Guangzhou (Canton)

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.

The Chen Clan Ancestral Hall is characterized by it’s intricately decorated roofs. In the 19th century, the various Chen clans of Guangzhou pooled their resources to build this huge clan hall.
The main entrance to the complex with the late afternoon Sun shining in through the doorway. It can get crowded due to the popularity of this place.
A close up of the many lion guardians and colourful roof decorations.
Nine halls and six open courtyards are connected by covered walkways. Throughout the whole place, the roofs were decorated with colourful and intricate figures.
A close up of some of the figures on the roof.
One of the open halls on display. I guess this was where they held meetings.

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.

Liwan Park

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.

A canal that leads into the lake at Liwan Park. There are some shops on the sides of the canal. Nearby are several restaurants where you can have a Cantonese meal.
A traditional Chinese design arch bridge crossing the canal..
Residents exercising and playing sports under this huge banyan tree. Banyan trees seem to be very common in the city and you can find a lot of these ancient looking trees growing everywhere.
Ok, it’s just a guy in a chicken suit. I’m not sure if this is a traditional thing or not.
In a country that enforced a one child policy until recently, this woman with 3 kids is a rare sight in China.

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.

The walking street of Shangxiajiu with traditional red Chinese lanterns strung across it. It stretches for 800m with shops and restaurants on both sides of it.
It gets pretty crowded on the weekends as residents and visitors gather for eating and shopping.

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.

This building houses a large number of shops selling dried seafood.
Besides the plaza filled with shops, there are also many more shops on the streets.
The assortment of dried seasfood is mind boggling.
There was even a street with a row of shops selling Chinese New Year decorations.
Another street market that I visited was the Chinese herbs and medicine market. This was conveniently located within walking distance from my hotel and I made an early morning visit.
Boxes of raw ginseng were waiting to be unpacked at one of the shops. Early morning isn’t exactly a good time to visit as most of the shops were not opened yet.

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.

A sunset view of the Pearl River from the 75th floor of the Guangzhou International Financial Center.
The lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel is just as impressive and futuristic.
The hotel occupies the 74th to 98th floors of the International Financial Center. This upward looking view to the roof of the tower reminds me of some space ship.
The downtown of Guangzhou is very pretty by night as the buildings light up in an explosion of multi-coloured lights.
This large park in Tianhe District is where everyone gathers to enjoy the view of Canton Tower and the surrounding skyscrapers.
While Tokyo may evoke a cyberpunk feel with it’s neon signboards and inspire movies like Blade Runner, the multi-coloured lights in Guangzhou reminds me more of computer games and Tron.
Canton Tower may be the centerpiece of the night scene, but the other towers are just as beautiful with their coloured lights.

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.

For ourselves, we took the tourist ferry as we wanted to enjoy the night scene. There are several companies that operate the ferries and ticket prices vary depending on the level of comfort and whether the cruise includes dinner or not. Again, they require to see your passport when booking the tickets.
The night cruise is a nice way to enjoy the night scenes of Guangzhou, if you can stand the noise and jostling from more than a hundred over-excited Chinese tourists.
A futuristic looking bridge with see-through LED signboards that look like they are floating in mid-air.
A view of the financial district. The International Financial Center is the building with the green lights.
And finally a close up of Canton Tower. I didn’t get the chance to go up the tower, so perhaps next time.

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.

Taking a ride into the downtown area with a Didi premium car is actually not expensive. It costs less than a Grab ride in Singapore.
There are public piers along the Pearl River and you can purchase tickets to take the public ferries. It could actually be faster than getting caught in a traffic jam.
Cruising along the Pearl River can be an enjoyable experience.
You can relax and enjoy the mix of European and Chinese architecture along the river.

Food Matters

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.

The myriad varieties of dim sum available at one of the better known restaurants in town.
Street food is also common and I tried one of the street vendors selling hand pressed pomegranate juice. Electronic payment by scanning a QR code is common, even for the street vendors. For foreigners like us, paying using the local apps like Wechat and Alipay can be troublesome with many setup problems, so it’s great that cash is still accepted here.

Final Impressions

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.

5 thoughts on “Guangzhou (Canton)

  1. It must have been cool to go to that ancestral hall since you share the same ancestors. My experience in Guangzhou was only limited to Shamian Island, so I can’t wait for your next post to see how it has or hasn’t changed.

  2. Oh gosh, that riding video!!! 😲The spaceship hotel shot was amazing. I used to wortk for an airline that flew directly from here to Guangzhou, and so I almost visited… that was actually nearly 20 years ago!

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