City of Pearls, and Dim Sum

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Hil­ton Yip

Fa­mously known as Canton in the past, Guangzhou is one of China's largest me­trop­o­lises and the cen­ter of Can­tonese cul­ture on the Chi­nese main­land. While it lacks the great his­tor­i­cal sights of Bei­jing and the glam­our of Shang­hai, Guangzhou boasts fas­ci­nat­ing build­ings, an im­pres­sive sky­line and strong his­tor­i­cal her­itage.

Sit­u­ated along the Pearl River, the mas­sive city of over 13 mil­lion is the cap­i­tal of Guang­dong Prov­ince and a key part of a vast re­gional metropoli­tan area that also in­cludes Foshan, Dong­guan and Shen­zhen. For cen­turies, Guangzhou was a key trad­ing port that did busi­ness with West­ern, Asian and Ara­bian traders, and af­ter the Opium War (1840 – 1842), one of sev­eral treaty ports. As such, it is no sur­prise that the city re­mains a strong com­mer­cial cen­ter that hosts China's largest trade fair, the Canton Fair, twice a year.

Most of this com­mer­cial power can be seen in the soar­ing sky­scrapers in Zhu­jiang New Town, on the north­ern bank of the Pearl River. But trav­el­ers have cul­tural and ar­chi­tec­tural rea­sons to start their vis­its in Zhu­jiang, be­cause this is where sev­eral fan­tas­tic ex­am­ples of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture are lo­cated like the Opera House, the city li­brary and the provin­cial his­tory mu­seum. De­signed by the late, great Iraqi-bri­tish ar­chi­tect Zaha Ha­did and flanked by sky­scrapers, the gray, ir­reg­u­lar-shaped Opera House re­sem­bles a sleek star­ship from Star Trek.

Nearby, the Guang­dong Mu­seum is a boxshaped build­ing meant to re­sem­ble an an­cient Chi­nese trea­sure box while the Guangzhou Li­brary is an at­trac­tive white build­ing with slanted walls and a glass cen­ter. The mu­seum fea­tures ex­hibits of Guang­dong's var­i­ous peo­ples and cul­tures, Chaozhou wood­carv­ing, ce­ram­ics, and Duan ink­stones. The mu­seum's col­lec­tion is de­cent but not as vast or in­ter­est­ing as its coun­ter­parts in Shang­hai and Bei­jing.

Right across the river is the re­mark­able Canton Tower which rises 604 me­ters into the sky. As one of the tallest tow­ers in the world, the nee­dle-topped tower is a sym­bol of the city and is prob­a­bly its most rec­og­nized struc­ture. At night, it is lit up like a mul­ti­col­ored can­vas.

Mov­ing on from the new to the old, Guangzhou's old­est arche­o­log­i­cal site is the mau­soleum of the Nanyue King, a ruler of the an­cient king­dom that ruled Guangzhou in the Qin and Han dy­nas­ties be­tween the 2nd and 1st cen­turies BC. In­side the mau­soleum are a mul­ti­tude of Nanyue ar­ti­facts, the cen­ter­piece of which is the jade burial suit of a Nanyue King. While the mu­seum is built upon the site of the tomb of a Nanyue King, you do not ac­tu­ally see the king. And to be hon­est, the mu­seum could be im­proved with more English in­for­ma­tion and more at­trac­tive signs and lay­out.

Near the mau­soleum is the Sun Yat-sen Me­mo­rial Hall, which com­mem­o­rates the fa­mous rev­o­lu­tion­ary who helped over­throw the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) and is con­sid­ered the “Fa­ther of the Na­tion.” Yuexiu Park lies above the hall, where the most well-known land­mark is a statue of five goats, which refers to a leg­end of five deities that vis­ited the city rid­ing goats dur­ing a time of famine in an­cient times, and then left rice, bless­ings and the goats be­hind to help the peo­ple. The park is the largest in Guangzhou and fea­tures gar­dens and ar­ti­fi­cial lakes.

But the most sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal rem­nant of Guangzhou's past is Shamian Is­land. Af­ter the

Opium Wars in the 19th cen­tury, for­eign mer­chants and em­bassies were per­mit­ted to set­tle in spe­cific dis­tricts in sev­eral Chi­nese cities in­clud­ing Guangzhou, Shang­hai, Tian­jin and Wuhan. In Guangzhou, Shamian, which is ac­tu­ally a sand­bar lo­cated on the Pearl River, was given to France and Great Bri­tain, who sub­se­quently built set­tle­ments for their mer­chants. The for­eign con­ces­sions have been largely pre­served and the en­tire place is car-free, mak­ing it a rare oa­sis of calm. Along the tree-lined boule­vards are many for­mer Euro­pean houses and build­ings built in dif­fer­ent styles in­clud­ing Gothic and Baroque, mak­ing it seem like a lit­tle piece of Europe in China.

Be­sides the Euro­pean houses on Shamian, Guangzhou has one of the most im­pres­sive church build­ings in East Asia. De­signed by French ar­chi­tects and con­structed in 1888, the Sa­cred Heart Cathe­dral is a mag­nif­i­cent gran­ite gothic Catholic build­ing that still holds reg­u­lar ser­vices in Chi­nese and English. With twin tow­ers reach­ing up to over 50 me­ters and flank­ing the cen­ter en­trance, the cathe­dral is one of the largest in China and South­east Asia.

While Shang­hai has dis­tinct ar­chi­tec­ture in the form of its shiku­men houses and Bei­jing is well-known for its hu­tong (al­leys), Guangzhou also has a dis­tinct type of ar­chi­tec­ture in the form of qilou build­ings. Un­like shiku­men or hu­tong homes which are found in lanes, the qilou are low-rise multi-level build­ings that face onto streets, with shops on the ground floors and homes on the up­per floors. What makes them par­tic­u­larly dis­tinct is that their up­per floors ex­tend over the ground floor, cre­at­ing cov­ered walk­ways in front of the shops that pro­vide shel­ter to pedes­tri­ans from rain or sun.

Qilou build­ings were built in the early 20th cen­tury, com­bin­ing West­ern and Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures in sev­eral dif­fer­ent styles. Though a large num­ber were torn down to make way for con­do­mini­ums and of­fice build­ings, qilou can still be found in sev­eral places in the city, es­pe­cially in pedestrian streets such as Shangxia Jiu where some have been ren­o­vated and spruced up. The qilou give the streets a vin­tage look as if one was back in the early 20th cen­tury. Sim­i­lar build­ings can be found across Guang­dong prov­ince, Hong Kong and Ma­cao, though not in as great num­bers.

As the cap­i­tal of Guang­dong Prov­ince, Guangzhou is rich in Can­tonese cul­ture, which is re­flected in the lo­cal lan­guage and food, es­pe­cially dim sum. This Can­tonese meal refers to var­i­ous dishes such as steamed buns, rice flour rolls and shrimp dumplings that his­tor­i­cally de­rived from leftovers as cheap food for man­ual la­bor­ers. Dim sum have since be­come a stan­dard meal for Can­tonese, usu­ally at noon, which is ac­com­pa­nied by lots of cups of tea. While some would say Hong Kong has the best dim sum, the Guangzhou vari­ant is still pretty good, es­pe­cially since dim sum is said to have orig­i­nated in Guangzhou.

There is a say­ing that Can­tonese will eat al­most any­thing with four legs ex­cept a ta­ble, in­clud­ing man's best friend, but for­tu­nately, most lo­cals do not do this nowa­days due to mod­ern pref­er­ences and an­i­mal cru­elty aware­ness.

Sur­pris­ingly, Guangzhou does not get too much at­ten­tion from trav­el­ers, but this south­ern me­trop­o­lis is cer­tainly worth a visit if one is in the re­gion.

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