Also known as Canton, Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong and one of the most prosperous cities in China. To some, the city may seem like one enormous shopping mall. There isn’t much by way of sights, but wandering the high-rise- and shop-lined streets – plied by shoppers and farmers alike – provides interesting insight into the extremes of poverty and wealth in China.
Over the last decade, Guangzhou has been busy casting off the yoke of recent history in an effort to catch up with the late 20th century. While there are a few interesting temples and parks and some fine restaurants, shopping centres and crammed textile and clothing stalls dominate the city. Most of the city’s charm lingers on in the streets and colonial-style architecture of Shamian Dao ( Sand Surface Island ), a foreign concession that is being gracefully gentrified despite the growing encroachment of tourist shops.
The first town to be established on the site of present-day Guangzhou dates back to the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). The first foreigners to arrive were the Indians and Romans, who appeared as early as the 2nd century AD. By the Tang dynasty (500 years later) Arab traders were visiting, and a sizeable trade with the Middle East and South-East Asia had developed.
The Portuguese arrived in the 16th century hunting for porcelain and silk, and providing Guangzhou with its first contact with a modern European nation: they were allowed to set up base downriaer in Macau in 1557. Then the Jesuits came and in 1583 were allowed to establish themselves at Zhaoqing, a town to the west of Guangzhou , and later in Beijing.
The first trade overtures from the British were rebuffed in 1625, but the imperial government finally opened Guangzhou to foreign trade in 1685. In 1757, by imperial edict, China’s foreign trade was restricted to Guangzhou , and the Co Hong, a Guangzhou merchants guild, gained exclusive rights to it. Foreigners were restricted to Shaman Dao. Trade flourished in China’s favour.
In 1773 the British shifted the balance of trade by unloading 1000 chests of Bengal opium at Guangzhou.
In 1839 opium was still the key to British trade in China. The emperor appointed Lin Zexu commissioner of Guangzhou with orders to stamp out the opium trade once and for all. The Chinese war on drugs led to a British military reaction, the first Opium
War. The conflict was ended by the Treaty of Nanking (1842), which ceded Hong Kong Island to the British. A later treaty ceded the island and a piece of Kowloon ‘in perpetuity’.
In the 19th century, Guangzhou became a cradle of revolt. The leader of the antidynastic Taiping Rebellion, Hong Xiuquan (1814-64), was born at Huaxian, north-west of Guangzhou , and the early activities of the Taiping centred on this area (see the boxed text ‘The Heavenly Kingdom of the Taiping’ in the Jiangsu chapter).
Guangzhou was also a stronghold of the republican forces after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. Sun Yatsen, the first president of the Republic of China, was born at Ciaiheng village south-west of Guangzhou. In the early 1920s, Sun headed the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) in Guangzhou , from where the republicans mounted their campaigns against the northern warlords. Guangzhou was also a centre of activities for the fledgling Communist Party.
Contemporary Guangzhou , however, swings to the tinkle of cash registers rather than the drum roll of protest and revolt. In recent times the Cantonese have usually left the turbulence of politics to their northern compatriots.
Central Guangzhou is bounded by a circle road (Huanshi Lu, literally ‘circle-city road’) to the north and Zhu Jiang to the south. Most hotels, commercial areas and places of interest lie within this boundary. A larger ring road (the Huancheng Expressway) and numerous inner-city overpasses are still under construction.
Accommodation is clustered around the train station (in the north), on Huanshi Donglu (in the north-east), and in and around the old foreign concession of Shamian DAo (in the south). If you don’t want to leave with the impression that Gu6ngzhou is one huge construction site, seek sanctuary on Shamian Dao, which is by far the quietest and most appealing sector of the city.
According to Chinese convention, Guangzhou’s major streets are usually split into numbered sectors (Zhongshan Wulu, which could also be written Zhongshan 5Lu etc). Alternatively they are labelled by compass points: bei (north), dong (east), nan (south) and xi (west) – as in Huanshi Donglu, which will sometimes be written in English as Huanshi East Road.
Guangzhou’s first subway line opened in July 1999 and runs from the Guangzhou east train station in the north-east to across Zhu Jiang in the south-west. Another line is under construction that will connect with the north (main) train station; it is expected to be completed in 2003.
A monthly entertainment guide, South China City Talk, is produced by foreigners living in the city and is an invaluable resource for what’s happening in town and around. It’s available at most of the major hotels and international-style bars. Several Internet magazines, including www.thatsguangzhou.com, offer up-to-date info on restaurants, clubs, and events.
The Public Security Bureau (PSB; Gonganju; tel: 8338 3731) can renew visas and is at 155 Jiefang Nanlu, just south of Dude Lu. Visa renewals take about a week (Y300).
Travel Agencies China International Travel Service WITS; Zhongguo Guoji Lixingshe; tel: 8666 6889), at 185 Huanshi Lu, is next to the main train station. It books tickets and has a bevy of English speakers. The friendlier China Foreign Trade Guangzhou Travel Service (Guangjiaohui Piaowu Zhongxin; tel: 8669 4550) is at 117 Liuhua Lu. China Travel Service (CTS; Zhongguo Luxingshe; tel: 8333 6888) at 10 Qiaoguang Lu, next to the Hotel Landmark Canton, also runs tours and books tickets. Most hotels can help with travel needs as well.
Most of the Bank of China branches around town change travellers cheques and have ATMs that take Cirrus, MasterCard, Visa, Plus etc. There’s one on the ground floor of the GITIC Plaza, one at the Bank of China near Youyi Binguan, and another across from the Furama Hotel at the Bank of China on Changdi Lu.
If you’re coming from Hong Kong, be warned that Guangzhou’s residents are all too happy to receive Hong Kong dollars from you, but they will give you change in rukn; change your dollars first to yuan at the bank or at your hotel.
Guangzhou’s American Express office (tel: 8331 1771, fax 8331 3535) is on the 8th floor of the GITIC Plaza Hotel.
The major tourist hotels have post offices where you can send letters and packets containing printed matter.
Adjacent to the train station is the main post office, known locally as the Liuhua post office (Liuhua youju). Overseas parcels can be sent from here.
- DHL (Tel: 8664 4668) has an office in Guangzhou , as does UPS (Tel: 8775 5778) and Federal Express (Tel: 8386 2026) at Garden Hotel, Room 1356-7, Garden Tower.
- The China Telecom office (Tel: 8103 1848) is at 196 Huanshi Xilu, opposite the train station on the eastern side of Renmin Beilu. Most hotels have International Direct Dialing (IDD) – calls to Hong Kong are very cheap. All the main tourist hotels have ‘business centres’ offering domestic and international telephone, fax and telex facilities.
- China Telecom has computers on its 2nd floor and provides cheap and fast Internet access for Y3 per hour plus a Y20 deposit. It’s open Sam to 8pm daily. Farther away, Meet Internet Coffee House (Tel: 8731 0888), at 83 Nonglin Xialu, has terminals for hire for Y10 per hour. It’s open 10am to lam daily. On Shamian Dao, Henan Webinail (Tel: 8188 7561) charges a minimum of Y20 for the first hour and Y10 every half hour after. Major hotels also offer Internet access from Y15 to Y25 for 15 minutes.
The Foreign Languages Bookshop (Tel: 8333 5185) can be difficult to find: head to the back of the store at 326 Beijing Lu and go up the stairway. The selection includes abbreviated classics in English for Chinese students and translations of Chinese classics.
Most major hotels have small bookshops with a smattering of popular novels, as well as current issues of Time, Neirstiveek, The Economist, Far Eastern Economic Review, Asintireek and even some French and German publications.
The Guangzhou Red Cross Hospital has an emergency number (Hongshizihui Yiyuan; Tel: 8441 2035), but the operator may not speak English. For general treatment of non-emergencies, try the medical clinic for foreigners at the Guangzhou No 1 People’s Hospital (Diyi Renmin Yiyuin; Tel: 8108 3090 ext 681) at 602 Renmin Beilu. For serious emergencies requiring an English-speaking doctor, it’s best to call the Pioneer International Clinic (Tel: 8384 8911), at Room 3003, Peace World Plaza , 352 Huanshi Donglu.
If you’re staying on Shamian Dizo or the riverfront, a nearby hospital is the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hospital (Sun Yixian Jinian Yiyuan: Tel: 8133 2415) at 107 Yanjiang Xilu. Not much English is spoken here, but the medical facilities are pretty good and the prices low.
Next to Shamian Dqo and the Peaceful Market is the Guangzhou Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Zhongyi Yiyuan; Tel: 8188 6504) at 16 Zhuji Lu. If you want to try acupuncture and herbs, this is the place to go. Many foreigners come here to study Chinese medicine.