Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design

8Sep/105

I’m a Hollywood star!

up in the air 1

Foreigners living in China can easily land one-day gigs acting for commercials and other productions.  Earlier this year, I put on an ill fitting tuxedo, was made-up, and "welcomed" people to an expensive high rise apartment at their extravagant opening day party.  For this, I was paid the average factory worker's monthly wage.  Knowing that makes me feel guilty, but not guilty enough to reject the money.  Actually it's not much money if I exchange it to dollars. And that is the normal rate for doing that kind of work, as dictated by scarcity of supply and strength of demand.

Last month, I spent a morning along the sea wall in Zhuhai pretending to be a foreign good-Samaritan who helps a stricken fisherman, while all the Chinese bystanders stand around him doing nothing.  I walked up and knelt down to place an unknown medical device on his chest.  Then he sat up and vigorously thanked me, and I said "you're welcome" in Chinese.  A German guy was hired to wear a white lab coat and hold the device while speaking medical jargon into the camera.  The device seemed to be just a little plastic disk with a blinking red light and a switch.

people playing bystanders surround a man playing a fisherman in Zhuhai

The whole concept was curious.   Why do the "white" guys get to save the day and play doctor in the Chinese commercial?  Neither of us are health care professionals, or even real actors. My impression is that the people who produce these commercials assume that using foreigners provides them some amount of credibility and "prestige". I later felt some regret that some people may interpret my appearance as an endorsement, as if my relatively pale skin color represents knowledge and experience.   Perhaps the device is real and useful.  But, I suspect my appearance was being used to deceive people.

You can see that doing commercials in China makes me a bit guilty.  But I've just got news that I'm an actual Hollywood star!  No more China commercials for me, I've hit the big time.

There is George Clooney from the 2009 film "Up in the Air" (Chinese names: 在云端,型男飛行日誌 ).  Where am I?  In the carpet!

In my last job as an architect back in the states, I was responsible for design when that same apartment building was renovated a few years ago.  I chose that rich orange color for the carpet and doors, among other things.  What do you think of the colors?

Now, if I can just figure out a way to build my new career on this...

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28Jul/101

3 provinces in 3 hours: the CRH

A second-class ticket costs 490 yuan.  A first-class ticket is 300 yuan more, and for the extra money you are privilege to a wider seat plus free juice and snacks.  Whichever you chose, the experience of riding the new high speed rail in southern China is remarkable.  As the train speeds through the countryside at 350 kpm, you can watch geography and architecture changing in a matter of minutes.  The line crosses 3 provinces, over 6 degrees of latitude, going from temperate central Wuhan to subtropical southern Guangzhou, all in 3 hours.  (Not all trains make the journey in 3 hours.  Most take 4 hours and stop at the intermediate stations along the way.  I took train #G1003 from Wuhan at 3pm sharp, which is an express train)

Leaving Wuhan, the terrain is defined by the small rolling hills covered in short brush.  This is Hubei province.  The flat bed of the railway is carved out out of the landscape, leaving your eyes to follow the embankments up and down like waves.  When you're above the waves, you can see far into the distance.  There are few tall trees between the fields, where many different crops are being grown, creating a patchwork of varied shades of green.  Buildings are spread across each farm, and most of them are simple two story buildings with sloped tile roofs:

Very suddenly, it seems, the scenery turns a bright, verdant green as you enter the fertile land of Hunan province.  It's notable for wide, flat valleys with large mountains off in the distance.  Buildings are similar to before, but seem more clustered together in villages.  Between the fields, which seem to grow just rice, there are many tall trees.  (at the end of this video, the train passes through one of the outdoor intermediate stations, at full speed):

A couple hours in, the buildings are taller, made of concrete, with flat roofs.  The ride starts to seem a lot like a subway as the train tunnels through the mountains in the north of Guangdong province.  At times, the train emerges from one tunnel, speeds through a valley for a few seconds, and back into another tunnel.  In the valley, you may get a blurry glance of an old house not far from the tracks.  For perhaps dozens of generations, that house was quietly isolated in it's own little valley in rural China.  Now it's neighbor is the fastest rail line in the world.  Then you emerge into another valley within view of a small village.  It's entirely possible that people from those two places spoke different dialects in the recent past, so isolated by a great mountain.  Now you travel between them in 10 seconds:

When I showed these videos to some students, they could immediately tell which province each was taken in.  I was pretty impressed.

Anyone taken the Wu-Guang high speed train yet?  What were your impressions of the experience?

23Jul/106

Spaghetti, anyone?

What's all this?  Colorful spaghetti from Saizeriya Italian Restaurant? (萨莉亚意大利餐厅)  Actually I found it on the wall in the metro office at Gongyuanqian station.  It's a map of Guangzhou subway, present and future.  Blue represents lines open prior to 2010, red shows lines set to open in 2010, and green is lines under construction that will open in future years.  Line 5 has already opened of course, that's the red line running through the center from left to right.

Guangzhou is opening so many new metro lines this year, it is mind boggling!  Here are the changes we will see by the end of the year:

  • line 5 opened in January, that's the red line running through the center of the city from left to right.
  • line 4 will extend north two stations from Chebeinan to one of the Asian Games stadiums.
  • line 3 will extend north to the airport.  (for some reason, there will still be two line 3s.  The current line 3 between Panyu Square and Tianhe Coach Terminal will remain.  The new line 3 run between Tiyuxi Lu and Airport North.)
  • The current L-shaped line 2 will be split into two lines.  The portion between Wanshengwei and Xiaogang will be renamed line 8, and will be extend four stations to the west.  The portion between Jiangnanxi and Sanyuanli will remain as line 2, and will be extended to the new South train station to the south, and will extend north to intersect with the line to the airport.
  • The long-delayed GF (Guangzhou to Foshan) line will open from Xiliang at the west end of line 1, and going west thirteen stations into Foshan City (not shown on the map).  It will be the first inter-city metro in China.

Of course, delays in opening metros are common in China.  Projected opening dates are given and then pushed back repeatedly for years.  This time I think the city is really committed to opening the line to the airport in time for the Asian Games this November.  But if the GF line fails to materialize this year, nobody will be too shocked.

Besides what you can see on the map, Guangzhou Metro's long term planning calls for 19 lines by 2020.  But with the current additions, Guangzhou's metro transit is now starting to take shape.  It's beginning to look less like scattered lines and more like the interconnected spaghetti subway of a world class city.  Even second tier cities in China are now busy constructing metros. Construction costs are still relatively low because labor is cheap and the cities are not yet fully developed.  Chinese cities current wave of investment in metro systems is a wise choice.  It means they will have the chance to be competitive as vital and efficient urban centers for decades.

14Jul/103

New generation train stations

China still travels by rail.  That may not be news to you, but let's make a comparison.

In my hometown, there is a beautiful old train station. The grand passenger building guards over the city's main axis, it's heavy carved stone stacked in arches. Behind is a soaring iron and glass train shed. In the 1940's, when most Americans traveled by rail, it was one of the busiest train stations in the country. It closed in the seventies, after the number of passengers declined so much that the station could no longer support itself. These days it's used as a hotel and a mall. It's a common story.  As passenger travel shifted to highway and plane, US passenger rail shrank to a bare minimum served by Amtrak, and much of the original infrastructure was lost. In china, the old way of traveling by rail is changing very quickly, but it isn't giving up on rail travel.

The old generation.  A train station in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province

China's old railway stations are relatively chaotic places, teeming with people trying to get somewhere else.  China had a station building boom in the 60s and 70s.  Most stations are low and flat, the only defining characteristic is a few giant red characters standing on the roof to represent the city name.  Inside dark passenger waiting rooms, people wait on rows of dirty molded fiberglass chairs.  There are often beautiful murals with socialist or traditional Chinese themes.  The environment always seems tense with fear of thieves, others, police.  If you ever happen to see indications of social instability in China, its most likely to be in old train stations.

A mural inside the passenger waiting room at Taiyuan Station

The Guangzhou-Wuhan high speed train, which opened last December, takes just 3 hours to make the journey, at a top speed of 350km.  It connects the biggest city in southern China with one of the bigger cities in central China.  A big part of this project was the 2 new terminal stations built at both ends. Eventually, this line will be extended north all the way to Beijing.

The China Ministry of Railways is building new stations for it's high speed rail lines.  Each station is a major infrastructure project costing around US$1 billion each.  The existing stations in both cities were deemed already overcrowded and unable to handle the additional passenger load of the high speed train. The area around stations today are dense with development related to the proximity of the station, so it's hard to build something new there. The new stations are far outside the city center, a 45 minute subway or bus ride away.  It's probable that the areas around the new stations will eventually be densely developed. These stations will create major cities around themselves, pulling the center of the old cities toward them.

But for now, the stations are still surrounded by farm land.  These stations are huge, you can see them rise like small hills as you approach.  The feature that seems to connect the new stations is they are all open and light-filled.  The ceilings incorporate skylights, and the light is usually moderated by lovers or shades.

The next generation. The new Wuhan station, which features an open train platform in the center

Wuhan station detail

The new Guangzhou South station and its dramatic arching roof

Beijing South Station.  With some fake palm trees, just for fun

They all seem to be descendants of the old glass and steel train sheds of Europe, like the old train station in my hometown.  The new stations are relatively calm.  One reason is that poor travelers can't afford the high speed tickets, so there are much fewer people in a much larger space. But the stations are not that relaxing, not to me. The stations are grandiose statements, and the images are all postcard worthy.  But there isn't much that is scaled to people. All the interesting detail of the building is raised far above your head, with little that is interesting down at eye level.

These expensive train stations represent a commitment to rail travel in China.  But the fact that they are so far from cities reduces their advantage over air travel.  The stations are almost as far from the city as airports, so when you add the travel time on both sides, the train will take a lot longer than a plane.  Will the grand new generation stations themselves lead to the decline of train travel in the long term future?

The new Guangzhou South station and the Beijing South station built in 2008 were both designed by TFP Farrells, based in UK and Hong Kong.  Wuhan station was design by Arep, based in Paris.  The local design institutes serve as local architect-of-record. For now, the way to get to the Guangzhou South station is a shuttle bus from the Hanxi Changlong metro station on line 3.  Walk to the small bus terminal above the station, and its easy to find the bus going to the South Station.  The ride takes about 15 minutes each way, and costs 2 yuan.  A new subway line will go there someday.

[UPDATE, October 2010: The new subway line to Guangzhou South station is now open.  line 2]

7Jul/102

China’s First Starchitect

Ever since the founding of the People's Republic, China has mostly avoided overt traditionalism in it's public buildings.  In the early years they were in a stark, Soviet style. More recently, the country has embraced international contemporary architecture.  If you need examples, think of the Beijing CCTV tower, Shanghai World Trade Building, Guangzhou Opera House.  Most have been designed by starchitects (a recently invented word combining "star" and "architect", meaning celebrity architect) who happen to be from somewhere outside the middle kingdom. To it's credit, so far China hasn't cared too much where the designer is from, as long as the design is good (the China Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo is a recent exception; it was designed by a local architect. I will discuss that building in a future post, after I get the chance to visit).  All of this was put into motion by a pioneering generation of architects from the Republic of China era.

At the forefront of that generation was Lu Yanzhi 吕彦直(1894-1929). He was born in Tianjin, spent time in Paris as a child, was educated at Qinghua University, then went abroad to study architecture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. While there, he would have studied the typical curriculum of the time, based on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  It focused on studying and imitating classic European buildings. That included making lots of drawings imitating traditional European styles. Much of his student work still exists in the Cornell University archives. After graduation in 1918, he returned to China and practiced in Shanghai.

It was from his office in Shanghai that he won international competitions to design two important buildings: first the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum in Nanjing, and soon after the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou. Sun, whose Chinese name is Zhongshan, had died just a couple years before in 1925. The purpose of the buildings was to memorialize a man beloved for overthrowing the last emperor in 1911.  They also were meant to legitimize Sun's successors in the Nationalist political party and solidify their power by connecting them back to a great hero.  I think they can thus be seen as the most important civic buildings in China at that time.

a student drawing by Lu Yanzhi, from the Cornell University online archives

Lu's great innovation was to introduce modern building technology to Chinese architectural form. In doing so, he helped liberate Chinese building design from it's old conventions.  Actually, while his buildings use Chinese motifs and decorative elements as inspiration, they are in many ways very modern in their planning and massing.  He achieved shapes and forms that we're impossible before.  And the traditional elements are stylized and adapted to new materials: concrete and steel.

The Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou is a large auditorium on the north-south axis of the old city, at the foot of Yuexiu Hill.  In terms of form and layout, the building is a circular hall with pavilions on each side.  It is clearly a descendant of the Pantheon in Rome, which has inspired the form of so many structures, including the Columbia University Library in New York, and the Qinghua University library.  The building is made with structural steel construction, with reinforced concrete infill.  It's shaped like the Chinese character for mountain or hill "山".  At the very peak is a octagon shaped room.

Layered roof design is something often seen in significant Chinese buildings.   The Memorial is divided into 4 layers.  Here it is quite unique and complex, as everything is intersecting at 45 degrees, instead of the typical 90.

For comparison, below is another significant building in Guangzhou from the same time period.  This is the old administration building at South China Agricultural University.  It's plan is a "U" shape, with the traditional arrangement of rectangular buildings, corridors, and small rooms inside, relating back to Qing Dynasty government buildings. The building also uses concrete but primarily as a decorative material, to form the roof ornament and railings.  It employs more traditional, less stylized traditional ornament.

Many traditional Chinese buildings used wenshou ( also called "zoomorphic") ornaments on the roof eaves.  Traditionally, these ornaments are very detailed sculptures of animal and human forms.  The wenshou on Lu's building are very highly abstracted into nearly geometric forms, almost "deco" in style.  Clearly, Lu didn't totally accept the slavish imitation of ornament encouraged by the Beaux-Arts style.  Stylized wenshou can be seen on other buildings from that era, but Lu's are particularly genius.  They represent the form of tradition but question and modify it.

Wenshou ornaments at Sun Yatsen Memorial (above), and the Forbidden City in Beijing (below)

The auditorium has no columns, an example of long span steel structure which was rare in Chinese buildings at that time.  The roof is suspended by a complex trussed steel structure.  Above the suspended ceiling is a large light room, which softens the light before allowing it to trickle into glass lights in the ceiling.  The effect is very wonderful.

auditorium interior

an original architectural drawing showing a section through the building.  Notice all the space above the auditorium ceiling.

a photo of a photo, showing the steel structure above the roof

decoration on the porch ceiling, made of mosaic tile.  Not a traditional Chinese material, this is an example of adaptation of western materials to Chinese design.

A detail at the stone course that surrounds the base of the building.  Notice the Celtic/Victorian stone carving.

Lu's fame was too short lived.  He died in 1929 at the age of 35, while the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall was still under construction.  He surely designed other buildings in his short career, but unfortunately they have been forgotten in the fog of history.  The Sun Yatsen Memorial hall represents the promise of a bygone era.  Reflecting on Lu's work, I see a vision of a different China that could have been, where east and west gracefully intersect, without the schizophrenic hate-love relationship between outside and inside China that persists into our time.

4Jul/1011

Drying Day

This is what happens when you get some nice sunny weather after a week of rainy humid weather.

If you try to dry your clothes on a rainy day they take too long to dry, and could end up smelling a bit funky. So on a nice day, out they come.  It's worth bringing up that almost nobody in China has a clothes dryer. Dryers are high energy users, and they are an expensive purchase besides. In America, almost everyone has one, or uses one at a laundromat. I've found that life without a dryer is ...completely normal and unremarkable. The American view of the dryer is that it is a need and not a want; the majority of people in modern society don't question this assumption. But actually I've come to think it's an unnecessary want.

2Jul/100

Guangdong Provincial Museum

irregular openings colored red on the grey exterior intrigue the viewer to come closer

I made my first trip to the new Guangdong Provincial Museum on Tuesday, June 29. It won't be my last visit. It's in the middle of the new planned CBD, Zhujiang New Town, next to the Opera House, with a nice view of the river, and the new TV tower across.  This prominent location of the museum for China's most populous province shows both the importance of the museum and the prominent place ZJNT is destined to have in the province. The architect was Rocco Design Architects from Hong Kong.

The official metaphor for the building is a Chinese lacquer box. From afar, it's most notable exterior feature is irregular rectangular cutouts. The inside of the cuts are a bright Chinese red and the building cladding is a dull dark gray, creating an intriguing look that demands the viewer to investigate. The form is such a monolith, with so little information about what's inside, that you have to be forgiven for not noticing that the building is oriented away from the street and towards the central axis. From there is a sweeping grass ramp that rises up to the structure's pedestal. For now, that means most people are entering from the rear.  Make sure you walk down to the axis to see how the building connects with its site.

As I walked up to the pedestal under the building, my first impression was amazement at the tremendous cantilever hovering above.  It seems very simple but a lot of work went into creating that illusion. It's made possible by a huge truss that takes up the entire 6th floor.  Structurally, the building's walls and floors are actually hanging from the roof.  Not to be missed, there is an exhibit on the second floor about the building's design, where you can view a video illustrating the process of building that truss next to the building and sliding it into place on tracks.

Now that you're inside, remember those irregular cutouts? Turns out that they are small window alcoves between the exhibits that make nice places to look out at the views of the city.  When I visited, visitors were very enthusiastic to look out these at the newly unveiled views.  They also bring natural light into the spaces between exhibits.

From inside, the exterior concept is mostly not evident.  Instead, the organizing principle is a center atrium.  Around the atrium are a few layers of punched and folded aluminum panel suspended between roof and floor, resulting in different levels of transparency in places.  The panel breaks up the space of the atrium, allowing you to see through the building but never get overwhelmed by its scale.

The building's design is certainly ambitious, but unfortunately it's plagued by some sloppy finish work.  The wood floor was scratched badly throughout the building, though the building had been open for about a month when I visited.  And there were too many random little boxes built out of the floor or wall, evidence of poor integration of structure with mechanical systems.  Another problem is that there is a lot of wasted space, especially high up around the atrium, large areas that aren't part of circulation and don't have something like a nice view that could make them usable public space.

Ultimately though, any museum will succeed or fail on the quality of the exhibits.  By that account, the museum is very good.  Some of the highlights:  a beautiful collection of traditional wood carving, thorough exhibits of the province's history during the Republic of China period, and an exhaustive display of preserved specimens of Guangdong's varied plant life.  The presentation is superb, and almost all displays include English translations.

To get there, take metro line 3 to Zhujiang New Town station, exit B1.  From there, it's about a 10 minute walk south towards the river and around the opera house.  Admission is free, but you must show some ID to get your free ticket.

10Jun/103

China’s “Greatest Generation”

nattily attired and digging trenches

The label of the Greatest Generation has been applied to Americans who lived through the Second World War.  The idea was popularized in a book of that name by a former American television news presenter.  I admit I've never read the book, but the argument has become well known through popular culture.  The idea heroicizes the generation that was born during the great depression and learned to live through tough times.  They made great sacrifices fighting the so-called good war, then returned home to work hard and build stable lives, in the process building America into a global hyperpower. That generation is old now and they're disappearing fast. As the story goes, their children the baby-boomer generation have mostly squandered the fortune their parents patiently built.

The mass of Chinese migrant workers could be today's greatest generation of China.  These are the people leaving the villages, where the skills they've needed to live have been passed on for hundreds of years, and going to places to do work that is totally foreign to them.  They are jumping into the future, doing things that none of their ancestors have ever done.  They live in lonely factory dormitories, or in the case of construction workers in tinker-toy temporary buildings made of painted blue steel and white polystyrene panels, with no frills or amenities.  In Guangzhou, at lunchtime you can see them eating from foam containers and napping anywhere.  At night you don't see them, they go to sleep early.  You can see them on the bus or subway traveling to a new job, carrying their possessions in a bag attached to a stick that they balance on their shoulder: some clothes, a fan, a bucket, tools.  They always look old for their age.

They do hard and dangerous jobs without a lot of concern for their own safety, often wearing just thin clothes and flimsy plastic shoes for protection.  Some even wear cheap business suits and black leather shoes to dig holes and build walls, as if trying to maintain dignity.  Whether they are aware of it or not, they are surely sacrificing their health.  The toxic dust and fumes that waft uncontrolled around Chinese construction sites, coupled with the insanely loud noise and lack of ear protection, will combine to produce too many deaf cancer patients in the future.

Their motivation is clear.  They may be proud of what they are working on, but they are not striking out with lofty ideas to build China into the next superpower.  The reason they sacrifice so much is just to improve the future of their family and themselves, the same reason I think that the WWII generation did.  The US is the world hyperpower today because of the historical accident of WWII, not because our grandparents wanted it.  A student told me that China will become the world superpower after the Third World War is fought.  It wasn't that he was wishing for a world war to come.  Actually, now I'm not sure what the student was trying to say.  Maybe was he simply saying that he thinks it's inevitable China will gain superpower status.  Or maybe he was expressing his pessimism.

The American greatest generation is a problematic label.  The war was not good, no war is.  That generation just did what it was told to do, and they built us a flawed world.  Some of the most difficult problems of today, like nuclear proliferation and climate change, are direct consequences of what they started.  But I think we admire their self-sacrificing spirit because we think it's rarer these days.  How China's migrant workers are considered in future will depend on how the amazing growth of China on the world scene continues to develop.  Will their story be a comedy or tragedy?

Are Chinese workers the future greatest generation of China?  Will they be celebrated as heroic in the future, even as they are looked down on now?

27May/105

Midnight Express is a 7-11 now

Chungking Mansion on Nathan Road

One of my favorite Asian films is the 1994 movie Chungking Express (重庆森林) by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai.  The film is popular in university film studies classes; just Google it and you can find lots of term papers analyzing endlessly. I think of it as the Asian version of Pulp Fiction because of its similarly non-traditional narrative structure.  Amazingly, they were both released in the same year; it seems some small cross-cultural movement was going on.

Using hand held camera work, choppy editing, and real locations, the film creates vivid impressions of life in urban Hong Kong.  The two main locations are Chungking Mansion and a food stall with the name Midnight Express.  Other locations include the escalators that go up the steep streets from central up to Soho neighborhood.  On a recent visit to Hong Kong, I made a point to visit some of the filming locations.

In the first half of the film, a mysterious woman in sunglasses and a blond wig is involved in a drug trafficking scheme. Chungking Mansion is the chaotic place she recruits the traffickers, who are Indian Nationals.  Today, Chungking Mansions is still there, on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui district.  It's well known among budget travelers as the cheapest place to stay in Hong Kong.  And it's still the gathering point for lots of Indian immigrants and their businesses, and now more Africans too.  The first 3 floors are a mall.  As it was in the film, the ground floor mall is occupied by money changers, cheap Indian restaurants, and lots of little shops selling electronics.  The third floor mall has gone upscale and renamed after the movie.  Above the mall pedestal are multiple tower blocks, mainly occupied by dozens of different hostels.  I stayed in a room there with a bathroom but no windows, that measured 1 meter by 3 meters.  Chungking is a hyperactive and dense place, like Hong Kong itself and more so.  In a fully developed city, there is still this pocket of the developing world allowed to exist.

So I took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island to visit Midnight Express.  The food stall is the only connection between the two narratives of the film.  It's where two policemen stop and spend their lonely time after losing their girlfriends.  But they never actually meet.  I searched all over for the place.  Actually, I wasn't even sure if it ever existed, but I assumed so because other shooting locations in the film were real places.  I thought I stumbled on the place where it had been on an alley called Graham Street, filled with improvised semi-permanent street kitchens literally leaning against the back facade of modern skyscrapers.  But I decided that place wasn't right.   So I went to Pacific Coffee, Hong Kong's ubiquitous chain coffee shop with free internet.  After Googling it, I found an address listing and even a photo of Midnight Express in Lam Kau Fong, a popular nightclub street.

I feel kind of silly admitting that I felt very disappointed when I finally got to Midnight Express, 16 years too late.  Was I expecting to meet Faye Wong and order a Caesar Salad?  As the post title suggests, it is indeed a 7-11 convenience store now.  So I went inside and bought a Vitasoy drink.

17May/102

Xiguan canal resurrected

IMG_4878copy

I stumbled on an interesting urban renewal project last week while searching for old PRC propaganda posters.  I had googled Guangzhou antique shops, and was pointed to Lizhiwan Road, on the eastern edge of Liwan Park in Fangcun District.  But when I got there, I found that almost all of the shops had been shuttered.  Workers were using hammers and pry-bars to demolish the small brick stalls built up next to the sidewalk.  Curiously, one side of the road surface had been cleanly cut away, revealing a deep concrete trench below carrying some very nasty water.  At first, I assumed that this was just another sewer replacement project.  But then I noticed the architectural renderings plastered to nearby fences that show the street is being turned into a canal to better attract tourists.  Locals were gazing at the renderings trying to make sense of what their community will soon become.

I can't be sure, but I would suspect this road used to be a canal that was covered during some past modernization project.  Or, it's possible that the trench was built as a sewer and has always been one.  There is still a some untreated sewage pouring into the now open trench from the surrounding neighborhoods.  That will have to be addressed, probably by capturing the waste water inlets and directing them to a new drain under the canal.  That will mean the "real" river will be below, with a man-made clean river pumped above.

Restoring urban streams long hidden and neglected is a good idea, and one that has been gaining popularity as a renewal tool.  One example is the Cheonggyecheon in Seoul.  Restored streams do a lot to improve the quality of life in cities dramatically.  They provide a corridor for walking and cycling, a gathering place for community interaction, etc.  Like railroad trestle parks and bike paths, they create a new way to move through the city, stimulating new connections that can expand people's idea of community and create fresh thinking. They also provide an area where urbanites can access some nature.  While they're not really natural, as a product of intense planning and construction, restored rivers do introduce elements of nature back into the city.  If the project scale is large enough, it can attract wildlife such as amphibian, fish, and even bird species into the restored corridor.

In the river restoration sense, this project is a good start.  It's sure to improve the popularity area as a tourist attraction, assuming it can successfully deal with the sewage problem.  The scale of this project is too small to create a corridor that can improve the city as a whole.  But there are some other streams around Guangzhou that I hope will receive similar treatment.  One is the twisty Daohaoyonggaojia elevated road that runs north from the Jiangwan bridge.  The road was built to alleviate traffic North South traffic congestion by taking advantage of an unused corridor, a large stream.  It follows the twists of the stream, casting a shadow over the stream and making it a rather neglected and underutilized resource.

I'm not sure where all of the antique vendors have gone for now, but they will be back.  Chinese small businessmen are nothing if not persistent and dedicated. Removing the stalls is revealing the old buildings behind and will allow the community that used to be cut off from the park to better connect to this area.  According to the rendering, these stalls won't be coming back.  Instead there will be an interior antique mall somewhere in the project. I'm sure some of the vendors will see that as an improvement, but I don't.  Little storefronts on the street are a part of traditional Chinese urban planning.  Without the established vendors on both sides of the street, the street will be less interesting, with or without canal.