The city of Panyu was already on this location back in 200 BC. Arab and Persian merchants arrived in Guangzhou in 8th century. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive by sea in 15th century and the city was known as Canton to its 19th century foreign residents. Today Guangzhou is 4th largest city in China, with 11 million inhabitants (in 2010) and this is excluding millions of migrant workers. It is well connected with Shenzhen and traveling by bullet train will take you only 1 or 1.5 hour to get there. I unfortunately spend only one weekend in the city and can share just few of highlights.
2/5th of it was leased to the French and 3/5th to British after the Second Opium War (1860), yet this island is no more than half a mile long sandbank. Before being allowed to settle on Shamian Island, foreigners were required to remain in their warehouses. Once allowed the space of its own, trading companies form Britain, US, France, Holland, Italy, Germany, Portugal, and Japan all tried to make the island a home away from home (as well as the consulates of 12 countries after 1930s). Besides its unique history, Shamian Island is a great place to experience the best and the worst of urban planning and I will try to explain what I mean by that. It serves as a great example of quiet pedestrian avenues flanked by trees and lined by comfortable to human scale structures. The central boulevard has urban plazas of various sizes along its way, running track, quiet setting areas overlooking water fountain, secluded wavy trails through English garden. That is the trick of the trade if you wish. If you have such a limited land resources and absolute need to accommodate variety of uses as well as amenities – you can come up with superb optimal solutions. The island also has great waterfront walk, plaza and park overlooking Pearl River. Here is the catch though, at some point someone had a “brilliant” idea to cut it all off from the river with an elevated roadway. People still make a use of its ability to cover them from the rain, but it is just absolutely out of place. And even more so once you realize when reaching its end that it serves one hotel only.
Chen Clan Academy
Ancestral Temple of the Chen Family, currently Guangdong Folk Arts Museum, was built in 14th century. It is the best preserved traditional complex of 19 buildings in Guangdong Province. As I was walking from one hall to another, from covered walkway to courtyard, the history of China was coming to life. It has superb craftsmanship and most amazing interiors where natural light flows into through wood screens and glass engravings. The museum was established here to collect, study and display folk arts from all over the country. Unique cultural relics are on display here, as well as contemporary art work that focuses on folk customs and techniques. Most of all I enjoyed watching people getting in touch with both history and the art form. Everyone, from small child whose father pointed out location on the old map explaining something to old couple seeing moments of their lives in the sculpture, were engaged with the place or the art in one way or the other. I found myself forgetting the time and descending into the world of imagination.
Old City Center
There is a whole list of different places you can visit in Guangzhou City Center, some of historical significance and others just popular tourists destinations like Qingping Market for example. I went to some, but not all; there is just not enough time. There are a number of temples (Buddhist, Confucius, etc.) that one can experience, but I found it more interesting to observe a life on the streets leading to temples.
Walking out of the subway station I could hear beautiful performance. As I walked further, I realized I wasn’t only one listening. There were number of people who stopped and watched performance right there on the street. I don’t know the story of that young singer. Sometimes sad circumstances force people to become street performers, but they do add to quality of urban life/ experience and we all get to benefit from their talents.
One thing has puzzled me both in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, how well people use both balconies and roof tops to bring greenery to their personal spaces. Looking at the old residential blocks with completely utilized roof tops from my hotel room window, I was thinking why we can’t find a better use for such a valuable commodity in our cities.
Guangzhou has much older metro system with 8 lines. It is much more crowded than Shenzhen’s, but provides great opportunity for foreigner to get around without getting lost in the vastness of Chinese city. You may end up taking the Peoplemover, Automated People Mover System (APM), when heading to new Central Business District (CDB). But don’t be shocked when instead of the train conductor you will see three 5 year olds at the clear glass front window pretending that they are in charge.
I started my exploration of new CBD by arriving at the foot of Canton Tower, formerly known as Guangzhou TV Astronomical and Sightseeing Tower. The tower briefly held the title of the tallest tower in the word before being replaced by the Tokyo Skytree in 2011. It still however has the tallest observation deck in the World. The views are spectacular, but you need to make sure it is a clear day. Realizing the disadvantage on the day I was there, I didn’t go further than level C (160 m). There is not much to do at the base of the tower and it is rather disappointing public space to be in, so I took APM further to the other side of the river arriving at the very heart of new CBD. It is still under construction, but most of it is open to public. I can say more about the planning and design of new CBD, but in this blog I would keep to the highlight – the evening at Huacheng Plaza. When I arrived at the plaza during the day, I thought to myself “not again – one of those huge, life less plazas.” Well I was wrong, and as soon as it got dark, plaza was bursting with life. People meeting, greeting, talking, laughing, kids running, playing with and posing for photographs over inset into the plaza’s paving strips of light fixtures. Canton tower on the other side of the river provided perfect focal point and entertainment.
Short video can be found at: http://youtu.be/L5Bhs6oYUbM
Slide set with additional images for this blog: http://www.flickr.com//photos/irinanicolet/sets/72157632594333304/show/