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


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?


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.


Subterranean and shopping in GZ

Kingsway mall

Beijing has the legendary Underground city.  It's a stunningly large network of civil air defense tunnels, all hand dug in the sixties and seventies during the peak of the regime's paranoia over nuclear conflict with the USSR.  Guangzhou has a kind of underground city, too.

Cities all over the world have tunnel cities in the city center.  Lots of places in Asia have them; Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei. In China even mid-sized cities like Tianjin, Xian and Qingdao have a few. Bits of the Beijing Underground have been converted to use by small factories, but today it remains mostly forgotten by locals.  In Guangzhou, the underground tunnels are newer, and rise out of a different motive than in Beijing: shopping. In Guangzhou, most underground malls are from one of two sources: Property development by the Guangzhou Metro corporation, or private developers.

The first time I came to Guangzhou, the underground malls intrigued me more than anything. They seemed to everywhere branch off from subway stations. Some are obviously struggling, but most are teeming with people walking slowly, making it difficult to go anywhere fast. It raised so many questions in my mind. How do people even know this is here?  Do they enjoy being here in places devoid of natural light and ventilation? They seemed to defy every bit of logic about retail commerce I'd ever accepted as truth.

At GongYuanQian Station, one of 2 major transfer stations in the metro system, is a large 3-level mall called Comic City.  The mall is mecca for shops that sell small cute items like fashion handbags and Japanese comic merchandise. It also harbors the only underground Starbucks in Guangzhou. Unlike most other underground malls, which are linear and follow the street, Comic City is rectangular, and sits under the edge of People's Park. Its exit atrium go up into the park, allowing some sunlight down into the mall. The mall is well connected to every level of the station, you can even enter directly from the subway platform.  It's clear why connectivity to the metro is so good; the mall was developed by the Metro Corporation itself.  Taking a cue from the Hong Kong MTR, the Guangzhou Metro has established a major revenue stream from property development inside and attached to their system. As public and private is often blurred in China anyway, the result is seen as good for the metro system. The Metro itself benefits from the increased value of the property near their stations, and perhaps it gives them the incentive to expand their property empire by expanding their system through the city.  Guangzhou Metro expansion is breathtakingly aggressive; there are 5 lines now, with 4 to open this year alone, and a plan for more than 20 total by the end of this decade.

A short above ground walk from the Guangzhou Train Station lurks a very different mall.  "Guangzhou's First Tunnel" is a wholesale garment market that caters both to locals, and to African and Middle Eastern exporters. You're more likely to hear Edo or Farsi than English here. The mall is shaped like a large cross under 4 street blocks, it's 2 floors deep, and each wing follows the slope of the street above which is a bit disorienting. The mall is so big that there are actually 3 branches of a coffee chain called "One Dollar Coffee", which shamelessly appropriates Starbucks logo and store design. The mall was developed by a private developer who actually specializes in underground malls around China.  It's not actually connected to the subway tunnels, rather there are numerous stairwells from the sidewalk. Curiously, each entrance has a large vault-type door open but standing at the ready.  This and some of the other Guangzhou underground malls may share something in common with the Beijing underground.  Then, civilians were assigned to dig tunnels.   Today, It's believed that the China government gives subsidies to underground mall builders who make their malls up to the standard air defense shelters, if they agree to give them up in the event they're needed.

The successful malls seem to provide a shortcut to somewhere else, the struggling ones go nowhere interesting.  Guangzhou's underground malls rely primarily on foot traffic and impulse purchases.  Most don't really function as a destination, but as a path to somewhere that provides diversions along the way. Some of the malls even double as pedestrian tunnels under dangerous street crossings.  They are easily walkable, not always true of this city's paving block sidewalks, which are uneven and eternally under reconstruction.  Above most of the tunnels are commercial areas, but they don't seem depopulated by the mall.  In most cases, the sidewalks are still so congested that it's faster to take the underground mall.  The land cost for underground malls is low, but the construction and operating costs are higher than for traditional malls.  But in a city like Guangzhou, already bursting at the seams and still growing, its just another direction to expand. Sometimes it's easy to forget where you are, until an inevitable whiff of mildew hits you and you remember, you're in one of Guangzhou's underground shopping malls.

Visitor's Guide to Guangzhou's Underground Malls:

  • Comic City- Line 1 and 2, Gongyuanqian Station.
  • Kingsway- Gongyuanqian Station, exit D.  Features snack stalls and Asian brand stores.  Ends near Beijing Lu pedestrian street.
  • Guangzhou's First Tunnel- Line 2, Guangzhou Train Station, exit D4.
  • Festival Walk- Line 1 and 3, TiyuXiLu Station.  Features small boutiques and Asian brand stores.  Ends near the Guangzhou Book Center.  Notice the vault doors at the entrances.
  • PoPark- Line 1 and 3, Guangzhou East Train Station, exit G.  Features the Japanese supermarket JUSCO and high end foreign brand stores.
  • KangWang Commercial Plaza- Line 1, Chen Clan Academy Station, exit C.  Features a McDonald's and budget fashion merchandise, very popular with students.
  • Update Mall- Line 1, Martyr's Park Station, connects to China Plaza Mall basement.  Features a McDonald's and Asian brand stores.
  • Diwang Plaza- Martyr's Park Station
  • Jiangnan Sunday- Line 2, Jiangnanxi Station.  Features Hong Kong fast-food chain Cafe De Coral, and independent fashion boutiques.
  • Tianhe Xin Di- TiyuXiLu Station.  Depressing and mostly empty.
  • New large underground malls are under construction, under Zhujiang New
    Town and Tiyu Sport Center.   There is a closed mall at Fangcun Station.