Shamian Island, Guangzhou
Anyone who’s read this blog at all knows well that it’s been precisely 1.25 years since Ellis and I have taken a proper holiday. Luckily, being an expatriate in Hong Kong is something like living on holiday, if you don’t mind a “working holiday”, but that sure hasn’t stopped me kvetching, has it? After our little birthday party on Thursday night, we thought we’d better show James a little something besides Hollywood Road and Shek-O for all his hard work, so we hopped an early morning train for fabulous Guangzhou. Sure, it’s perhaps one of the most industrial, and ergo most polluted spots in China, if not the world; sure it’s just a two hour train ride from Hong Kong – the equivalent of taking a vacation from Manhattan in Hartford, Connecticut- on a slightly, shall we say, “shabby chic” communist-era coach: it’s a holiday, dammit! And we were determined to enjoy it, even though we were a little worse for the wear from the bubbles the night before.
Nothing a surprisingly divine fried egg on sweet white bread and a nice steaming cup of Hong Kong milk tea won’t fix. Had we been more awake, we might have taken some pictures of the very cute dining car- as it was, the train ride was devoted to napping. Arriving in Guangzhou is as harrying as arriving in any other Chinese metropolis: battle your way through a maddeningly unsigned station, search in vain for a taxi queue before realizing it’s basically a giant scrum, drive in circles for half an hour before joining a clogged freeway, lean back in the seat to enjoy the view of a rampant property bubble blowing up before your eyes, only partially obscured by a smog so dense it seeps in through the sealed windows and burns the nostrils and leaves a peculiar and unpleasant taste in the mouth. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Guangzhou is an ancient city- over a thousand years old- yet it doesn’t look so different from Shenzhen, which is just a little more than forty. But we weren’t here to see Guangzhou, per se, we were here to see Canton, specifically that part of Canton the Chinese allowed foreigners to settle in long before the foreign concessions of Shanghai, even before dear old Hong Kong was claimed as the property of England so that its citizens could live in comfort whilst addicting a generation of Chinese to opium. Despite the distasteful politics of the whole affair, though, the various foreign powers that parked their ships in China’s ports have managed to leave some really pretty buildings in their wake, and since around five of them are left here in Hong Kong, we wanted to visit a land where property mania hadn’t managed to make rubble of them all yet. And the shocking thing is, Shamian Island, at the bottom of Guangzhou on the Pearl River, connected to the mainland of the city by pretty little arched bridges, is still almost an intact colonial relic, despite being older than Hong Kong, despite being one of the richest cities in China, and certainly despite being one of the most industrial. It’s difficult to describe the weirdness of pulling off the freeway into this. But that’s what cameras are for.
Yes, the water is a disturbingly dense shade of green, but the trees are real, and really do their job of making the air seem ever so slightly more breathable, and the fountains are filled with carp and people are strolling about. It feels a bit like Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, or Charleston, SC and not a bit like anywhere in urban China.
Having made it through the ordeal of getting there, we all agreed we deserved a nice cold beer, as it felt a good ten degrees hotter than it had in Hong Kong. I don’t know that the blades on the fans at this lovely little terrace cafe we sat out at were drooping like wilted flowers because of the heat or it was a design feature, but they certainly looked how we felt. So we had a couple and watched the little parade of noontime Shamian Island in 2010 unfold. And in a pretty place like Shamian Island, this of course includes many many wedding photos being shot- nothing odd there at all.
What one doesn’t often see in Shek-o, though, or the Botanical Gardens, or Victoria Park, is a woman rocking the “Scarlett O’Hara” look, but with Shamian Island as your background, what could be a more obvious choice?
Thus revived and amused, we set out to stroll about the one kilometer island, taking in some of the sights, which, beyond brides, means looking at buildings- one of our favorite pastimes.
One of the pleasures of the Island is that most of the buildings are marked with plaques detailing their age and original use; bizarrely, though, most of them, despite pristine facades, are all but derelict.
Occasionally, one will espy a very old man lucky enough to have an apartment in one; in some instances, a concierge will inform you that there is a restaurant and bar on the premises, but, that despite the fact that it’s Friday night, it is not open; more often than not, though, the only sign of life beyond buckets of plaster and step ladders are little shops, almost all of them someone’s “place” (i.e. “Stacey’s Place”, “Anne’s Place”, etc.) selling an odd assortment of Chinese crafts, baby clothes, and 50% off laundry. While this seemed a tad strange in the afternoon, once we checked into the Guangzhou Victory Hotel we came to understand why: the lobby was teeming with middle-aged Americans and their newly adopted Chinese daughters. It soon became apparent that the entire economy of Shamian Island is built around this industry: tour guides whisked large groups of new parents from hotel lobby to health clinic to restaurant. It was somewhat disconcerting, as most of the parents, though they were quite sociable with one another, would avert their gazes entirely when passing us on the street or at the breakfast buffet. Though it did not diminish our enjoyment of the island- to the contrary, by increasing the surreal quality of the place, it correspondingly increased our enjoyment of it as well.
Obviously, a city as large and vibrant as Guangzhou has more than just a mile long strip of island to recommend it, but as we had to be back at the shop the next afternoon, we decided to save the rest- the temples and pagodas, the museums and art galleries, the malls and boutiques- for another day. It is, after all, a short train ride away…