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.