Tag Archives: Guangzhou

The Dragon’s Turn

Following the previous post on the articles in the Telegraph which featured great photographs by Alec Soth, here are parts 3 and 4

Part four is timely, concentrating on the Olympics and all that they have brought and will bring to all of China, not just Beijing. We were given August 8th day off and I’m surprised it’s not a national holiday. I am sure that it will be a day of insanity and nationalism, and insane nationalism, but I want to join in at my peril. The government will probably have a massive screen set up in Tian He park, which is close to both work and my house. The Olympic Torch procession here brought in god knows how many tens of thousands to the area, and I imagine it will be much the same next week.

No matter what people say or wish to decry it, politics has been part of the Olympics for many years, but it is certainly on the forefront this year. It marks a turning point. It doesn’t matter if China wins the most medals this time (though it is likely); the fact is that the US will probably get fewer, a decline that will be extended to its economic and political might.

I’m not sure if this is true, but looking around me and looking again at Part 3 and Soth’s photos of the concrete towers and swirling overpasses, it’s hard not to believe it.


21st Century Place

Veleur 08/07/20

Paris is a nineteenth-century city, New York a twentieth-century city, Hong Kong a twenty-first-century city.

Picture the movie models of future cities imagined since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: they are canyons fringed by towers, blocks, and spires. In Bladerunner, the massive industrial places are dank complexes, forever dark and brooding, hemmed in by man-made cliffs. In The Fifth Element, the city is buzzed by traffic, the ground choked in smog and detritus where no one lives. These are three-dimensional places, where people live up as well as out. Likewise the gleaming and clean places of Minority Report and I, Robot.

Paris is street level. From the Pompidou you can see for kilometres, and it’s only five stories high. New York has its famous skyscrapers, but beyond the few buildings, all the action is on the street. These cities spread.

Hong Kong and newer Asian metropolises like Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou climb, embracing the idea of the future city with fervour. The Chinese cities don’t need to: there is plenty of space, but they do.

Flat land gives way to erupted blocks. High density older dwellings like the hutongs give way for neutron dense housing blocks, fitting a small North American town’s worth of people into a footprint the size of a small mall’s parking lot. Massive overpasses fly through the buildings nestled right next to them.

Look up in the new city; it lives over your head.

I am not sure how I feel about all of this. I loved Paris. Human scale (though the Louvre is on a grand scale). Liveable. Central Hong Kong is a place to visit, a wonder of bustle and money, but I was glad to live on Cheung Chau, on a corner only remotely tethered to the financial fjords of Hong Kong. Manhattan was a compromise. Guangzhou encompasses all three centuries, reaches back past the 19th and forward in the 21st. It is a place in transition, which is why it so entrances and frustrates me.

I Can See Clearly Now

I needed new glasses. My last pair, a year old, were looking ratty, with the plastic veneer peeling off over the nose. Back in Canada this would have been a major production: tests, many stores to visit to find a pair, waiting, then paying a lot. But I am in Guangzhou, where they have streets for everything. So I headed to Ren Min Lu, just south of the Children’s Hospital, for eyeglasses street.

I rode down after the gym and headed in to the building I go which has two stories of tiny stores. I didn’t venture far, finding some cool stuff at yingxu optical, where, fortunately, Lina, one of the clerks, spoke great English. The store is a closet, but a nicely designed walk-in closet, where their thousand or so frames are all neatly and nicely arrayed. They had these super cool faux-wood frames, which were why I stopped, but they were only wide enough for rodents, not for pumpkin headed people like me.

But I found a great pair of aluminium frames that swoop to match my eyebrows, and got a pair of nice plastic frames for sunglasses. I blew my budget though, doubling it to RMB 850, but the frames are better quality than the last ones. And it’s still below half of what I would spend in Canada. Lina told me that I would have to wait a while, but could I come back at 3pm? It was 1pm. I had my camera, and there’s plenty of stuff to see, so I said sure. She called in about ten minutes to say it would be five, but still, two pairs of glasses in four hours? I am not complaining.

So I got on my bike and rode away. Between then and picking up my glasses—which were ready bang on time—I saw the usual variety of usually unusual things you see in Guangzhou, including a group of people swimming in the Pearl.

piling it on

biking man

Diving in the Pearl

swimming in the pearl

swimming in the pearl


After getting my spanky new frames another of the usual variety of things: sudden thunderstorms and pelting rain; people running; people waiting; people scrunching up under umbrellas; clear skies; workers resting on rubble in front of buildings adorned with glorious socialist realist friezes.

>running in the rain

worker and rubble

death of socialist realism

Another great day in the Lair.

Mapping Progress

I was mapping out my latest photo adventure in Guangzhou, described on my other blog, veleur. I had posted more photos on my Flickr site and was trying to find the locations on Yahoo’s satellite map.
Yahoo’s photos are old. They even have a dusty tone to them, like photos left in an attic for decades. The enormous trade fair buildings are merely foundations, etched out like a body. One of the bridges I went over isn’t on the map. It’s interesting to see the massive changes, and I wondered how long ago the images were taken.

I checked out Google’s maps. Google’s satellite photos are clearer and probably only a year or so old. They have that sheen of newness, of drying ink. The new bridge is partially there, as is the base of the new CCTV tower. It also shows just how much of Guangzhou remains farmland and jungle. It’s one of the great things of this city. Modern developments built around a jungle in the middle, ever threatening. Nice linear roads are matched with twisting paths in the centre. The wilds are great places to go. It’s easy to forget that when you live and work hundred of feet up and you can’t see the trees for the forest of concrete.

That’s an indication of just how quickly things grow here. An article in Vanity Fair just pointed out, that in the time since the Twin Towers memorial site was announced, nothing has really happened. But in Beijing, the Olympic buildings, Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV ‘pants’ building are either complete or nearly there. Same in Shanghai. And here, in the Lair, we have the new opera house, an art museum, and a few towers in Guangzhou, that have been built or are nearly finished.

Comparing the maps is one way to see the rapidity of change. Bridges and buildings appear. Neighbourhoods and land disappear. But mapping out the photos shows changes just on the Google Map. On one, from the June 21 ride, I ended up at a large open field of rubble. A guy was filling a bucket from some water pipe which poked up through the debris. A typical Chinese gate arched over a road through another zone of remnants. Looking at this on the Google satellite picture, I can see the gate, but the fields are still traditional Chinese high-density housing: ramshackle buildings packed cheek-by-jowl.

I am annoyed by Google for one small thing, though. The street map (in Chinese) and the satellite map don’t register correctly. I like to map out my routes on the satellite map, but when I switch to the street map, it seems like I rode though buildings or over the surface of water. Nice, but I am neither ghost nor messiah, even if I do preach the bliss of biking.

Here’s the yahoo map

And the Google one

With the Google map, switch between the map and the satellite to see the registration problem.

The Wild Wild East

It’s natural to assume that since China is a dictatorship with some harsh restrictions and lack of rights, that the people would be meek and law abiding, kowtowing before authority. This is wrong. Certainly serious crime is punished, but it’s pretty much lawless out on the streets. I have seen police ignore pretty much every driving infraction there is. I have seen police been ignored. Compared to HK, the police are ineffectual for the most part. Lawlessness has become part of the culture.

What brought this on is that when Richard and I were returning from lunch, there was a scuffle on th e road. Some motorist was kicking at a parking officer who, I guess, was trying to put a ticket on the car. I wasn’t quite quick enough with my camera, but the event dragged on as various people got involved and a crowd formed.

The driver, who was yelling and pulling and people and not liking me taking pictures one bit.

A drunken guy holding a foaming bottle of Miller was stumbling about. Turns out he was the driver’s father. He was harmless and bumbling. The clown in this circus.

Some pudgy woman in pink was yelling. The mother.

A woman who pulled 100 yuan out to bribe the officer. The wife. (the officer didn’t take it)

Some guy who proceeded to kick at the car (who knows?)

The driver drove away eventually; his car a few dings worse for wear. Everyone went about his way. No police arrived, and who knows what’s going to happen.

That said, I still feel physically safe here, and have never felt threatened. I may get cheated by cabbies, but it’s one or two yuan and not worth a fifteen minute argument.

I am still working out how it all hangs together, because I don’t know. But it works in its own fashion.

Dictionary from the Lair

This is not a Chinglish dictionary, but a wiki from observations of GZ life.

From the road.

Critical Mass
When the number of pedestrians reaches the point that the group is imbued with a sense of power and a false sense of invulnerability that it will cross the road under any circumstances, firm in the belief that drivers will halt because they don’t want to damage their cars, not because they don’t mind killing a few people.

The right to go whatever way whenever a driver wishes, particularly if the person has those a white, military plate, which is the equivalent of a pill of unlimited power in a video game. This is appropriate since they drive with all the decency and sense of entitlement as someone playing GTA.

Road Rage
What I get when watching traffic here but no one else seems to have.

Shoulder Check

What a driver needs when the car just ahead on the left will suddenly veer right to get to that fast approaching off-ramp which had been mentioned two hundred metres ago on a sign which you passed just before the same car, which had been on your right and behind you, decided to switch lanes to pass you. No one needs this except to avoid everyone else who doesn’t have this. What?

Rock, Paper, Scissors
Big beats small. Expensive beats big. Bus beats expensive. New bus beats old bus. Old lady on a tricycle with 3oo pounds of cardboard and her nearly dead husband riding on top to hold the ropes beat new bus.

Rules of the Road
I have a car. You don’t. I rule.

Froggie Went a Courtin’

I should have known.

Going to a restaurant called “The Frog Prince”, I should have known what to expect. Frog.

Lots and lots of frog.

The restaurant also had crab, but my friend couldn’t eat shellfish and had her heart set on fried and boiled soft-skinned amphibians.

I had recently eaten frog and a plate of some kind of skin, and this girded me for the arrival of the big bowl. Unfortunately the frogs came as do many kinds of meat here if it’s from small enough animals – whole. Get a chicken and it comes on a plate, sliced and spread out as if sunning itself, head, ass and all. I think it’s so you know it’s a chicken and not, say, processed crud. The frogs, likewise.

Markets in Taipei had prepared me, filled as they were with buckets of immense frogs, bigger than I had ever seen – bodies larger than the span of my hand. Remembering this did not, as might happen when thinking of a big, juicy steak, make my mouth water. I probably wouldn’t do so if I thought of the cow and not the product either. That’s the thing about the small critters: you can’t escape the food source: it’s not some piece of meat distant and removed; it’s a whole creature, warts and all.

Thankfully, they weren’t the big belchers, just medium sized things, skinned but otherwise seemingly whole. Eating was not a delicate matter. You lifted one up to your mouth, ass end first, yanked a leg off, sucked the meat off, and spat the bone out. They are pretty damn meaty and had legs the biggest steroid guzzling bodybuilders would be proud of. The front end was slightly different, having their useless T-Rex arms. But there was some kind of fried up pocket tucked up to where the missing head was. I don’t know what it was, and it’s best not to know when it tastes good.

I managed to strip quite a few little hoppers and they were quite mild – no, not like chicken. The broth was not; it was oily and spicy and nicely greased up my innards for the next few days. But good. Which is much more than I can say about the personnel. Service is not a strong suit with Chinese restaurants – except for Dong Bei Ren, which has staff that actually smile – but this was a new level.

The service reminded of the faerie tale nature of the title in that the woman behind the counter was the rudest and loudest restaurateur I have ever encountered, reminding me of the wicked stepmother from every Cinderella-like story. She was very toad-like, and perhaps ran the restaurant as some kind of vengeance against her more environmentally flexible brethren. Squat, with a jutting jaw and, I swear, huge warts, she had only one mode and that was shouting.

One couple came in and, I gather, ordered crab. A guy came up to their table a few minutes later holding a writhing crab. The waiter (?) showed the crab off, twisting it about, but the couple wasn’t happy. In most places, this is simple: get a different crab. But the waiter disputed the customer’s assessment or something. The volume quickly elevated and toad lady, hearing a commotion, joined in, easily out-bellowing all concerned – I swear I saw the wattles on her neck inflate. The couple left, the man saying something about toad ladies attitude.

That was the first time I had ever seen anyone leave a Chinese restaurant because of bad service. I thought it impossible. Indifference and rudeness are modes of being, so I have to imagine that toad lady started going on about the customer’s mother, ancestors, and sexual proclivities.

She had no off switch, no smarmy side of oozing charm, no telephone voice, no pleasantness. She was a boil on the arse of the world; one that continually sprayed puss over all. I wished that tipping was expected, because I think voting with cash is all the woman would understand; though I imagine she has such a blubber of bitterness built up that everything is the fault of others.

I think she runs on the blindness assumption: that when one thing goes, the other things magnify themselves to compensate, so she can be as rude as she is because people will therefore think the food must be fantastic, otherwise there’s no way the restaurant could remain open. Trouble is, the customers do too, and the Frog Prince or Prince of Frogs falls into that horrible little cauldron of restaurants in Asia, the famous ones, for which fame is the be all and end all. The Paris Hiltons of the food world. No one knows why they are famous but it’s a self-feeding and eating existence, like an animal which can exist by eating its own shit.

Everybody can be wrong, and the fame can be unwarranted anymore. Though, I guess, the Frog Prince could be entertaining as dinner theatre or some kind of performance piece.