The world in a port

08:55, November 29, 2010      

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Take a cruise along the Pearl River to take in the abundance of neon light and feel the pulse of the bustling nightlife of Guangzhou. [Photo/Wu Lumin / China Photo Press]

A visit to ready-for-the Asian Games Guangzhou throws up delightful surprises, from a laid-back colonial past to frenzied contemporary trade. Mu Qian reports.

One week before the Asian Games seemed like a perfect time to tour Guangzhou, with the city getting ready to welcome guests but the frenzy yet to begin. The first advantage of the games for tourists, I noticed, was that whenever you were not sure of the way, there would be some volunteers nearby to help you.

This happened to me from the moment I arrived at the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, where volunteers readily showed me the way to the Airport South subway station.

This station, which had been put into use only a week earlier, was another positive outcome of the Asian Games. From here you can connect to almost any corner in the city.

Restaurants are always packed in Guangzhou, a city famed for food. Yi Ren / China Photo Press

Restaurants are always packed in Guangzhou, a city famed for food. [Photo/Yi Ren / China Photo Press]

My destination was Shamian, a sandbank island in the Pearl River that used to be a foreign concession and is now famous for its colonial buildings. From the Huangsha subway station, it is a mere three-minute walk.

I checked into the Guangdong Victory Hotel, a neo-classical building that used to be an HSBC bank in the mid-19th century. Located on the northern bank of the island, it is separated from the mainland by a canal.

Walk around Shamian and you will see various Western-style buildings, including the Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel built by the French, and the former Czech Consulate.

They were mostly built in the 19th century, but Shamian's history of foreign contacts dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when it began to serve as an important port for Guangzhou's international trade.

The main boulevard of the island, the pedestrian Shamian Street, is lined with big banyan trees, some with signboards claiming they are more than 150 years old. In the warm sunshine and mild weather of Guangzhou's late autumn, the street was dotted with children playing games and new couples doing wedding shoots.

On one side of the street, I found a Starbucks that was probably the most atmospheric of the chain's cafes I've seen in China. Located in a courtyard shaded by palm trees, it had both a historical and laid-back feel.

At lunchtime, I headed for the Datong Restaurant, another historical place but with a totally different environment.

Opened in the early 1940s, the restaurant has been serving authentic Cantonese food for nearly 70 years. Even more interesting was its hosting of daily performances of Cantonese Opera and folk tunes in the afternoon.

The restaurant was already full when I arrived, and I had to share a table with an elderly couple. Like most of the other customers in the restaurant, they were Cantonese-speaking Guangzhou natives and I could hardly communicate with them in Putonghua.

My local friend Li came to join me and helped me order some characteristic Cantonese dishes, such as sliced boiled chicken and steamed beef marinated in olive sauce. I enjoyed a dessert called milk red bean jelly the most. Its natural sweetness helped offset the richness of the main courses.

Colonial heritage is evident in the old European-styled buildings in Shamian, a green island in the heart of the vigorous city. Guan Guangyuan / China Photo Press

Colonial heritage is evident in the old European-styled buildings in Shamian, a green island in the heart of the vigorous city. [Photo/Guan Guangyuan / China Photo Press]

The show started after lunch at 2:30. Spectators could sip tea while watching the performances. Given the history of the restaurant and its central location by the Pearl River (the tables by the windows offered a clear view of the river), the minimum charge of 12 yuan ($1.80) per person seemed reasonable.

But as the show went on, I found that many people didn't stop at 12 yuan. It was like a gala show, in which a dozen or so singers performed one by one to the accompaniment of a live band. Many spectators would go near the stage to tip their favorite singers during the performance, with sums ranging from 30 to 300 yuan.

The singers would accept the tips without a break in their singing, just nodding their heads slightly to express thanks. I observed that some singers made more than 1,000 yuan just for one aria.

Singers and their patrons seemed to enjoy an easy rapport; many mingled with the audience for a chat and some even said goodbye to me before they left.

We left Datong Restaurant, for an area near the Guangzhou Railway Station called Xiaobei, which isn't on the schedule of most tourists. The reason I wanted to go there was to indulge in some people-watching.

In recent years a substantial number of African traders have moved to the city to buy cheap made-in-China products and ship them to Africa for sale, and Xiaobei is where they congregate.

On a street officially named Baohan Zhijie and nicknamed African Street, we saw

a concentrated population of Africans. Some of them worked in the nearby malls, some were newcomers putting up in hotels by the street, and many had probably lived in the rundown apartments of the area like the local Chinese for a long time.

At an Internet kiosk, a group of African guys were calling back home and speaking in various tongues, while outside another African man was bargaining with a fruit stall owner in Chinese.

A restaurant serving beef noodles from Northwest China was full of Africans, but we chose to have our dinner at the "African Bar" to try African food for the first time.

The place is owned by a Chinese but the chef is from Burundi. We had some fufu, a staple food made of starchy root vegetables, and sakasaka sombe, beef with vegetables. I wouldn't say they were my favorite foods from Guangzhou, but it felt nifty to travel from one culture to another within the same city and taste the difference.

In a way, Guangzhou feels more cosmopolitan than Beijing and Shanghai, with shops catering to Arabs and Africans shopping for vegetables at the local wet markets.

After dinner, as we strolled along Taojin Road, we walked past what looked like a Russian neighborhood, packed with Russian restaurants and bars. Close by was a Lebanese restaurant packed with people smoking shisha, or water pipe.

We decided to end the day's tour with a night cruise on the Pearl River. At 10 pm, Guangzhou lit up and shimmered like a woman in her party best.

From the ship, we saw old buildings like the Aiqun Hotel and Nanfang Mansion, some of the first high rises in South China that were built in the first half of the 20th century. In the distance stood glittering Canton Tower, completed just before the Asian Games and now the world's seventh tallest structure.

The night cruise offered more than sightseeing; it was like a trip through time that connected the city's past and future.

On my way back to the hotel, the taxi driver told me that all city taxi drivers had to learn some English before the Asian Games, and staff from the city's traffic management bureau would stop a taxi on the road to test if the driver's English was up to scratch.

When I asked him how he would greet a foreigner in English, he thought for a while, and said loudly, " ... Come to Guangzhou!"

Source: China Daily(By Mu Qian)


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