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


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.


Canton Favorite: Bones

In the west, Chinese food means bright red sauce, rice, and puffy chunks of breaded boneless meat. Meat without a positive identity. In Canton, food has bones. Also, sometimes a head or foot.  Westerners are left to fret they are eating a pet at their local chop suey joint, while Cantonese people are not squeamish about knowing exactly which one.  Seriously, eating dog meat is fairly common for Cantonese people.  However, they will usually draw the line at cats.

Leaving in some identifying parts has its benefits. For one, it assures customers that they're being sold the real product. Counterfeit things are a pervasive problem in China, and it leads to a kind of paranoia.   A persistent but probably false urban myth in China that many people believe says there is a factory somewhere in the countryside churning out fake eggs  (there is even a purported training video on YouTube about how to make them).  One of my English students insists that 75% of restaurants are using counterfeit cooking oil derived from middle-eastern crude.  But, the Cantonese are under no illusion where real animal products come from. In contrast, many urbanite westerners are a little vague about it all. A family member who raises chickens and sells the eggs was once asked where his egg factory is.

In China, fish is not "seafood", its just another kind of meat; and its served whole body style, almost without exception. Fish fillets are unheard of, except the Fillet-O-Fish.  It's not really very popular anyway; it seems a bit suspiciously anonymous to the Mainland consumer.  A Cantonese person will soldier through a whole fish, swallowing everything with relish, while foreigners will try to pick through a fish and spit the bones out. But a host will accept such sensitivity to fish bones in a foreign guest.

On the other hand, it's completely acceptable to spit out mammal bones. Usually this is done by positioning one's mouth over an empty spot on the table, and letting drop. In serving a dish, whether there is significant meat on the bones is not considered important. One popular dish is pork knees in sauce: pig legs sawed close above and below the joint, with the tender skin and fat crisply roasted, but little meat to speak of.

Significantly, the fast food chain KFC has gained a noticeable advantage over McDonald's in mainland China.  Perhaps it's because KFC offers more products with genuine bones included. But in Canton, it's not only full chicken legs and wings that get bones-in treatment. Every good meat dish is sliced with a heavy cleaver in a Cartesian fashion, creating a neat grid of chops overlaying the organic bone structure. Predictably, the bones splinter into an array of wondrous chips and marrow.

Appreciation for bones is widespread in Canton, but not universal in China. According to an interview I read with one of  Mao's old chefs, the former Chairman required that he be served only de-boned meat. He was quite picky. Someone once said he was the anal leader of an oral fixated people.  True enough, leaving bones in does give you something to occupy your tongue. Freudian analysis aside, it also can add taste and nutrition to your food.


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.


Putting on a Jacket, Donning a Hat

In preparation for hosting the Asian Games this November, Guangzhou is frantic with activity.  Part of this is what the creative Guangzhou people are calling "putting on a jacket and donning a hat", the project to remodel the exterior of many buildings. It's happening in quite a few older areas of the city commonly visited by tourists, including Shamian Island, Yide Street near Haizhu Square, and much of Zhongshan 1-8 Avenue.  First, bamboo scaffolding goes up over the facades.  Underneath, migrant workers from the countryside are doing re-plastering and repainting, some long-deferred maintenance, and in the case of Shamian Island stripping many layers of paint from the beautiful old stone facades.  After a month, the buildings emerge, looking like somebody with a very recent haircut.

A newer neighborhood, my neighborhood, Tiyuxi, is getting deeper surgery.  The neighborhood is known as a place to find independent fashion boutiques, coffee shops, and small western style pubs and restaurants.  There is a busy subway transfer station at the NE corner, and the neighborhood is wedged between the current CBD, Tiyuzhongxin, and the future CBD under construction, ZhuJiang New Town.  The area is pretty successful, most businesses seem to thrive.  Unlike in America, in China pedestrian only shopping streets seem to do pretty well.  Maybe it's because of the high urban density and people are accustomed to getting around on foot.  Of course, this may change if the China auto boom continues and the masses here develop a taste for the suburbs.

The buildings are mostly 8 stories tall, with one room shops in the ground floor and a network of paths between.  The whole area is about 8 square blocks, but there is only one public street.  A few of the paths are only open to resident cars, the rest are for foot and bicycle traffic only.   Most of the shops have unique storefronts, which seem to wrap the interior out over the exterior of the building.  Many shop owners have claimed the space between their building and the sidewalk, making stepping stone paths or decks. The shops seem to continue out into the public space.  The trees between the buildings create a nice scale.  Above the ground floor is all 1980s China apartment bloc monotony, drab mosaic tiles on concrete, stainless steel window bars and plastic awnings haphazardly added over time.  The area has a nice unpolished, urban feel.  There are high fashion young people parading around and grandmas walking babies.  It's usually a quiet place compared to the city outside, with little traffic noise.  But the sound of construction has come, and it seems all this is changing.

Workers are chipping off the tile and stripping the exterior to bare concrete, replacing windows, and gluing on new brick-colored tiles.  Some buildings are even getting mansard roofs and dormers.  The presentation boards brag the neighborhood will be European style.  Now, the scaffolding from the first building has been removed and the results are visible.  Other than the condensate and coolant lines  for AC which are now visible in high contrast with dark brick tile, the view from afar is not unpleasant.

From up close the work is incomplete, but already quite disappointing.  The exterior accoutrement of each shop has been removed.  Presumably, its now up to each shop owner to replace their storefront.  But its unclear how much freedom each store owner will have to design their storefront.  From the look of the rendering, the exteriors will be uniformed and sanitized into something resembling an American exterior "lifestyle center", a euphemism for a strip mall.

This is the contradiction.  The atmosphere of the place is what draws people here, and the businesses follow.  It is not regularity and conformance aesthetic standards that makes the place attractive, but individuality and uniqueness.  I don't know enough about the history of the neighborhood to know for sure, but I would guess it wasn't planned as an area for stylish shops.  Probably it just happened that way because of the ideas and motivation of individual of shop owners.  In Asia, uniformity is famously a virtue, and modernization is often seen as instituting uniformity.  Even the innately creative people who had a hand in forming this neighborhood may not see the contradiction in taking this functionally beautiful place and and "putting on a hat".


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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