Shades of old Canton hide in the shadows of glittering new Guangzhou in China. This is China’s third largest city and a booming metropolis. It’s a far cry from the village it once was.
In the 1880s, Wesleyan missionary John Turner described Canton’s Shamian Island as “a beautiful island, fronted with lawns and flower gardens, with the foreign consular and merchants’ houses standing behind them, on either side of an avenue of banyan trees.”
Not a lot has changed on Shamian Island, which is a historic part of the city that is now known as Guangzhou.
I stroll beneath the leafy canopy of the banyan trees, past colonial buildings with pale coloured walls, curved archways and airy verandahs.
There’s a Starbucks in one building and traditional red lanterns hanging in the windows of another. Bronze statues are scattered among the lush foliage in the Friendship Garden.
It’s midweek, but for a dozen or so young couples and their professional photographers, there’s hardly a soul around. The couples are dressed in western-style clothes: brides in white, black and hot pink gowns and men wearing white suits with matching shoes that wouldn’t look out of place in Las Vegas.
Guangzhou’s youth might be attracted by western culture but the city is no stranger to European influence.
The Portuguese arrived in Canton in 1514; eager to trade they tried to establish a monopoly but were expelled to Macau.
Then the British fell in love with tea and by the 1780s, Britain’s appetite for tea had produced a trade deficit that the East India Company filled by supplying opium grown in British Bengal to the Chinese.
The relationship between China and Britain soured when opium was banned by the Chinese emperor, resulting in two battles known as the Opium Wars.
After the last battle, Shamian Island was divided into a concession for the French and one for the British.
The European architectural influence on Shamian Island makes it a lovely spot to visit.
The old Anglican Church across from the White Swan Hotel (a favourite of couples travelling to Guangzhou to adopt a child) languished as a warehouse for years after the Cultural Revolution but has since reopened.
The park opposite the former British consulate, which was built in 1865, is where retirees practice tai chi. Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, built by the French in 1892, has been beautifully restored.
Away from the churches and colonial buildings, there are other parts of Guangzhou that retain an ambience of pre-European Canton.
The city’s oldest and grandest temple, Guangxiao Temple (or Bright Filial Piety Temple) is a 1700-year-old hideaway away from the city’s pace.
Even more fascinating, are the narrow lanes at the Qing Ping medicine market.
I squeeze past locals haggling among sacks of medicinal herbs and buckets of dried nuts, roots and leaves. Locals line up to visit the medicine men, who dish out everything from ginseng to dried snake’s skin.
As China steams towards the future, the remnants of old Canton, however charming, are gradually being overshadowed by Guangzhou’s new image.
Pearl River Delta
The city on the Pearl River Delta is now China’s third largest, with population of 14 million. It has long been a hub for China’s booming economy.
As a tourist destination, Guangzhou is rapidly catching up to Shanghai and Beijing. Factories are moving out of the Pearl River Delta and the city is shedding its industrial image.
International airlines like Cathay Pacific well and truly have Guangzhou on the map.
Gleaming skyscrapers, modern shopping malls and contemporary buildings are adding to the city’s sleek lines.
Recent projects include a US$200m Opera House designed by Zaha Hadid (also responsible for the London Aquatic Centre), the 103-storey Guangzhou International Finance Centre and the 600m Canton Tower.
Canton Tower is a tourist destination with restaurants, cafes, a shopping arcade, 4D cinema and viewing decks that have birds-eye views of the skyscrapers below.
The top deck is 450m and where thrill-seekers can board the Mega Drop, the tallest freefall drop ride in the world, or jump into a pod on the Bubble Tram and circle around the edge of the tower’s roof at a 15-degree incline.
Five-star hotel chains have also flocked to open new hotels, such as Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich which brings French flair to Guangzhou through Parisian-style indulgences such as pampering treatments at So Spa and the sophisticated Club Millésime on the 29th floor.
The hotel’s 493 rooms are a chic blend of Parisian and Asian styles, with French poetry woven in the carpet, Hermes and L’Occitane bathroom accessories and the latest mod cons.
As Guangzhou is the birthplace of Cantonese cooking (the type of Chinese cuisine most of us are used to in Australia), it’s no surprise that the food in Guangzhou is lip-smackingly good.
This is the home of dim sum, shrimp dumplings and barbecued pork buns. Cantonese cuisine is everywhere: in street stalls, local eateries and in the city’s best hotels.
I begin my gourmet adventure at Sofitel’s ‘2 on 988’ with a feast of Cantonese and international fare chosen from five open kitchens and food stations, leaving the restaurant with a full tummy and a hankering for more.
Guangzhou has a new and efficient metro system with ticket machines and signs in English.
Stay at Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich
Did you know?
Sydney is a sister city of Guangzhou. Sydney’s Chinese Garden of Friendship in Darling Harbour was built as a result of the friendship and cooperation between the two cities.