A day in Mainland China: discovering old Guangzhou (Canton)
December 5, 2014
I am quite ashamed to confess it had been ten months living in Hong-Kong before stepping for the first time into Mainland China. I couldn't have been more excited when my mother asked if we could go and visit Guangzhou for a day. It was the easiest thing to plan thanks to Anne-Christine Martin (Bienvenue à Hong-Kong) who guided us through the old city.
We departed very early from Hung Hom station. The train ride to Guangzhou takes about two hours. Just enough time to get a historical overview of this major trading city, which for long was one of the world’s greatest trading port: the main gateway for goods circulating in and out of China.
Our tour started on Shamian Island, which is connected to Canton by two small bridges across a canal. This island in the Pearl River was ceded to the French and British forces that occupied Canton a few years after the first Opium war. Both communities raised buildings in their own colonial style creating a very interesting architectural combination.
It is absolutely lovely to walk around the attractive broad avenues, the gardens and fine buildings and churches. The area is very quiet and actually it is a bit unfortunate that it is not being better preserved. Nowadays it turns out to be a hot spot for wedding pictures: the number of brides you might be seeing on the streets would surprise you.
Qingping traditional Chinese medicine market
Just across the island, we discovered what is known as the biggest traditional Chinese medicine market in China. Shops selling all kinds of roots, powders, mushrooms, insects, flowers, starfishes, seahorses, deer’s horns, etc. border the narrow streets. You could spend hours exploring and trying to understand all the virtues of these ingredients. I felt a bit less comfortable when we came across buckets of living scorpions.
From Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian street to Liwan Lake
Shang Xia Jiu is a bustling shopping street, noisy and crowded. It is so commercial that you could easily walk without noticing the interesting Art deco façades. Soon out of this hustle and bustle, we found ourselves in narrow alleys with old people playing mahjong, women hanging clothes out their doors, cyclo-drivers having a nap, children running around, an old man having an outdoor haircut… a lively though peaceful neighborhood exactly like I pictured traditional China in my best dreams.
I was impressed with the old wooden doors built with three different layers of gates, hiding what used to be bourgeois mansions.
We made a stop at the Liwan museum. It used to be the mansion of the Chan banking family. It offers a glimpse into the Siguan culture of affluent old Canton. There are plenty of historic black-and-white pictures and it showcases original old furniture.
Liwan Lake and Park
It is a nice scenic park where you may enjoy some performances at the traditional outdoor theater. The area is a weekend gathering location with many people going out on a boat trip or simply hanging around, playing games or chatting. Here again the atmosphere is lively but remains really peaceful.
We had a tasty dim-sum lunch (late) on a small boat departing from Panxi restaurant.
Chen family ancestral temple
A short taxi ride and we visited this grand temple. This was built as an academy for the Chen clan’s students in order to prepare for Confucian Imperial Examinations. It was built just before the end of the Qing era between 1890 and 1894. It is a traditional Chinese academic complex, which covers 13,200 square meters and is composed of 19 buildings with nine halls and six courtyards that are connected in a symmetric pattern: it would take hours exploring it all. The artwork and decorations are really worth the visit: fabulous iron castings and gorgeous ceramics.
After this last stop, it was just time to rush to the station and get on our train back to Hong-Kong. There is much more to be seen in Guangzhou but this itinerary allowed us to grasp the atmosphere of the old Canton. Next time I would like to take our children to the nearby circus and zoo, which, I heard, are worth the experience.