Guangzhou. Canton. It is a name with resonance, but a place I have never been to before.
Today China’s third largest city, it couldn’t be more different from neighbouring Shenzhen despite their similar size. While Shenzhen was still the little fishing village of Baoan before 1979, Guangzhou’s history stretches back rather further, stretches back before the days of Canton, to a city of Panyu as old as China itself. Yet though I shunned modern Guangzhou, and left Guangzhou Tower and its as-standard modern city centre to another time, it was to Canton that I headed.
Tucked to the side of the Pearl River and bounded by a moat, Shamian is the original foreign concession: a place where the French and British were able to set up their factories and trading posts. The place still retains its colonial feeling. The buildings are unmistakably European in form; quite different from their Chinese counterparts, and the island is beautiful. Beautiful and tranquil. Despite the number of people sitting beneath its trees, ambling along its semi-pedestrianised roads, or sipping at its bars, the area retains a quiet, relaxing and welcoming feel.
Leave the island and the European influence begins to fade in intensity, though it is still there in the Customs House and the French Catholic cathedral and much else besides. But China proper, at least my romanticised view of an end-of-Qing-China, seems to reassert itself. There are the narrow streets lined with shops the wares of which spill out over the pavement. There are the bags of the dried and unidentifiable in the medicine market, the cacophony of glazed colour in the pottery shops, and the dark wide flat-seated furniture that would not look out of place in a Qing palace. There are the tea shops and fruit sellers lining pavements that are themselves shaded by overhanging first floors. And in the back streets, adventitious roots trail from the branches of fig trees, draping green and brown above the crowds.
Though it is just two hours away by train, this slice of Guangzhou (and I am sure there are others) is a far cry from Hong Kong. Perhaps not better or worse, but certainly different. Although the railway ticket office in Hong Kong accepted only cash, one bar in Guangzhou placed signs on every table prohibiting the playing of chess while another served almost comically disagreeable drinks. Yet Guangzhou too gave us an impromptu table-side magic show that started with a man pulling a flaming wallet from his pocket and ended with a trick in which rubber bands were made to physically pass through one other. Guangzhou too gave us a dish of pork belly that was so delicious, so tender, so soft, so juicy and so sweet that eating it seemed almost a waste, for how could it be enjoyed once swallowed? Guangzhou too gave us stalls selling scorpions and (what I hope were fake) animal legs covered in red and black striped fur, with curly claws and straggling tendons.
But most of all, it gave a respite and a break. A step into something else, just a step away from Mongkok.