Guangzhou’s new town

We got off the metro at the Zhujiang New Town station and emerged blinking into this showpiece set inside the Tianhe district of Guangzhou. That elegantly curved shell of a building (featured photo) must be the Government Affairs Service Center. The gold building behind it was not a Trump Tower but something called the Nanyue Mansion. Behind that you can see the building which has the Agricultural Bank of China. We gawked, clicked a few photos and crossed the road to stare at a small plaza full of the whimsical public art of China.

It was lunch time, and I’d located a branch of a famous eatery in a building down here. This is the new central business district of Guangzhou. Banks and other financial institutions, government buildings and technology companies occupy the high rises in this new town. We’d first thought of finding a hotel here, before we realized that the Liwan district would be more fun.

The tower that you see above is not one of the tallest, but I found the shape very attractive. I wouldn’t mind an office in one of the flat diamond shapes cut out of the corners. I’m sure the view would be excellent. The tower stands right behind the opera house, and faces out towards the Guangzhou library and the Guangdong museum (below). These buildings together define the heart of the cultural center of the new town. Between them runs a garden (Flower City) which crosses several blocks in its north-south alignment. Below this garden lies the Automated People Mover (APM) rapid transit system. The APM connects the Canton Tower in the south to the Linhe West station in the north. Although the area was designed first in the late 1980s, businesses began moving in only when the APM was completed.

The Guangdong Museum was designed by the firm called Rocco Design Architects, who won an international competition for the design based on a puzzle called the ivory ball carving. To the north of this is the equally impressive Guangzhou public library, which I have written about earlier.

In comparison to these, Zaha Hadid’s design of the opera house looks dull at first sight. TheIFC building which looms behind it catches the eye instead. However, when we walked in, the usual touches of Zaha Hadid’s designs became obvious in the fractured perspectives of the interior. Each view is interesting, and the design creates lots of visual barriers which restrict the view, converting the space into many little nooks which each give an intimate feeling.

There was no show running. This seems to be a bit of a problem. International companies do not come here often enough, and the Cantonese Opera shows never seem to run here. Is there a little bit of a pricing issue at work? We couldn’t figure that out. The Family asked about tours of the interior and found that they are given in the mornings. We would have to come back another day. Our good intentions were not strong enough; we never came back for a tour. We took the APM and went on to see the Canton Tower.

Eight and a half (million books)

The new design for Guangzhou is a wide central axis down the length of what is called the Zhujiang New Town, pointed right at the Canton Tower on the other bank of the Zhujiang (Pearl river). Walking around this area, I kept noticing an interesting building off to the east of this north-south axis. I hadn’t marked this down for a visit, but The Family said “Let’s go and look”. So off we went.

Large friendly letters across the top of the entrance said “Guangzhou Public Library”. We hadn’t seen a library building so large. We went in, knowing fully well that we would not be able to read most of the books that they have here. But we are book lovers, the sight of books releases oxytocin in our brains. In any case, entrance was free and easy. I had to put my backpack through an x-ray machine. No further questions; not even a remark about the water bottle in my bag. Before us was a huge atrium, all the way up to the eighth floor. The Family picked up a little pamphlet in English which told us, among other things, that the library held eight and a half million books. This was clearly our heaven, if only we could read Chinese.

On one side of the atrium the ground floor was taken up by the reading area for visually challenged persons. We could see people at computers, and stacks of books. I found later that Chinese braille has two standards. The more modern one is semi-syllabic, and similar to the standard Pinyin transcription of Chinese writing into Roman characters. The glass roof above the atrium lets in a lot of light. In the photo of the atrium you can see the sunlit interior. We took the escalator from across the atrium and reached a landing which led into the children’s section. This was enormous, running the whole length of the building.

We were more interested in the regular library, and that seemed to be on the other side of the atrium. There didn’t seem to be an obvious way to cross at this level. So went down, crossed the atrium again, and took the other escalator up. The first landing was of international newspapers and magazines. The desks were quite crowded (as you can see in the photo above). Many were clearly reading material borrowed from the stacks, but several young students also seemed to use the library as a place to work in. Most people had settled in for a read, as you could see by the flasks full of tea which they had carefully placed on their sides.

Half of the width of the hall was taken up by stacks. The library has open stacks, and is supposed to be the largest open stack library in the world. I peered in and walked along the stacks for a while. Eventually I came out of my daze and began to look for Indian newspapers. I didn’t see them, but I didn’t look very systematically. On the other hand I could see several languages which I could read (not that I understand all of them).

We went up one level where the books started. The library is open from 9 in the morning to 9 in the night. I found later that the library started in 1927, during the early years of the republic. Since then it has closed only during the Japanese occupation from 1938 to 1945. The building we were in was completed in 2013, and the architects were the Japanese firm of Nikken Sekkei, I’m surprised it is not in every guide book as a must see. The curved external walls resemble books stacked up above each other, and the two towers (north and south) together with the glass fronted atrium between are meant to resemble the shape of the character 之 (pronounced zhi, probably meaning “to become”, in this context).

The relatively small windows, and the rooftop garden are meant to insulate the building and reduce the amount of energy required in air conditioning. The orientation of the building also minimizes direct sunlight, so that it does not get too hot inside. The two us wandered through the stacks, touching the books, wishing we knew enough Chinese to read them. Eventually we took the escalator down and walked out the building slowly. What a wonderful place this was. Don’t miss it if you are in Guangzhou.

Cantonese but different

The name Lei Garden stuck in my head when I looked through the Michelin starred restaurants in Guangzhou. Then while I was looking for a place for lunch in the Tianhe district, it clicked in my head. Since this wasn’t the branch which was awarded a Michelin star, we could hope to get a walk-in table. I didn’t know then that this was the first branch of this Hong Kong chain which opened in Mainland China, as long back as 1995. In order to maximize the chance of getting a table, we walked in for lunch quite late, and found a table with ease.

As part of my preparation for eating in Guangzhou I’d made a list of the different kinds of dim sum, written in the Chinese script, and I’d practiced saying these words over and over again. As always, life is simpler than you think it will be. This was a business district after all, so our friendly waiter, Albert, spoke impeccable English. We’d already had several meals in Guangzhou without ordering any dim sum.

With help from Albert we chose three different kinds of dim sum with different fillings. The featured photo shows my favourite, a rice wrapping around shrimp, then there was the lovely steamed pork which you see in the photo above, and the chicken dumplings next to it. When I looked for tofu, Albert suggested the fried tofu balls with a shrimp sauce which you see in one of the photos above. Finally we rounded it all off with the sweet nutty pastry which you can admire in the photos just below.

The signature of the Guangdong kitchen is in the freshness of the ingredients, and the quick cooking which serves to release the flavour. Lei Garden carries this philosophy further, with an emphasis on organic growth. Although it is a chain, five of the restaurants have earned Michelin stars. The food was wonderful. I hadn’t had great expectations of the tofu, but it was surprisingly good. The Family remembers it as her favourite. Mine was the shrimp dumpling which you see in the featured photos. Over the next few days we regretted not being able to go back for a repeat of the experience. The food was clearly more modern and lighter than everything I’d eaten since reaching Guangzhou, while being definitely of the style I was beginning to recognize as belonging to Guangdong. Fortunately, there are branches in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore, so we should be able to taste this great food if we take a short eastward detour.

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?