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


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?


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.


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".