Guangzhou for be­gin­ners

The Flower City of­fers con­trast and char­ac­ter, from weird and won­der­ful mar­kets to gar­dens filled with or­chids and the sound of opera, writes Cathy O’Sullivan.

Sunday Star-Times - - ESCAPE CHINA - Cathy O’Sullivan trav­elled to Guangzhou cour­tesy of China’s For­eign Af­fairs MIn­istry as part of the ASEM Me­dia Di­a­logue on Con­nec­tiv­ity.

Guangzhou, for­merly known as Can­ton, is the cap­i­tal city of Guang­dong Province in South­ern China. For hun­dreds of years it has played a strate­gic role as a port where cit­i­zens en­coun­tered traders from the Mid­dle East, Africa and Europe.

To­day Guangzhou is a bustling me­trop­o­lis, with a pop­u­la­tion of 16.6 mil­lion and is the largest ur­ban an­ces­tral home of the Chi­nese di­as­pora.

Lo­cals de­scribe it as a ‘‘real’’ Chi­nese city. While Shang­hai is char­ac­terised by bling and Bei­jing by power and in­flu­ence, the fo­cus in Guangzhou is on qual­ity of life.

It has a grit­ti­ness and char­ac­ter to it, and its cit­i­zens’ wealth is not as os­ten­ta­tious as you’ll find in other big Asian cap­i­tals.

The city, dubbed ‘‘The Flower City’’ is sur­pris­ingly green, with trees along the streets and ivy on pedes­trian walk­ways. Along its canals and none too salu­bri­ous side streets in the old town you en­counter bursts of colour as trees and flow­ers blos­som from the most un­likely of places.

Food is a big part of life here. Can­tonese cui­sine was brought all over the world by em­i­grants from Guang­dong province and you won’t be short of places to dine in the cap­i­tal. The food is less spicy than what you would find in Sichuan, with fresh veg­eta­bles a main sta­ple of meals.

Guangzhou is rel­a­tively safe and easy to get around. The biggest prob­lem you en­counter is air pol­lu­tion. Some days there is a haze of smog over the city and it’s not un­com­mon to see peo­ple wear­ing face masks out and about.

Where East met West at Shamian Is­land

Shamian Is­land played an im­por­tant part in Can­ton’s his­tory: for­eign traders were re­stricted to this area when they ar­rived in China in the late 1800s. To­day, Euro­pean in­flu­ences are not hard to find, and in­clude the stone Western-style man­sions, and the French Catholic church. The is­land pro­vides a quaint set­ting for wed­ding photograph­s and has a small num­ber of ho­tels, restau­rants and cof­fee shops.

Cures for all types of ail­ments

Known to lo­cals as Qing­peng, it is a medicine mar­ket that sells all man­ner of weird and oth­er­worldly herbal medicines – from dried sea­horses, lo­custs, and snake­skins to the more ap­petis­ing dried man­darin peel and red dates. For ev­ery ail­ment there is a ven­dor with some­thing that will sup­pos­edly treat it.

Wow at wet mar­kets

Not far from the medicine mar­ket are the wet mar­kets, an­other win­dow into the world of daily life in Guangzhou. As well as meat and poul­try and tra­di­tional fruit and veg­eta­bles, you’ll find sur­pris­ing items such as live eels, baby scor­pi­ons, and tur­tles. It’s loud, bustling, and smelly, but well worth a look.

Cruise the Pearl River

Although this is also some­thing that can be done dur­ing the day, it’s bet­ter to cruise at night. When the sun goes down the mul­ti­coloured danc­ing lights of bridges and build­ings along the Pearl River pro­vide an en­chant­ing dis­play. The high­light of the tour is get­ting to see Can­ton Tower up close from the wa­ter in all her glory.

See the city from Can­ton Tower

Built in 2009, this 595.7-me­tre ob­ser­va­tion tower briefly held the ti­tle of world’s high­est build­ing un­til it was sur­passed by Dubai’s Burj Khal­ifa. At night it changes colours and, on a clear evening if smog hasn’t set in, it can be seen from all over Guangzhou. From

the top of the tower you get great views of the city and river be­low. The top zone of the struc­ture has a ro­tat­ing restau­rant with a de­cent buf­fet, as well as a kitsch post box, ap­par­ently the high­est post box in the world.

Indulge in a food tour

Cu­ri­ous about Can­tonese cui­sine? Book a food tour with lo­cal res­i­dent Janvi, who runs walk­ing tours around his home­town. Janvi will take you to parts of Guangzhou usu­ally hid­den to tourists, in­clud­ing a noo­dle house that uses bam­boo sticks to make noo­dles in a tra­di­tional man­ner. If you’re feel­ing ad­ven­tur­ous leave the selec­tion of food up to him. Check out for more de­tails.

Soak up his­tory

Dr Sun Yat-sen, a revo­lu­tion­ary, first pres­i­dent, and found­ing fa­ther of the Repub­lic of China, was held in high es­teem by lo­cals and Guang­dong di­as­pora, who raised funds to build this me­mo­rial hall in 1929. While the hall has his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, the venue is also used for the­atre and dance per­for­mances. Even if you’re not a his­tory buff, the man­i­cured grounds and Chi­nese architectu­ral style of the oc­tagon-shaped build­ing make it worth a visit.

Get crafty at Chen Clan Hall

First built in the late 1800s dur­ing the Qing dy­nasty, the Chen Clan An­ces­tral Hall was used for pre­par­ing young stu­dents for their im­pe­rial ex­ams. It was turned into an arts and crafts mu­seum in the late 1950s. The build­ing is in a con­stant state of restora­tion as it bat­tles the el­e­ments. It is in­tri­cately dec­o­rated with carv­ings and colour­ful hand-painted tra­di­tional Chi­nese scenes. The build­ing houses con­tem­po­rary and his­tor­i­cal art from around China, and has artists on site mak­ing pa­per cut­tings and sculp­tures.

Lounge about at Li­wan Lake Park

Pop­u­lar with tourists and lo­cals, Li­wan Lake Park is a tran­quil spot to while away a few hours. There are boat cruises around the man­made lake, and if you visit on the weekend you might come across a free opera per­for­mance. What’s most en­ter­tain­ing is watch­ing lo­cal – mostly re­tired – res­i­dents play­ing games of foot bad­minton. If you watch long enough they might even in­vite you to join a game.

Night shop­ping on Bei­jing Road

For re­tail ther­apy, the vi­brant pedes­trian shop­ping street of Bei­jing Lu is worth a wan­der. The area is ex­tremely busy, par­tic­u­larly at night when the stores stay open un­til 10pm. As you walk along the street music blares and shop staff clap their hands and do their ut­most to en­tice you. Most of the goods on of­fer are typ­i­cal high­street and ex­pect to hag­gle if you want to get a good deal. Tourists get cor­nered by those ped­dling knock-off hand­bags and watches.

Visit the king

The 2000-year-old tomb of the Nanyue King Zhao Mo has been classed as one of China’s ma­jor his­tor­i­cal sites. The burial site of the king was only dis­cov­ered in the 1980s, and was de­vel­oped into a mu­seum com­plex. The mau­soleum and mu­seum have a fas­ci­nat­ing ar­ray of arte­facts, in­clud­ing the grim re­mains of 15 courtiers who were buried alive to serve the king in death.

Smell the or­chids

The best time to visit Can­ton Orchid Gar­den is dur­ing Spring Fes­ti­val in Jan­uary/Fe­bru­ary when the gar­dens are in full bloom. The park has 200-plus va­ri­eties of or­chids and other flow­ers, and is a ver­i­ta­ble oa­sis in the city. Even if you visit out­side of bloom­ing sea­son, the gar­dens pro­vide an an­ti­dote to the city’s hus­tle and bus­tle.

Get in touch with the gods

In the sur­rounds of Li­wan Park is Ren­wei Tem­ple, a 900-year-old Taoist tem­ple ded­i­cated to the wor­ship of the North­ern Em­peror. Like many tem­ples, it is in­cred­i­bly or­nate and has dozens of stat­ues of deities. It is a site of con­tin­ued sig­nif­i­cance to Taoist wor­ship­pers.

Be one with Bud­dha

The Tem­ple of the Six Banyan Trees is strik­ing be­cause of its height and elab­o­rate struc­ture. The tem­ple’s flower pagoda has a num­ber of roof sec­tions, which curl up­wards like flower petals. This Buddhist tem­ple was built in 537, but has been re­stored nu­mer­ous times since. Many prom­i­nent monks taught at this tem­ple, in­clud­ing Bod­hid­harma, the founder of Zen Bud­dhism.

Wel­come to the fu­ture

What was, un­til re­cently, rice pad­dies is now the cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict of the fu­ture. Zhu­jiang New Town is the new­est part of Guangzhou and has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of lux­ury ho­tels and stores in the city. It is home to sky­scrapers and un­der­ground malls, and rep­re­sents fu­ture China. The area has great van­tage points for views of Can­ton Tower, and strolling around the area you’ll en­counter the mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture of the IFC, Guang­dong Mu­seum and Opera House.


Can­ton Tower, the brightly lit ob­ser­va­tion tower, can be seen through­out Guangzhou.

A se­lec­tion of Can­tonese dishes at a Guangzhou restau­rant. The food is less spicy than what you would find in Sichuan, with fresh veg­eta­bles a main sta­ple of meals.

The Chen Clan An­ces­tral Hall was used for pre­par­ing students for im­pe­rial ex­ams. It is now an arts and crafts mu­seum show­cas­ing lo­cal and na­tional art­work.

The Sun Yat-sen Me­mo­rial Hall in Guangzhou, was built for Dr Sun Yat-sen, the found­ing fa­ther of the Repub­lic of China.

Shamian Is­land, where early West­ern traders were seg­re­gated in the late 1800s.

The vi­brant pedes­trian shop­ping street of Bei­jing Lu in Guangzhou.

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