Guangzhou holds the reputation of being ‘the place where everything on earth is made’. That means that the plastic keypad on my computer was made in Guangzhou, the telephone on my desk was made in Guangzhou, and, most likely, the Marks and Spencer blouse, which I am wearing right now, was made in Guangzhou. And after being there on a weekend trip, I can see that this reputation is well deserved.
This was my third trip to China – the first being to Chengdu on a mega hiking trip up a sacred mountain, and the second being to Beijing to wander the Forbidden Palace and walk the Great Wall. I hadn’t been planning to visit China again, but my friend Katie, whose Chinese side of the family reportedly had to sneak out of China during the Opium Wars, was in Hong Kong for a holiday, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see ‘the real China’.
Just two hours by train north of Hong Kong, Guangzhou is not exactly a ‘tourist destination’ the way that Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing is, even though it has a very rich and very fascinating history. It is best known for being the first area of China that allowed trade with foreigners, and with it came the first foreign settlement. Back in the days, the foreign traders could not pronounce the province name ‘Guangdong’ properly, and Anglicised it to become ‘Canton’, which is where the word ‘Cantonese’ comes from. Today, it is still a centre of commerce and export, and you are more likely to see a trader from Dubai than a tourist from Canada.
According to statistics, Guangzhou city has 8 million people (with likely a few million more hidden in the wood works!), which makes it the third most densely populated city in the mainland. Walking through the streets was a complete sensory overload – women carrying a bamboo pole with two packages hanging from either side, a man on a bicycle with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a refrigerator, tiny shops with a million goods blasting fast-paced Canto-pop while cute salesgirls clap to get your attention.
But it’s not all like that — in the back streets, we also found tiny homes with old ladies scowling at passersby through the gate, tea shops with giant cakes of compressed tea leaves, and huge bamboo steamers full of char siu bao at a sidewalk cafe.
My colleague Malcolm who works at my company’s Guangzhou office, had invited us to stay in his beautiful, huge 3-story townhouse (which is half the price of my crappy little 1-bathroom apartment here in Hong Kong), and to show us around. He took us to the Glasses Market to get what he claimed would be the ‘cheapest, fastest, coolest glasses you’ll ever get in your life’. The mall was five storeys high, and full of nothing but optometrists, frames shops and sunglasses. Inside a little shop with about 5,000 frames, we met the sweet and petite Lina, who spoke fantastic English, and helped us pick out some very funky frames. I needed one pair, Katie needed two, and Malcolm decided on one, just for the heck of it, as they were too cheap to pass up.
“Do you think we can get these back tomorrow?” we asked as she took our orders.
She looked at her watch for a second, smiled brightly and said, “Yes, of course! Come back in the morning!”
I soon came to realise that the word “no” does not exist in China. If you want some kind of service or product or business, they will never tell you they can’t do it. You want it, you got it. That’s how come their economy is exploding – these people work harder than anyone on the planet and are not afraid to put in a few extra hours to facilitate a customer and do the job. I think the average laid back “nah, ah cah do it today, come back tomorrow” Trini sleeping under an almond tree could learn a thing or two from the Chinese…
That night Malcolm took us to a famous seafood restaurant along the Pearl River. Inside the massive restaurant is a wet market, with tanks full of giant crabs, eels, alligators, turtles, fish of every kind, water bugs, any and every thing that you could imagine lives in water, waiting for you to point to it and say, “That one, I want that one.” We decided to dine on some eel. Katie picked out a nice fat one, the man grabbed the net, and two minutes later, it was at the end of our chopsticks and into our bellies.
During dinner, Katie got up to use the washroom.
“Did you see the alligator?” she asked excitedly as she returned from the bathroom.
“What alligator?” I replied.
“Just head to the right, you’ll see it.”
I drained my beer, got up and walked through the restaurant, looking for this alligator. But I was too late – all that was left was its head on a tray of crushed ice. The rest of its meat had already been selected by some hungry diners, and the chef was busy chopping it up. Doesn’t get much fresher than that, I suppose.
Another interesting area was Shamian Island, which is the original foreigner settlement. This tiny area of the city was the only place foreigners were allowed to live, and they had a strict curfew of 10 pm. They were not allowed to intermingle with the local Chinese population, and according to the history books, any foreigner caught trying to learn Chinese would be executed. So Shamian was quite an entirely different place to the crazed streets of the city. Old European architecture, a beautiful old church, large swathes of green, fountains, huge trees providing endless shade. I swear the temperature in Shamian was a good 5’C cooler. All over the island, young Chinese couples in elaborate dress were taking wedding photos, and families strolled around in the cool of the parks. We also saw a lot of foreign families with a tiny Chinese child, as Shamian is still home to many of Guangzhou’s embassies, which authorise Chinese adoptions.
Although Guangzhou is a really exciting, lively place, at times it was a bit too overwhelming – too many people, too much action, everywhere you look your eyes see something new. “I don’t think I can see any more new things today,” Katie said as the afternoon began to head into evening. “My brain can’t take any more stimulation!” But I have to say I was very glad that Katie came, or else I probably would never have made it to Old Canton, to see ‘the Real China’.