On Shamian Island, a pretty park-like part of Guangzhou with architecture left over from its time as the foreign consulate quarter, song spilled from under a concrete bridge. The community choir sang at full volume, conducted by a woman stabbing at words inked in that poetic Chinese way on paper scrolls. With her other arm she kept the tempo steady. An elderly woman, with a sleeping baby tied in a blanket to her back, had tears on her face. The songs, we were told, were in praise of Mao. 

Another day, we walked through gardens to the Five Ram monument, where the city’s foundation story is illustrated in bronze – and, again, music. This time it was old soldiers, standing tall and singing strong before red and gold flags that waved lazily against the blue sky. We talked in halting English to a man with a portable PA slung over his shoulder; this was a regular reunion, he said, of men who fought together in Vietnam.

Guangzhou was generous with remarkable moments. I confess I did not expect such blue skies, such lush spills of bouganvillea, or the serenity found on Shamian Island. Scenes of local people playing badminton and Hacky Sack, slowdancing and practising t'ai chi surprised and delighted me. I imagined an extremely busy, high-energy, high-rise city – and it was all that – but Guangzhou also has quiet beauty and human-scale experiences. The mix of tight streets and open spaces was comfortable, somehow, and the watery ribbons of the delta softened the city.
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In Liwan Lake Park, we found tropical gardens, graceful buildings and airy pavilions. Families huddled and played up for photographs, took small boats onto the lake, leant over quaint arched bridges to watch carp. We lunched extravagantly at the Panxi Restaurant, famous for dim sum.Our table groaned under the weight of shrimp wontons, congee, egg tarts, turnip cake, water-chestnut cake. Intricately-made mouthfuls in the shape of animals appeared: little pigs with mushroom filling, hedgehog wontons filled with sweet pumpkin, cartoon-like chickens stuffed with bean curd.

Outside the park, Liwan – also known as Litchi Bay for its lychee trees – is a maze of streets with antique shops and a traditional Chinese medicine market. No one seemed to mind our slack-jawed fascination with baskets overflowing with dried seahorses, snake skins, beetles, unidentified fishy things and pearls. The woman selling live scorpions did mind, though. We lowered our cameras.

In the pet market, kittens, pups, turtles, mice and fish waited for homes. On Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street, pretty much everything else was for sale – clothes, leather, electronics, watches, food. 

To get away from the shopping crowds, we went to Guangdong Folk Art museum, housed in what was built in 1894 as the Chen family compound. Traditional halls and temple buildings with intricate carvings, linked by courtyards, provided insight into a long-ago era – as did the cultural relics, ceramics, embroidery and ivory carvings displayed there.
We experienced more utterly intriguing culture at the Western Han Nanyue King Tomb museum. An emperor was buried here 2000 years ago, hidden 20 metres below ground with food, banquet equipment and musical instruments – plus several cooks, soldiers and concubines. The tomb itself is preserved and can be entered. The recovered treasures – around 1000 of them, including tools, jewellery, vessels and seals of the emperor – are exhibited on site. 

One evening we went to bright Yanjiang Middle Road for a meal at the Hongxing Yidu Seafood Restaurant. On street level, in a wet market, the poor sea creatures glistened and shivered under a million lights. People called and bartered and moved in tidal flows; the street buzzed and hummed with amiable tension. We headed for Tianzi Wharf to catch a river cruise. Along the river path, hawkers sat before their line-up of wares for sale. A boy of maybe 12, smoking a cigarette with a defiant look in his eye, flicked a card into my companion’s pocket. It was promoting something a bit sordid, he told me, and slid it out of view.

The boat took us up the Pearl River, past LED-lit high-rise buildings, under bridges throbbing with colour, past the impressive Canton Tower, with its swirls of neon reaching up into the dark sky. Multiple multi-coloured lights danced on the river surface.

The busy river city never sleeps. Importing, exporting, welcoming, farewelling – just as it has done for centuries.

Getting there

New Zealanders flying on China Southern Airline’s Canton Route to the world can now stop in Guangzhou for 72 hours, visa free. The airline has 10 flights per week from Auckland to Guangzhou on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. For more information, visit China Southern Airline's website.

Where to stay

Shangri-La Hotel, adjacent to Guangzhou’s International Convention Centre, is an oasis with lush landscaping, pool and spa facilities, top restaurants and luxurious suites with views of the river and the city. See the Shangr-La Hotels website for more information.

Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue

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