I haven’t been back to the Middle Kingdom since 6 years ago, so this trip to China was to be an eye opener into the changes that have overtaken the country. This was also my first time visiting the city of Guangzhou, one of China’s largest cities after Beijing and Shanghai.
While Guangzhou may seem just like another Chinese mega-city at first glance, it has a long history of more than 2,200 years when it was the first Chinese city open to foreign traders and a major port along the ancient maritime Silk Route. In modern times, it’s said that China is the factory of the world, and most of these factories are located in the Pearl River Delta with Guangzhou as the main trade and distribution port. The annual Canton Fair, the world’s largest and oldest trade fair, is a testament of the city’s importance in world trade.
As a city devoted mainly to trade, there aren’t that many interesting historical or cultural sites to visit compared to Beijing. Most of the interesting things to do here are usually related to food and shopping. I spent around 3 days in Guangzhou which I felt was enough for a first timer if you are not venturing out of the city.
Chen Clan Ancestral Hall
This is perhaps the most well known historical and cultural site in Guangzhou. Formerly an academic temple for the various Chen (陈) clans in Guangzhou. It was used by the junior clansmen to stay while they prepared for the imperial examinations during the Qing Dynasty. Today it’s a museum and also houses the Guangdong Folk Art Museum. This was an interesting place for me as my surname is 陈 in Chinese which puts me as a member of the Chen clan. Although my roots hail from Fujian Province, it was a humbling experience to witness a shared ancestry.
It seems that you will need to show a copy of your passport when purchasing tickets to enter the ancestral hall. This also seems to be the case when purchasing tickets of any kind in Guangzhou. So make sure you have a copy of your passport (hardcopy or electronic) with you. I found that my Singapore drivers license was also good enough, as long as it was a photo ID card.
One of the several parks in Guangzhou to go to relax. It has a large lake where you can go boating or people watch. Surrounded by traditional Chinese buildings and bridges, it does evoke a sense of times gone by.
Walking Streets and Street Markets
There are 2 pedestrian walking streets in Guangzhou. The longer and more well known one is Beijing Street, and the other is Shangxiajiu Walking Street. I went to Shangxiajiu as this street has a more historical and traditional feel with a mix of European and Chinese architecture.
Getting to Shangxiajiu
The streets around Shangxiajiu are not designated pedestrians only streets but nobody seems to care about this. People, cars, bicycles and e-bikes share the same street oblivious to the organised chaos going on.
Besides the walking streets, other streets or even neighborhoods are named after the type of goods that they trade. So there are places like the seafood market which is a neighborhood of shops and plazas selling seafood, both fresh and dried. Then there is the Chinese herbs and medicine market where you will find all kinds of ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine. For modern goods, there is the sports sneakers city and electronics goods cities, which are huge plazas dealing in specific goods. I didn’t have time to explore most of these places, but for the discerning shopper you will want to check out those places which pique your interests.
Guangzhou by Night
While Guangzhou might seem like a drab Chinese city by day, by nightfall the downtown area in Tianhe District transforms into a kaleidoscope of coloured lights. One of the best ways to enjoy the night view is to get up high for a bird’s eye view. Most people will head to the futuristic looking Canton Tower and endure long queues and expensive tickets to get to the observation deck. But at 604m tall, this is the second tallest tower in the world and is an attraction onto itself.
Otherwise, if you don’t want to queue or pay RMB 150 for a ticket to the highest observation deck in the Canton Tower, then head over to the International Financial Center and take a lift up to the Four Seasons Hotel on the 74th floor. You can enjoy views of the Pearl River and city while having dinner at one of the restaurants.
Cruising the Pearl River
There are 2 ways to do this. The cheaper way is to take the passenger ferries that make scheduled stops along the river during the day, or take the tourist ferries which operate at night.
Getting Around Guangzhou
Guangzhou has a metro system which makes it easy to get around. However, if you are in a group of 3-4 persons then it’s actually easier and more economical to get around using China’s equivalent of Grab or Uber, which is called Didi. You will need to download the app and setup your payment mode. After that everything else is similar to Grab and Uber. We found that trips within the city often came up to RMB 20-30 (SGD 4-6) which is really economical.
While we may associate Cantonese food like dim sum with Hong Kong, the birthplace of Cantonese food is actually Guangzhou, and you will find lots of dim sum restaurants and tea houses here.
Much has been said about the boorish behavior of Mainland Chinese with many news reports and anecdotes. I personally have experienced it myself when I was in Shanghai. But the people of Guangzhou were well mannered and helpful to us, and they do actually queue up instead of rushing in like a mob. The night scenes were quite incredible and can easily rival that of Shanghai or Hong Kong. The food was delicious and comforting as Southern Chinese cuisine closely tasted like the food we are used to back home. Guangzhou has pleasantly surprised me and I wouldn’t mind a second visit to explore more in detail the places that I missed out this round.
Come back for my next blog post on Shamian Island in Guangzhou, where the European powers used to set up their embassies and trading houses. This is another historical and cultural site which is worth a visit.