Teahouse and theatre

I reserved a room in a hotel in the Liwan district of Guangzhou after a very shallow look at descriptions of different city districts. We were really lucky with the place we got: a large and comfortable room in the heart of some of the most interesting parts of this old trading town. Every day was a discovery, even when things didn’t pan out.

We decided to have a long tea one day and looked at the list that The Family had extracted. Where on earth was the highly recommended Taotaojiu tea house? A long search on the web, and we pinned it down. We need not have bothered. It has been so famous since it opened in 1880 that we could have just asked the concierge. We walked down Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian road to a building which looked like a very sweet pastry (above and the featured photo). The doors were shut! We peered in, and it did look like a tea house inside. There were notices pasted on the glass. I am familiar with perhaps 30 characters in Chinese, so I had to read the notice through the wonderful camera translation that Goodgle provides. The tea house was closed for renovation, as nearly as I could make out. We had to find another tea house for our Yum Cha

The Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian street (I never found the difference between that and the Di Shi Fu road) is full of beautiful repurposed buildings. The Ping’an theatre, whose facade you see in the photo above, used to be a place to see Cantonese Opera. It is a beautiful building from the late 19th century CE. Today it shows movies and the ground level is given over to shops. We never did get to see a performance of the Canton Opera. That is one of the things we need to do in future.

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Guangzhou from the air

Looking for easy credits in college I came to a course called Photogrammetry. After this I was hooked to aerial photography. Many years later, I walked into an exhibition of photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand in the Luxembourg gardens of Paris called “The Earth from the Sky”. This was a science made into art. With camera drones this has become easy today, when it is allowed. But for an amateur like me, the only way is still to take a window seat on a plane or to climb a high tower.

Coming in to Guangzhou, I looked past The Family, out of the cramped aircraft’s window, and saw a city where land and water mingled together. The first impression was of low houses in the baked-earth colours of southern Spain, but with flat roofs. The feel of Guangzhou on the ground is nothing like sparsely-populated Spain. This is, after all, one of the earth’s most crowded regions. Atmospheric haze is a major problem in tropical air. Even the cleanest of air will have so much water vapour that the saturated colours of Arthus-Bertrand’s photos are not visible to the eye. One can edit one’s photos to get a similar effect, at the cost of the reality of the tropics. Over a city the air is never clean. Although Guangzhou is not the most polluted city in the world, not even among the top 100, there is a definite haze visible from the air.

The views of central Guangzhou come from the top of Canton Tower. We managed to make it to the viewing platform of the tower in the golden hour before sunset. Looking east you can see the many bridges which connect the Huangpu and Panyu districts. We never managed to explore these two regions, although there are many historically important things to see in these parts of Guangzhou. The modern city is enormous, and includes many districts which historically were separate towns. Panyu was one of these. As evening fell we sat in a cafe in the Canton Tower and watched the enormous traffic jam centered on the nearest of these bridges. I was happy that we had elected to travel mostly by the metro. Looking west (featured photo) towards the posh district of Haizhu, taking a photo against the setting sun was a bit of a challenge. Later we would walk through this area, but for now one of things which intrigued me was the long island with the huge park which takes up much of the foreground of the featured photo.

The photo above is of the Tianhe district in the last light of the day. This is the new town, with all the swanky high-rises and the signature buildings by the world’s major architects. They lie in the shadows at the base of the tall towers. Beyond the high towers you can see the hills which are a special feature of Guangdong province. The Chinese word Tianhe translates into Sky River. The same translation works for the word, Akashganga, which describes the Milky Way in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. Akashganga. Tianhe. Which way did the cultural influence run?

Qingping traditional medicine market

I’d heard it said a few times that “In Guangdong they eat anything with four legs except the table”. Even that hadn’t prepared me for the Qingping market. There was the initial shock of the animal trade, but after that was a mysteriously multiplying menu of medicine.

I could identify beans and mushrooms in large varieties, but as I moved on I found dried tendons of deer, sun-dried penis of animals, huge bundles of dried starfish, sea horses and other marine products I could not put a name to. In the last 10 years there have been multiple studies of bacterial contamination of the dried sea food, and the results do say that some caution is called for.

The rows and rows of shops seems to have been here for more years than you can count. Guide books talk of a big clean up after the 2003 SARS outbreak. But the four story building in the middle of this sprawling road, which houses as many shops as the street outside, was completed in 1979. The rental for space here apparently is a percentage of the sales. It seemed to me that most of the shops inside the building concentrate on wholesale, whereas the ones outside are clearly more interested in the retail trade. I found it confusing in detail, but the general ambience was very familiar from markets in India.

Food heaven in Guangzhou

Casting about for one, just one, place to spend a few days in China, we decided on Guangzhou for one simple reason: the food. When you look at lists of Michelin starred restaurants in China, about half of them feature Cantonese food. The food of Guangdong is famous even inside China. Normally I do all the reading about food and restaurants, but this time The Family spent some time looking at descriptions and reviews of restaurants. I left Mumbai with notes on about ten restaurants which we might like to visit.

We found a hotel in the Liwan district of Guangzhou and were surprised to find that several of our top choices were within walking distance. Our first lunch was in the restaurant named after the city, Guangzhou, on the Shangxiajiu pedestrian street. This is a very popular place. A soon as we entered, we were asked whether we wanted lunch or dim sum. We opted for lunch and were given a table on the ground floor. We struggled with the enormous menu, flipping back and forth, until a couple at a neighbouring table offered to help.

The photo above shows the excellent goose that we took on their advise. They spoke excellent English, and turned out to be residents of Hong Kong. They were in Guangzhou for a lunch to celebrate their anniversary. Since the train between Hong Kong and Guangzhou takes only an hour, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. That someone would come from Hong Kong specially to this restaurant for their anniversary was as good a recommendation as you could get.

One of the things I like about Cantonese food is the freshness of the ingredients. The sauces are not heavy, and they allow the meat to speak for itself. I also like the huge variety of vegetables that one can get. We went back to this restaurant again the same night. In the absence of our serendepitious guide, an English speaking waiter came to help us. When we had finished ordering he asked whether we might want some vegetables. Of course. We quickly added a plate of steamed cabbage to the order (photo above).

The dish of the night was the tofu and shrimp dish which you see above. This has entered our personal history, when we sigh sadly about food that we would like to eat, but we cannot, this is the dish that we talk about now. It was a surprise, because this is not a combination that I could have predicted that I would like. Food in Guangzhou restaurant is not the kind you find in a Michelin starred place; it is not heavy on presentation. Whatever we ate seemed like old favourites. They should be, since the restaurant has become somewhat of an institution since it opened its doors in 1935. There are now many branches of this restaurant but this three story place is where it started.

I seriously thought of having every one of my meals in this restaurant, but The Family was quite stern about trying more places on our list. So I had to leave with a few photos of its famous indoor pool. The one you see above was taken from the third floor.

Street Photographers of Shamian

The modern incarnation of Shamian island seems to have been built for street photography. We walked through it in the middle of the week, but the leafy roads were full of people clicking photos. The pair in the featured photo took themselves in various poses with the statue you see, and then sat down to look at the photos carefully.

This pair had found a much more interesting background, I think. Although the front camera is being used, it doesn’t look like the girl is taking a selfie. Perhaps the front camera is being used so that the subject can see herself in the screen and control her image better. What is better than taking a selfie? Have a friend take your selfie for you, clearly.

When people are so absorbed in taking their own photos it is much easier for a tourist to take photos of them. Did I feel like a voyeur? No. There were others equally busy documenting the modern Chinese need to put their photos on Weibo and Wechat. I’m used to my nieces taking each other’s photos for Instagram. They do not notice what I’m doing at such times. Sometimes they post the photo I took of them taking their own photos on Instagram. The meaning of privacy is much more nuanced now.

Whatever social medium is being used, some people are more professional than others. This pair could be creating portfolios: the woman as a model, the man as a photographer. But much more likely they will post it on Wechat. The pair noticed me, but did not care. Their portfolio/profile was much more interesting.

This guy was a serious amateur. If you look at WordPress, Flickr, or Instagram, you’ll see some really outstanding amateur photographers from China. This guy could be, or could become, one of them. I liked the fact that he was photographing a statue of a photographer. It gave me a chance to go another level meta.

And then there are tiger moms. The child did not want to pose any longer, but when mom says you have to do it, you have to. Not a hint of rebellion shows in her face or posture. Hard to believe that between shots she was complaining. This set is definitely going on the family Wechat group.

Animal trade

The Qingping Road market in Guangzhou is a sprawling place, where you can buy many different kinds of things. The trade in animals is only a part of it. But this is the part which disturbed me a lot. It started with fascination. I first noticed goldfish on sale, and thought of the Youngest Niece who’s just begun to care for one in a bowl: feeding and changing water regularly. Then came a section with turtles. These are part of the quartet of powerful creatures of Chinese myth (along with dragons, unicorns and phoenix), and one in a bowl of water outside your shop is part of the Feng Shui beliefs.

I was not surprised by the turtles, but seeing them in large numbers in plastic crates was a little odd. In one corner of a display was the somewhat more disturbing sight of turtles with brightly painted shells. The idea of these as fashion accessories was not endearing. Then came the section of birds. I’m not a fan of caged birds, and read too many reports of illegal trade in wild birds busted in my own town to have much fascination for these shops. But the part of the market which gave me the shivers was the one with dogs and cats. I grew up with dogs running around the house and garden, but I wouldn’t want one now. A flat in a high rise is not the right place for dogs. Seeing them in tiny cages was not pretty.

I shared the featured photo with a niece and her first question was whether these are eaten. Perhaps not. On the other hand, there are rumours that in the alleys here one can find prohibited animals which you might want as pets, and banned trade in animal parts used in traditional medicine. If there is, then those traders are living dangerously. Law enforcement in China can be sudden and heavy.

I found the Qingping Road market fascinating; it preserves old ways of living which you don’t get to see much as a tourist. But I was in sympathy with The Family when she walked quickly past this line of shops.

Encountering Cantonese Opera

I walked past the ornate door which you see in the featured photo and entered the world of Canton Opera. I don’t ever think of looking for shows of Chinese Opera when I’m in China. I’d spent a month in Beijing and the thought never entered my head. Now I was in a museum dedicated to Cantonese opera, and kicking myself for not thinking ahead to check whether there is a show to see. This looked so interesting that The Family asked “Why didn’t you think of getting tickets to a show?” I don’t have a defence. But now that I think back, buying tickets to a show in advance has never worked out. The worst was the time that The Family’s handbag with her passport was stolen before we could get to Vienna for the concert by the Staatsoper for which I had bought tickets.

The Cantonese Opera Museum (粤剧艺术博物馆 Yuèjù yìshù bówùguǎn) is a large complex on Enning Road. For people like us, with no previous exposure to this form, it was an interesting introduction. There were short explanations of the early history of the opera, how it was carried to Guangdong by the Song emperor when he fled the Mongol invasion in the 12th century, and its subsequent flowering. There were explanations in good English. I read about the different kinds of stories, and the history of touring companies. When I got to the props I was really astonished. Wouldn’t you be if you came across a cabinet with the variety of headgear that you see in the photo above?

The clothes they used on stage were equally gorgeous. If I’m not mistaken, the blue robe with the dragon on it is supposed to be used in a style of plays called man. The long white parts of the sleeves are special to this form, and are used to express elegance and refinement. The other set of robes is then used in the style called mou, which is more action oriented.

The false beards and hair, the boots, were placed next to a screen which displayed an actor applying make up. This is a very elaborate process, and can take hours. The elaborate makeup reminded me of Kerala’s kathakali. Later, when I watched a video of an actor on stage, the exaggerated motions again reminded me of kathakali. I wonder whether there is a connection between these forms of dance theatre. There was contact between Kerala and Guangzhou during the Ming era, so it is not impossible that there was a bit of cultural exchange.

These costumes look so colourful that I’m sure we would have enjoyed a show. Cantonese opera is supposed to be full of song and exaggerated movements. We watched some of the videos in the museum and resolved that the next time we are in southern China we will try to get tickets to the opera. After all, they have an unbroken tradition stretching over eight centuries. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy seeing the false beards and wonderful hats that the characters will wear.

We had not expected anything like this when we arrived, and left feeling happy with all the new things we had seen. And that includes the beautiful glass paneled door which you can see in the photo here.

On the road

Small roads in China are always interesting. In Guangzhou we walked down Qingping Road looking at all the interesting things which go on. I was really excited by this simple modification to a bicycle which made it useful for deliveries. In the grainy black and white photos that came out of China during the cultural revolution, everyone seemed to ride bicycles. They are not so common on the road any longer in Beijing and Shanghai, but in Guangzhou they were still in use.

Typically, improvised goods carriers in India tend to fill up narrow roads, so I was quite impressed by the very delicately judged width of the platform. It was just a little wider than the person riding the bike would be. It would allow a lot of stuff to be carried without inconveniencing others. I think the constant policing of streets does produce an exo-conscience in the Chinese. When I saw the crowd behind the bike in the photo you see above, I had to join them.

A very animated game was in progress. There was a lot of discussion between players and kibitzers. There was a while, when I was a student, when I tried out board games from across the world. This board looked like Xiangqi, but the pieces did not match the vague memory I had of them. Perhaps I’d seen some pieces with traditional Chinese characters, or perhaps the characters are different in Guangdong province, or, and this was very likely, I’d forgotten the characters altogether.

I walked on feeling happy. I like these impromptu gatherings on the street. They go very well with my notion of a holiday without hard plans.

The discreet charm of Shamian Island

We walked down Qingping Road and came to the wide and very busy inner ring road. Past the sea of cars, straight ahead would be Shamian Island. An elevated pedestrian walkway seemed to lead straight into an equally busy flyover. Putting all our trust in the hands of town planners, we crossed the road, and found that the walkway dipped under the traffic flyover, and led straight on to the charming bridge over the narrow canal which you see in the featured photo. That is Shamian Island for you: walk blindly into the teeming brashness of modern China, and suddenly through a sideways opening in the world, you can step into an unhurried and charming little world.

Charming public art is scattered around this island. I haven’t seen Cantonese boys and girls with this kind of hair. So I guess this piece harks back to the strange history of the island. The maritime silk route led to Guangzhou two thousand years back, but this island entered history only in 1685 CE, after about a hundred acrimonious and bloody years of trade with the west, when the Qing emperor allowed British merchants to settle in this mud flat on the Zhujiang. The subsequent opium trade that the British started out of this base led to the first of the Opium Wars in 1839. This was the beginning of an upheaval in Chinese politics which lasted for a hundred and fifty years, led to the Cantonese diaspora, the destruction of imperial China, and the rise of a modern nation. Now, as these statues show, the view of those early years of contact with the west has taken on a somewhat rosy hue.

Shamian Island was once the exclusive preserve of the British and French. This is apparent the moment you walk across that lovely bridge. The buildings have been renovated with care, and now house government offices, museums, art businesses, and many restaurants and cafes. Much of the renovation of this district, and its conversion into a leisure area, dates from about a decade back. I don’t think the ornate door which you see in the photo above has much of history, but the building does.

The shaded leafy roads of the island, and the massive buildings, are typical of British and French areas throughout Asia. I can recognize them as coming from the same school which churned out the buildings of Bombay, Calcutta, and Rangoon. As a result, this part of historical Canton attracts many visitors from the rest of Guangzhou. A small bridge at the western end of the island permits quick access from a nearby metro station. I suppose the evening we spent in the island is more or less typical. It was full of families and young people enjoying a stroll.

We’d got up before four in the morning to take an early flight into Guangzhou. Airports in China are well outside cities, even in smaller ones, so travel between the city and the airport can take significantly longer than the flight itself. Now in the evening, we were too tired to do anything but stroll down the broad leafy avenue that you see in the photo above. We found a cafe and sat there for a while, we watched people, eventually we walked down to the waterfront for a beer and watched the light fade from the sky, as the city lights came up.

When we walked back across the island it had changed character. Parks and streets were lit up, and buildings were in shadows. A different set of people were here for dinner. The families and children were gone, young people were out for an evening of fun: couples and groups of friends. This gave us a good opportunity to check which were the most popular restaurants. After all, when you are in a foreign country, this is one of the easiest ways to find the best local food.

Diwali by the Pearl River

It was Diwali night, and cities in China were all going to be lit up. Of course, they are lit up on all nights, but that is a minor incidental detail.

We sat down in a relaxed restaurant on a promenade next to the Zhujiang river. Lanterns hung from trees, and dim LED lamps on the tables cycled through the spectrum. I thought it looked enchanting, and The Family agreed that this was a nice place to enjoy a Diwali sundowner. We sat down for a Tsingtao. The Family asked “Is it only in India that you get some nibbles when you order drinks?” Spain was another place that came to mind. It is not the custom in Guangzhou. We ordered a basket of squid to go with the beer. It took a while to come, so we ordered a beer to go with the squid. Diwali is a time to be happy, to let go of little concerns.

As it got darker, the number of cruise boats on the river increased. This made the place look even more enchanting. Lights came on simultaneously in the buildings across the river. The high-rises seemed to be mainly dark, except for the bright synchronized LEDs playing through the exterior. I don’t know whether the video that you see above gives you the sense of calm and unhurried charm that enveloped us. There were no firecrackers, and we were far away from friends and family, but it was an enchanting evening. The mellow winter of Guangzhou suited us to a tee (now I know what that means!). We walked back content with our first day in Guangzhou.