GUANGZHOU (广州, guăngzhōu), once known to the Western world as Canton, has for centuries been the point where China meets the rest of the world – commercially, militarily and otherwise. Increased competition from its noisy upstart neighbour, Shenzhen, and the flowering of Beijing and Shanghai may have diminished Guangzhou’s role as a centre of international commerce, but the locals are secure in their history, and with the money continuing to roll in from the surrounding factories, you will hear no suggestions here that the city is a fading power. An expanding metro and high-speed rail network have made getting to and around the city a breeze, and triggered growth in previously unreachable districts.
True, Guangzhou’s sights remain relatively minor, though a fascinating 2000-year-old tomb and palace site complement the obligatory round of temples. Yet the city is an enjoyable place, especially if you love to dine out. The Cantonese are compulsively garrulous, turning Guangzhou’s two famous obsessions – eating and business – into social occasions, and filling streets, restaurants and buildings with the sounds of Yueyu, the Cantonese language. Newer districts can pass as a blur of chrome and concrete, but make your way around on foot through the back lanes and you’ll discover a very different city, one of flagstoned residential quarters, tiny collectors’ markets and laundry strung on lines between buildings.
The emphasis, however, is undoubtedly on business over tourism; the biannual Trade Fair is the highlight for many in the city and commerce is Guangzhou’s lifeblood, an ethos inspiring train-station pickpockets and company CEOs alike. In purely practical terms, however, while the city is expensive compared with some parts of China, it’s far cheaper than Hong Kong, the place citizens here would most like you to consider their city alongside.
Legend tells how Guangzhou was founded by Five Immortals riding five rams, each of whom planted a sheaf of rice symbolizing endless prosperity – hence Guangzhou’s nickname, Yang Cheng (Goat City). Myths aside, a settlement called Panyu had sprung up here by the third century BC, when a rogue Qin commander founded the Nanyue Kingdom and made it his capital. Remains of a contemporary shipyard uncovered in central Guangzhou during the 1970s suggest that the city had contact with foreign lands even then: there were merchants who considered themselves Roman subjects here in 165 AD, and from Tang times, vessels travelled to Middle Eastern ports, introducing Islam into China and exporting porcelain to Arab colonies in distant Kenya and Zanzibar. By 1405, Guangzhou’s population of foreign traders and Overseas Chinese was so large that the Ming emperor Yongle founded a special quarter for them. When xenophobia later closed the rest of China to outsiders, Guangzhou became the country’s main link with the rest of the world.
Restricted though it was, this contact with other nations proved to be Guangzhou’s – and China’s – undoing. From the eighteenth century, the British East India Company used the city as a base from which to purchase silk, ceramics and tea, but became frustrated at the Chinese refusal to accept trade goods instead of cash in return. To even accounts, the company began to import opium from India; addiction and demand followed, making colossal profits for the British and the Co Hong, their Chinese distributors, but rapidly depleting imperial stocks of silver. In 1839 the Qing government sent the incorruptible Commissioner Lin Zexu to Guangzhou to stop the drug traffic, which he did by blockading the foreigners into their waterfront quarters and destroying their opium stocks. Britain declared war, and, with a navy partly funded by the opium traders, forced the Chinese to cede five ports (including Guangzhou and Hong Kong) to British control under the Nanking Treaty of 1842.
The following century saw Guangzhou develop into a revolutionary cauldron. It was here during the late 1840s that Hong Xiuquan formulated his Taiping Uprising, and sixty years later the city hosted a premature attempt by Sun Yatsen to kick out China’s royal Qing rulers. When northern China was split by warlords in the 1920s, Sun Yatsen chose Guangzhou as his Nationalist capital, while a youthful Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai flitted in and out between mobilizing rural peasant groups. At the same time, anger at continuing colonial interference in China was channelled by unionism, the city’s workers becoming notoriously well organized and prone to rioting in the face of outrages perpetrated by the Western powers. Many of Guangzhou’s leftist youth subsequently enrolled in militias and went north to tackle the warlords in the Northern Expedition, becoming victims of the 1927 Shanghai Massacre, Chiang Kai-shek’s suppression of the Communists. A Red uprising in Guangzhou in December of that same year failed, leaving the population totally demoralized. Controlled by the Japanese during the war, and the Guomindang afterwards, residents became too apathetic to liberate themselves in 1949, and had to wait for the PLA to do it for them.
Few people would today describe the Cantonese as apathetic, especially when it comes to business. Guangzhou enjoys real wealth and solid infrastructure, its river location and level of development making it in many ways resemble a grittier version of Shanghai. One effect of this wealth is its draw on members of China’s mobile rural community, many of them living below the poverty line. At any one time, a staggering one million migrant workers are based in Guangzhou – one fifth of the city’s total population.