrip. So I went up.

The pagoda at Liurongsi (Six Banyan Temple)
A high-speed railway links Shenzhen and Guangzhou; it’s part of China’s enormous “let’s build railways everywhere” boom. Except this one is actually popular. Every fifteen minutes, a train makes the hour-and-a-bit journey between the two cities. It’s convenient.

I live pretty far from the train station – it’s over an hour by public transport – so I decided to splurge on a cab. Luckily, there’s a shortcut by road, and the cab fare was not too bad. Cabs in China are way cheaper than their US counterparts; I paid about $10 for a ride of thirty kilometers. For reference, I would pay about $45 for a similar ride in Chicago. Luohu Station was crowded, and the security checks and ticket windows all had huge queues behind them. However, the queues, though chaotic and extremely intimidating, are quite fast-moving. There are some automated ticket machines for the rail, but foreigners cannot use them: you need to provide identification to buy a Chinese railway ticket, and the only ID foreigners can use is a passport. Anyway, the railway ticket at $12 or so is a bargain – the round-trip costs about as much as a round-trip commuter ticket into New York from where my family lives. And that’s for a much smaller distance. Admittedly, it’s more expensive for the average Chinese person – there’s a huge controversy about that in China at the moment.

The security line to enter the train station. Chinese train stations are like Wal-Marts on Black Friday. But more orderly.

Ready to board for Guangzhou
The new high-speed trains are comfortable, spacious, and clean. The passengers are pretty quiet, and the scenery outside is pretty good, moving between cities and fields, with the occasional mountain in the distance. It’s a smooth ride. The safety standards on this stretch of the rail are pretty strong; this is a well-utilized, well-maintained line, and is hardly one of the badly maintained high-speed flagships in other provinces (e.g. the Beijing-Shanghai disaster).

I got into Guangzhou around 11am, and walked straight into the Metro to go to my first destination: Guangxiao Temple. One thing I noted immediately was that Cantonese was everywhere – even more so than in Hong Kong. This is very much a Cantonese-speaking city: even the street advertisers and Metro wardens make announcements in Cantonese. Guangzhou’s linguistic attitude is basically a giant middle finger to Beijing.

When I got off the metro, the first thing I noticed was how alive Guangzhou is compared to Shenzhen. Even in Shenzhen’s busiest areas, there’s often a depressing artificiality, or lack of life (keep in mind that 99.5% of Shenzhen was built in the past thirty years). Guangzhou, meanwhile, is loud, active, and moving. I walked to Guangxiao savoring the feeling of being in a proper city again – a city with a sense of place, history, and culture.

Modern Guangzhou. Much more lived-in.

A side alley of old houses in Guangzhou. The men in the back are playing  a game.
Guangxiao Temple is one of Guangzhou’s largest and oldest temples. The current structure dates from the Qing Dynasty (roundabouts the 18th century, to be exact); however, there’s been a temple there since the 4th century.  It is known for its architecture, its giant Buddhas, and its enormous library of Buddhist scriptures. It’s also a major site of popular devotion for locals; though you pay for an entry ticket like a tourist sight, most of the people inside are there to pray. The offering tables are stacked with a multitude of delicacies, including mooncakes for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节). The temple is huge and has many historical sights, especially those relating to Huineng, who was China’s most influential Buddhist monk.

The entrance to Guangxiao.

This stupa-pagoda is made of smelted iron. It's pretty awesome! Take note of the zillions of mini-Buddhas, and the flower creeping up from the offerings.

A pavilion on the east side of the main courtyard.
Unlike many other Chinese cities, which in the name of “sanitization” cleared out mendicants, the areas around temples in Guangzhou have a lot of beggars and monks seeking alms. However, unlike anywhere I’ve been in China where I have seen them, beggars in Guangzhou are quite aggressive, and will actually grasp you. Monks are taught to say to any foreigner “Hello, G-d bless you, shake hand!” I gave a little bit of money to some of the beggars. Many of them are disabled in some form. A lot of Chinese people say that beggars make more than low-paid workers, but for a lot of beggars things are still very difficult, particularly given that some of their earnings often have to go to … “beggar bosses,” if you will. However, the recent “civilizing” trend in Chinese cities often means that there are no visible beggars.

Anyway, I had lunch at a vegetarian place near the temple (Best. Eggplant. Ever.) and took the Metro to 
Shamian Island.

Walking in Shamian
Shamian Island is known as a place of trade. During the Song, Ming, and early Qing dynasty, this tiny island of 74 acres was a major point of contact between China and the outside world. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was a major Western trading point for the Chinese market, and was ruled for a time as a Franco-British concession area. The island has some fantastic colonial-era architecture, and views of the Pearl River. It’s also a bit of a tourist hub in Guangzhou; I saw more foreigners there than I did in a week in Shenzhen.

For some reason, this house struck my fancy.

Christ Church, built by the British. There was a wedding going on inside, so there were pretty voices sounding out from it. They give out bookmarks with evangelical messages on them - unusually bold for Mainland China (but quite mundane for Hong Kong).

A street on Shamian. The island feels quite spacious for its size.
The feeling you get on Shamian is very uncanny: you feel, almost, that you are outside China, but you feel that you are very much within China. The island’s conservational structure is also a bit odd in this respect: while a lot of the original architecture is preserved, a lot of it is also significantly altered. Even then, it has a “foreign” allure to many Chinese, and as a result, many tourists come to take a walk around this “little Europe” in the middle of Guangzhou. It’s also a site for fashion shoots.

Next stop saw me backtrack to Liurongsi, or the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. It’s one of Guangzhou’s most famous attractions, and is also still a site of popular worship. The centerpiece is its magnificent six-story pagoda, which has stood in some form (repeatedly rebuilt) since the sixth century. Liurongsi is beautiful. The architecture and landscaping are beautiful; the organization is magnificent; the image of prayer flags against the tall pagoda (though probably the most stereotypically Asian image I’ve ever seen) is a sight that one cannot describe enough to fully capture. Even the later presence of two loud European tour groups was not so terrible.

Chinese gods. The lighting is bad, which is a pity: the colors are incredible.

A big ol' incense burner. 

The pagoda, in all her glory.
 From the temple, I walked through streets lined with shops, buying a bun on the way (you can’t not do that in Guangzhou). Guangzhou’s streets are very much hubs of activity, and many people were gathered in clumps on the street, either around salesmen or around other things of interest. It’s definitely a city I would want to spend some more time in – it’s just so alive! It’s also a lot earthier than Hong Kong. Hong Kong is chic and glamorous, but Guangzhou is very much a human city. Emotions run high, and there’s a more open exhibition of everything here – even stuff that the big shots would rather not have you see - than in Hong Kong.

An electronics market in Guangzhou. It is terrifically and wonderfully loud! And everyone is speaking Cantonese. This is a great town.
My final stop before heading back to the station was a quick visit to the Lanpu Orchid Garden, a botanical garden to the north of downtown. A botanical garden founded in 1957, Lanpu contains many different species both from around China and around the world. It’s not really much in terms of a site, but it was nice to sit in the shade of giant trees while reflecting on the day. There are expensive restaurants on site that play music from speakers hidden beneath hostas – that was a bit uncanny. Unfortunately, my camera had run out of battery.

On the way back to the train, I stopped in the mall attached to the station and bought some edible gifts for people. The Guangzhou prices are much better than Shenzhen. Guangzhou’s also very wealthy, and the city has a lot of modern malls – is China becoming a nation of malls and everywhere else? I hope not.
And then I headed back – to another chaotic station and smooth train. The train on the way back left just as a rainstorm had started, and I was lulled to sleep for the hourlong ride back. I grabbed dinner at a nearby Japanese place and headed home. Unfortunately, that dinner had a lot of MSG, and the air quality in Shenzhen wasn’t that great that night – I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I’m going to make it an early night tonight.

Guangzhou is a fantastic city, and one that definitely deserves more attention than the seven hours I gave it. I really hope to go back at some point to explore some more – I barely dipped my toe into the pool of awesome that Guangzhou is. It’s a city that, despite everything, refuses to be anything other than itself, whatever Beijing or the West or Hong Kong dictates. And that deserves merit.

An alley in an old part of Guangzhou, steps from one of its major streets. 
I’m going to Hong Kong tomorrow. My dad is in the area on business, and it happens to be both a public holiday in Mainland and my 20th birthday. It’ll be really great to have the day off, and seeing Dad will be awesome. Stay tuned.






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