Halfway along Guangdong’s 800km coastline, rivers from all over the province and beyond disgorge themselves into the South China Sea through the tropically fertile Pearl River Delta, one of China’s most densely cultivated and developed areas. Perched right at the delta’s northern apex and adjacent to Hong Kong and Macau, the frenetic provincial capital, Guangzhou, is not everyone’s favourite city, but its famous food merits a stop, as does an assortment of museums, parks, monuments and pretty colonial quarters. Outlying delta towns have some history to pick up in passing, but in truth the area is emphatically focused on industry and commerce – as demonstrated by the border city of Shenzhen (深圳, shēnzhèn) where China’s “economic miracle” took its first baby steps.
Farther afield, the rest of the province is more picturesque. Over in the east near Fujian, the ancient town of Chaozhou (潮州, cháozhōu) has well-preserved Ming architecture peppered among a warren of narrow streets, though the regional highlight lies to the east in the form of the fantastical towers around the town of Kaiping (开平, kāipíng).
In the far east of Guangdong, on the banks of the Han River, CHAOZHOU is one of the province’s most culturally significant towns, and a splendid place to visit. In addition to some of the most active and manageable street life in southern China, there are some fine historic monuments, excellent shopping for local handicrafts, and a nostalgically dated small-town ambience to soak up. Chinese-speakers will find that Chaozhou’s Teochew language is related to Fujian’s minnan dialect, different from either Mandarin or Cantonese, though both of these are widely understood.
Chaozhou is a great place to buy traditional arts and crafts. For something a bit unusual, the hardware market, just inside the Guangji Gate along Shangdong Ping Lu, has razor-sharp cleavers, kitchenware and old-style brass door rings. Temple trinkets, from banners to brass bells, ceramic statues – made at the nearby hamlet of Fengxi – and massive iron incense-burners, are sold at numerous stores in the vicinity of Kaiyuan Temple. It’s also a good area to find silk embroideries and ceramic tea sets – in fact Chaozhou considers itself the ceramics capital of China, and prices here are low.
For those who enjoy haggling, an impromptu antiques market springs up most mornings along the pavement of Huangcheng Lu outside Xihu Park, and in the evenings a mostly clothing night market competes with motorcyclists and cars for road space along Kaiyuan Lu.
GUANGZHOU, once known to the Western world as Canton, was for centuries where China met the rest of the world – commercially, militarily and otherwise. Increased competition from elsewhere in China may have diminished Guangzhou’s role as a centre of international commerce, but with the money continuing to roll in from the industrial and manufacturing complexes which cover the surrounding Pearl River Delta, there is little suggestion that the city is a fading power.
For visitors, however, Guangzhou’s attractions are limited and mainly business-oriented, as the biannual Canton Trade Fair attests. The city is vast, untidy and unbelievably crowded, and actual tourist sights are relatively trivial, though a peek at the European colonial enclave of Shamian Island and the fascinating 2000-year-old tomb prove the city’s lengthy and varied cultural heritage. Often the pervading impression is of endless anonymous blocks of chrome and concrete blurring together as you zip over the multiple elevated expressways in a taxi. Yet there’s something about this chaotic caricature of Hong Kong that somehow manages to be enjoyable. 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.
Cantonese cooking is one of China’s four major regional styles and is unmatched in the clarity of its flavours and its appealing presentation. Spoiled by good soil and a year-round growing season, the Cantonese demand absolutely fresh ingredients, kept alive and kicking in cages, tanks or buckets at the front of the restaurant for diners to select themselves. Westerners can be repulsed by this collection of wildlife, and even other Chinese comment that the Cantonese will eat anything with legs that isn’t a piece of furniture, and anything with wings that isn’t an aeroplane. The cooking itself is designed to keep textures distinct and flavours as close to the original as possible, using a minimum amount of mild and complementary seasoning to prevent dishes from being bland.
No full meal is really complete without a simple plate of rich green and bitter choi sam (cai xin in Mandarin), Chinese broccoli, blanched and dressed with oyster sauce. Also famous is fish and seafood, often simply steamed with ginger and spring onions; and nobody cooks fowl better than the Cantonese, always juicy and flavoursome, whether served crisp-skinned and roasted or fragrantly casseroled. Guangzhou’s citizens are also compulsive snackers, and outside canteens you’ll see roast meats, such as whole goose or strips of barbecued pork, waiting to be cut up and served with rice for a light lunch, or burners stacked with sandpots, a one-person dish of steamed rice served in the cooking vessel with vegetables and slices of sweet lap cheung sausage. Cake shops selling heavy Chinese pastries and filled buns are found everywhere across the region – make sure you try roast-pork buns and flaky-skinned mooncakes stuffed with sweet lotus seed paste.
Perhaps it’s this delight in little delicacies that led the tradition of dim sum (dian xin in Mandarin) to blossom in Guangdong, where it’s become an elaborate form of breakfast most popular on Sundays, when entire households pack out restaurants. Also known in Cantonese as yum cha – literally, “drink tea” – dim sum involves little dishes of fried, boiled and steamed snacks being stuffed inside bamboo steamers or displayed on plates, then wheeled around the restaurant on trolleys, which you stop for inspection as they pass your table. On being seated, you’re given a pot of tea, which is constantly topped up, and a card, which is marked for each dish you select and which is later surrendered to the cashier. Try juk (rice porridge), spring rolls, buns, cakes and plates of thinly sliced roast meats, and small servings of restaurant dishes like spare ribs, stuffed capsicum, or squid with black beans. Save most room, however, for the myriad types of little fried and steamed dumplings which are the hallmark of a dim sum meal, such as har gau, juicy minced prawns wrapped in transparent rice-flour skins, and siu mai, a generic name for a host of delicately flavoured, open-topped packets.
The China Import and Export Fair (to give it its official name) is a bi-annual event held in Guangzhou since 1957. It is the largest of its kind in China, with 15,800 stands available at its gargantuan purpose-built halls in Pazhou, southeast of the city. The Spring session runs from April 14 to May 5 while the Autumn session runs from October 15 to November 4, both in three phases for different categories of products. During these times, accommodation prices in the city double or triple, and metro lines and buses to Pazhou become unbelievably busy. For more details see cantonfair.org.cn/enor phone 020 28888999.
Born in 1866, Sun Yatsen grew up during a period when China laboured under the humiliation of colonial occupation, a situation widely blamed on the increasingly feeble Qing court. Having spent three years in Hawaii during the 1880s, Sun studied medicine in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where he became inspired by that other famous Guangdong revolutionary, Hong Xiuquan, and began to involve himself in covert anti-Qing activities. Back in Hawaii in 1894, he abandoned his previous notions of reforming the imperial system and founded the Revive China Society to “Expel the Manchus, restore China to the people and create a federal government”. The following year he incited an uprising in Guangzhou under Lu Haodong, notable for being the first time that the green Nationalist flag, painted with a white, twelve-pointed sun (which still appears on the Taiwanese flag), was flown. But the uprising was quashed, Lu Haodong was captured and executed, and Sun fled overseas.
Orbiting between Hong Kong, Japan, Europe and the US, Sun spent the next fifteen years raising money to fund revolts in southern China, and in 1907 his new Alliance Society announced its famous Three Principles of the People – Nationalism, Democracy and Livelihood. He was in Colorado when the Manchus finally fell in October 1911; on returning to China he was made provisional president of the Republic of China on January 1, 1912, but was forced to resign in February in favour of the powerful warlord Yuan Shikai. Yuan established a Republican Party, while Sun’s supporters rallied to the Nationalist People’s Party – Guomindang – led by Song Jiaoren. Song was assassinated by Yuan’s henchmen following Guomindang successes in the 1913 parliamentary elections, and Sun again fled to Japan. Annulling parliament, Yuan tried to set himself up as emperor, but couldn’t even control military factions within his own party, which plunged the north into civil war on his death in 1916. Sun, meanwhile, returned to his native Guangdong and established an independent Guomindang government. By the time of his death in 1925 he was greatly respected by both the Guomindang and the four-year-old Communist Party for his lifelong efforts to unite the country.
Foshan is renowned as a martial-arts centre, and at the rear of the Zumiao Temple (and included on the same ticket) is a museum dedicated to local master Yip Man (Bruce Lee’s instructor and subject of the hit 2008 biopic Ip Man). The adjacent and more substantial Huang Feihong Memorial Hall is dedicated to the Hung Gar stylist Wong Feihung, who died in 1924 and has since been virtually canonized by the martial arts community, the hero of countless kung fu movies. An excellent reason to visit the hall is the free martial-arts shows, held at 10.30am and 3pm daily.
Second only to the Yangzi in importance as an industrial channel, the oily grey Pearl River (珠江, zhūjiāng) originates in eastern Yunnan province and forms one of China’s busiest waterways, continually active with ferries and barges loaded down with coal and stone. Its name derives from a legend about a monk who lost a glowing pearl in its waters, and although it shone on the riverbed night after night, nobody was ever able to recover it.
Evening cruises depart daily between 7.20pm and 9.20pm from Xidi Wharf (西堤码头, xīdī mătóu), roughly opposite the Customs House on Yanjiang Lu, or 1km east at the more popular Tianzi Wharf (天字码头, tiānzì mǎtóu), which has more luxurious and expensive boats – ticket offices line the waterfront. These cruises last 75–90min and prices start at ¥48, or ¥98 including dinner. You can sit back and watch the lights of the city slip slowly past your table, with fine views of Guangzhou’s busy waterfront, flanked by ever-higher buildings and dominated by coloured lights from the Canton Tower, China’s tallest structure. The route also takes you past the White Swan on Shamian Island, back under Renmin Bridge, past Haizhu Bridge and then down to the grand Guangzhou suspension bridge at the far end of Er Sha Island.