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


Xiguan canal resurrected


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.


I’m from Saint Road Easy, Mr. Si

I hope you won't be put off by a few Chinese characters; don't worry, this is still an English blog.  I was recently surprised to discover that the China version of Google Maps ( is now translating foreign street names into Chinese.  Now, it's quite normal for Chinese streets to be translated into pinyin, the romanized version of Chinese sounds. In fact, almost all street signs in China include the pinyin name under the Chinese name.  This is attributed to a decision by Chairman Mao, and from many westerner's perspective this is one thing we can be grateful to him for.

Pinyin is fairly straightforward.  While there are many characters that make a particular sound, all are simplified to one pinyin word.  For example, all of the following characters would be written in pinyin as "shi": 是,时,十,事,实,施,使,什,市,史,世,式, plus about 50 more.  If you practice saying shi, you can get the sound right.

Writing Chinese street names in pinyin is one thing, translating English names to Chinese is quite another.  Translating an English name to Chinese involves choosing from many characters that might more or less approximate the syllables.  In addition, it's a plus if the character's meaning suggest something about the thing being named, or least has some positive meaning.  For example, take my hometown, Saint Louis.  Here it is...

The Chinese translation is "圣路易斯".  In pinyin the sounds are "sheng lu yi si", and the meaning suggests something like "saint road easy" and the surname "Si".  I guess that is a neutral meaning?  But the translations of major American cities have been officialized on US maps in China for many years.  Now Google has taken it upon itself to translate almost every street name.  It's really astonishing.  I'm not sure how Google is accomplishing this, but I have to assume they're using Google Translate.  The service works by using statistical analysis of previous professional translations, including UN documents, to assign a translation to words and phrases.  Take a close look at my old neighborhood:

I used to live in a 3-story brick apartment building at the corner of 拉塞尔大道 and 克姆街.  I was living in the 肖 neighborhood.  You can see that most but not all of the street names are translated.  It seems Google is assigning names to streets that have been translated previously somehow, but not to names that it can't find in it's database.  So it seems Google isn't translating each name by hand, it's happening automatically through Translate.

What are the implications of all this.  Well, it should make things easier for independent Chinese tourists.  There aren't many now, most Chinese tourists in America are part of coach tours around the Grand Canyon and San Francisco.   But give it a few years and we may see Chinese tourists wandering around the streets of Saint Road Easy Surname.  Is this the first step of the Chinese colonization of America that conspiracy theorists babble about?  Is it even really necessary, when the majority of Chinese citizens can sound out English words, even if they can't string three words together in speech?  Is available outside of china?  Have you used Google's translation of foreign street names?  Leave your thoughts.


Heart of the Sea Pagoda

Chigang Pagoda and the new TV tower

On the Metro line 3, between the transfer stations of Zhujiang New Town and Kecun, there is the station called Chigang Pagoda.  Whenever I ride line 3 through this station, only a few people get on or off the packed train. It may be the least used station of the subway system within the city center. The station is named after a very old temple pagoda which is a short walk from the station, through a residential neighborhood. Eventually, the station will be busy with people going to another tower.

Near the old pagoda is the new Television and Sightseeing Tower. It's still under construction and not yet open to the public, but it's already becoming one of the new icons of the city. The reigning city icon, found on everything from city trucks to the Asian games logo, is a statue of 5 rams in Yuexiu Park. If the tower proves popular and successful, and I think it's design is good enough to make it so, then it will probably become the new icon/logo of Guangzhou, in the same way the Eiffel tower is the icon of Paris. It's official name is the Heart of the Sea Pagoda, in Chinese of course! Incredibly, the person who thought of that uninspiring name won 100,000 yuan for winning the naming contest. I just call it the new TV tower.

Like the cutting-edge new CCTV building in Beijing, the Guangzhou tower was designed by a Dutch architecture firm. The main concept is simply 30 gigantic steel tubes which rise straight up to the top while tilting laterally, which makes the structure thin at the middle at wide at the top and bottom. There is secondary bracing structure spiraling in the opposite direction. The effect created is the diamond-shaped openings get smaller and the structure denser towards the middle. At night, when colored LED lights are used to indirectly light the structure at each opening, this effect becomes clear. It's sexy, and a little mysterious, feminine. If Paris has the tower of Mister Eiffel, this one is Ms Guangzhou.

The top of the antenna is 610 meters, making it the second tallest freestanding structure in the world, second only to the new Burg Khalifa in Dubai. The tower looms through the heavy smog as I walk around the city. It has helped me to better understand the verb "to loom", defined as to appear, take shape, or come in sight indistinctly as through a mist, esp. in a large, portentous, or threatening form. The top of the structure is so tall and massive, widening as it gets taller, that it feels as though it is right above you even when you are several kilometers away.

Basically, the tower has two purposes: hold up some digital antennae, and attract tourists. Suspended inside the twisting steel structure there are 5 multi-story "pods." There will be the entertainment program; theaters, restaurants, and so on. The primary purpose of the tower is tourism, but unlike a lot of other construction in Guangzhou, it's not specifically for the Asian Game. Construction started before GZ won the competition for the games.

I had a great opportunity to go to the top of the tower in autumn 2009, soon after the exterior structure was completed. The sequence is like this: you enter into the two-story pedestal building that the tower sits on. You get on the elevator, and it takes you through the core that runs up the middle of the building, and through the 5 "pods". The elevator reaches the top in less than a minute, at what is called the 84th floor. That should be the main observation gallery. From there, you can walk up 2 flights of stairs to the roof, which is 490m above the ground. The top of the structure seems truncated at angle for... well, no apparent reason. But the design of the observation deck is quite clever. It is terraced up following the structure, so from the apex you can look back across the river with no rails or guards blocking your view. Its surprisingly large, and feels like a spacious park up in the air. I've been to the observation deck of quite a few of the worlds tallest buildings, but this one is different. In fact, it's so tall that looking down, you don't actually feel you're on a building, rather the perspective is more like being on an airplane as it flies over a city towards the airport.

From the top, the focus is on the view along the North-South axis. Across the river, the new cigar-shaped IFC West tower, with its stretched out X-bracing visible behind its bluish glass, dominates the skyline. The construction for its twin is just beginning. At its foot is the just-opened opera house by British Architect Zaha Hadid. Beyond is the Tiyu Sports Center. And beyond that is the Citic Plaza, long the tallest, most modern building in Guangzhou and now a dated post-modern has been. And framing the back of the view is Baiyun Hill, a green oasis in this hyperactively urban city. Through the diamond of the structural members you can see old Guangzhou, Chigang Pagoda, forgotten hundreds of meters below.


What Makes Guangzhou Interesting

My intention with this blog is to share some of my exploration of Guangzhou. I want to let this blog be a place to put ideas, criticisms, discoveries, etc.  Please understand that my connection to Guangzhou is not very deep.  For one, my mastery of written Chinese is pretty basic, so all the written information out there is not very available to me.  Secondly, I'm an outsider here, not only because I've been here a relatively short time, but because I look different, in China this makes all the difference.  The degree to which I'm an outsider here is hard to exaggerate.  Think of it this way: imagine a lone but friendly Chinese citizen wandered around Canalou, Missouri (population 348).  He took lots of pictures,  watched people do things and asked them simple questions, then wrote down his impressions of the place.  That is essentially me in Guangzhou.

Some of the things I want to post about in the future:

  • Whole covered markets with hundreds of stalls dedicated to only one thing, like eyeglasses, or fishing tackle
  • Old commercial buildings that project over sidewalks
  • Maybe the largest population of Nigerians in Asia
  • Shops that have only overhead doors (no swing doors) so activity spills into the sidewalk
  • The Pearl River and its many branches, and the useful boardwalks that run along most of them through the city
  • The crazy new Guangzhou TV Tower
  • Remains of the old city wall that can be snooped out in alleys and mounds in YueXiu and FangCun district
  • "urban villages" crowded farm villages that have been surrounded by the city
  • Underground shopping malls attached to subway stations

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