Right now I’m in Hong Kong for the May Holiday, but I’ve spent the past week in the Chinese Southern City of Guangzhou, and I will be back there after the May Holiday is over.
Guangzhou gets a short shrift from expats, guidebook writers, tourists, and visitors to China. I think its mostly justified, as Guangzhou can be described as dirty, polluted, hot, crowded and basically a disheveled poor country mouse cousin to its Cantonese sister Hong Kong just two hours away, and obviously not the cultural center that Beijing is, nor the commerce center that Shanghai is – and its not even a window on the brand new China like its close neighbor to the South Shenzhen is . . . so why do I feel the way about Guangzhou that I do?
I think the story starts 15 years ago when I lived near Guangzhou, teaching at Pei Zheng Commercial College and Guangzhou was our monthly McDonald’s and supplies run. But Guangzhou 1997 was very different than Guangzhou 2012 now – back then the Tianhe district was almost a suburb, with only the football stadium, book city, the brand new Teem Mall and the even newer east railway station. Nowadays the Tianhe to Zhujiang New Town corridor is where I’ve spent my last 5 visits – when 15 years ago, this corridor didn’t exist. And the Tai Koo Hui Shopping mall is nicer than any shopping mall in Hong Kong or Shanghai or Beijing. It is very nice.
As for what I like about Guangzhou itself, I’m not sure how to describe it. Its modern China in one sense, but I think the pace of life is much slower than Beijing and Shanghai. The sub-tropical weather and preponderance of short wearing makes it feel a lot more laid back. And while the city is near HK, it has its own distinctive Cantonese culture. I also happen to think that Guangzhou is the most tolerant city towards outsiders in China. While you can’t go five minutes in Shanghai without locals complaining about ‘waidi ren’ I have found the Guangzhou natives to be pretty welcoming of outsiders – foreigners and non-Cantonese alike. I’ve noticed that while both Shanghainese and Cantonese are very proud of their respective dialects, it feels to me like Shanghainese use their dialect as a wall between themselves and outsiders and as a identifier of who is really Shanghainese, the Cantonese teach outsiders Cantonese and anyone living there for more than a year has at least working relationship with listening in Cantonese.
I’m not recommending people move there, nor am I moving there myself – but I just wanted to defend a city which I think gets a short shrift.