13 10 2015

Grey weekend in the Goat City

13 10 2015

The night

13 10 2015



13 10 2015

This weekend I went back to China, the second trip there in a month. A friend was transitting through Guangzhou for the night, so I hopped on the train for the two-hour trip to China’s Southern metropolis. Its a city of oddly orderly skyscrapers in Tianhe, a forest of angular glass towers like a Chinese Atlanta, smooth monotonous subway rides and the swagger and hustle of Xiaobei’s “Chocolate City.” It was my third time in the city but I felt that I had yet to get a handle on it. And as it turns out, I left feeling little the wiser.

I missed a few things that I had wanted to do this time:  I didn’t get to see the Guangzhou Circle (ie Guangzhou Plastics Exchange) despite a special trip to the cavernous and intimidating Southern Train Station, from where I had heard it was visible (but no such luck)

And I didn’t go to the PAPA gay party, which has sadly ceased operations.

But I did spend the night in my favourite little street in Xiaobei, eating delicious Central Asian flat bread and juicy lamb at a Uighur restaurant, with the transglobal nomads passing through the city, drawn by China’s bright lights and cheap textiles. I stayed down the road in a hotel for African import-exporters, next to a street of shops selling lighting fixtures to Angolans and “advertising machines” (I think they were laminators) to Nigerians.  I saw women carrying boxes on their heads and heard the muezzins call and waited by the hotel lobby clocks showing the time in Brazzaville, Bamako, Beijing. Walking at night I got offered ice, hookers, a dialysis machine. I spotted a hip hop club called Fifty Cent staffed by men in Sikh turbans, and bought melons for breakfast at a twenty four hour Arab grocery and pretty good coffee in an all-black coffee shop. I battled with the perpetually pissed off hotel staff, dealing with perpetually pushy traders.

I also discovered a whole new nearby area of shiny malls, Starbucks flat whites (not bad) and a gay bar serving complicated cocktails – slowly – to a terrace weirdly full of women.

One (chilly) night and two half-days in Guangzhou.

Amazing 3-D art

13 10 2015

Qi Xinghua’s previous installation at Guangzhou’s Baiyun Wanda Plaza.


13 10 2015

Xiaozhou – to go or not to go

13 10 2015

Whereas Xiaobei was an old favourite of mine, Xiaozhou was a new discovery. About fifty minutes into the suburbs, it consists of a web of streets and old houses around some canals, and was said to have been adopted as something of an artist colony. I had read about the urban village online and was intrigued by the huge fluctuations in how it was perceived – some people called it “off the beaten track” and made it sound utterly undiscovered while others decried it as “commercialised”. The wikitravel entry was so starkly dichotomous that I reproduce it here in full:

Xiaozhou Village (小洲村): The village is a short taxi ride from University City. Some travelers describe this district as full of historical buildings, fruit orchards and canals and relate that, in recent years, this has become artists’ haven. Others report that recent development has obliterated all traces of the village and that the district is a typical industrial suburb adjoining a huge field used as an outdoor latrine.

Charming village or industrial latrine? Hidden gem or tourist trap? Ruined or improved? There was only way to find out.

The village was easily accessible by bus (the 252 or the 45) from downtown and I got dropped me off – early on a rainy Sunday morning – at a very local street market, where a woman sold turtles from a tub and slit chickens’ throats to order. So far, so good. Just beyond this, lay the village itself . Old stone buildings sat slumbering by sludgy grey canals under dripping trees, interspersed with newer tiled apartment blocks. The shops were shut but through their windows I could see signs advertising free wifi and cutesy dessert menus – definitely aimed at the tourist trade – but the only people around at this moment looked staunchly local, a man cooking up tofu fa on his riverboat, an old woman, shopkeepers selling boiled eggs and oranges in bags. Colourful street art covered many of the village’s grey brick walls.

As I wandered around through narrow, maze-like streets – the village is quite big – I saw signposts in English, clean public toilets and some evidence of the recent construction – footpaths and gateways constructed newly but in old style. It was, I thought, quite well-done.

The main attraction, the “oyster houses” which were traditionally coated in oyster shells for insulation, were only mildly diverting, but the atmosphere as a whole was a pleasant one and there was a surprising amount to see – several old clan houses, a vibrantly-coloured old barber shop, lots of little stores along winding, narrow lanes.

My take on Xiaozhou then was a sympathetic one – I enjoyed my hour or so of poking around there. Its no undiscovered gem, but at least when I was there, it wasn’t overly touristed either. And the guy who called it an industrial suburb next to a latrine was definitely in the wrong place.