Saturday, January 22, 2011

Canton has can-do: Vibrant culture and shopping found in today's Guangzhou

Liwan is a great place to pick up antiques. Photo: Chen Jieying

Last year was an unforgettable one for Guangzhou. The successful hosting of the 16th Asian Games and Asian Para Games increased the city's profile around the continent, if not the world, while the iconic new Canton Tower opened and was an enduring image of both the opening and closing ceremonies.
But 2011 offers fresh challenges for the capital of Guangdong Province – can it build on the legacy of the Games and become the world-hub it so wants to be? Let us take a cultural and commercial look at the city.
Art zones and bar streets
Guangzhou is not known as one of China's hipper cities. It lacks both the glamour of Shanghai and Beijing's cultural depth, and although not as hectic as nearby Hong Kong, it isn't nearly as relaxed a place as Chengdu or Kunming – but any suggestion that the City of Rams is a cultural desert is wide of the mark. Iconic new buildings such as Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House are part of an official drive to promote Guangdong's capital as a more cosmopolitan, creative place, but really this is just official recognition of something that's been happening on a smaller scale for quite some time.
One obvious example of a cooler Canton can be seen in the evolution of the city's nightlife. Small, stylish restaurants have started to appear in its backstreet and converted houses, and bars and coffee shops are blooming. An increasing number of such places are giving people the option to eat, drink and be merry in the open air.
Even better for Guangzhou's creative credentials is the fact that a number of local nightspots are actively promoting live music – and not the kind that involves cover bands playing "Hotel California." Tianhe's C:Union and its younger sibling T:Union, which is located inside Guangzhou's Sculpture Park, are known for an eclectic and ever-changing roster of live acts, and they are not alone. Venues 191 Space and Tekkwunn Livehouse in downtown Guangzhou, and Iron Age Space down at Panyu's University City, are luring more independent and international acts to South China, as well as providing a home for an increasingly diverse and multicultural group of locally based performers. Be it European electro-pop or Chinese metal, Cantonese hip-hop or Kazakh folk, musicians are not short of places to play, nor punters keen to listen to them.

Shangxia Jiu Lu aka "Up-Down" 9 Road. Photo: Chen Jieying
In some cases, these venues offer much more than music. Ping Pong, for example, tucked discreetly off a side-street near the Xinghai Conservatory, is a charming bar in its own right, and also known for its contemporary art life. It stages all sorts of exhibitions and performances, and last year launched the Ping Pong China-Europe Centre for Performance Art, which is based at the 1850 Creative Zone down in Fangcun, itself one of a number of new spaces for the arts being carved out of Guangzhou's post-industrial hinterland.
One of the prototypes for this mode of creative rebirth is Loft 345. Evolving out of an even more rough-and-ready space called Park 19, the Loft has it all: cheap booze, dodgy toilets, a cluster of artists-in-residence, and a constant trickle of curious visitors, who venture into the interior of the otherwise-nondescript building it inhabits in search of something a bit different.
The Loft was one of the first of its kind in Guangzhou, but the idea of turning former factories into creative spaces has reached a climax of sorts at Redtory. Originally a canning factory near the Pearl River in Yuancun, Redtory is now an art district, taking Beijing's 798 as its template and carefully reproducing what every edgy art zone in contemporary China needs. Obscure location?
Check. Disused industrial buildings reincarnated as cavernous galleries? Check. Assorted socialist realist sculptures? Check. Galleries with names like "Iron Curtain," or simply "916"? Once again, check.
But however consciously it has mimicked 798 – or what 798 has become – Redtory still has some charm of its own. For a former industrial area, it's surprisingly green in places, and has the kind of  chilled-out atmosphere not always easy to come by in crowded Guangzhou. It also attracts a lively mix, from footballers and fencers who come to take advantage of its sports facilities, to the camera-toting couples and families who photograph each other draped against an "arty" backdrop. Most encouragingly, early film screenings, events and exhibitions suggest that Redtory has the potential to become something very interesting in future.
And if this idea of the arts doesn't grab you, it doesn't matter. Today's Guangzhou has plenty of alternatives, be it the canal-crossed, quintessentially Cantonese artists' colony of Xiaozhou Village, or internationally recognized institutions like the Guangdong Museum of Art and Guangdong Modern Dance Company. But more intriguing – and perhaps more truly representative of Guangzhou – are smaller, more independent entities like Vitamin Creative Space and the Libreria Borges Institute for Contemporary Art. Whether it's hosting a mini film festival or supporting Chinese translations of French philosophy, both have been doing their own thing for years. The wider art-world may have started to pay attention to what's been going on in the city, but for many Guangzhou-based artists it makes little difference – they'll keep on creating, whether anyone else is fortunate enough to notice or not.

Redtory adds new colour to Guangzhou's culture. Photo: Chen Jieying

No shortage for shoppers
The well-worn phrase "shop till you drop" was made for Guangzhou, perhaps explaining why so many tasty eateries can be found on and around the busy high streets. The problem is knowing how to shop clever. Guangzhou caters to every taste, from high-end designer gear to cheerful tat. Best of all, even for the non-shopper, there is much to enjoy in the city's markets, malls and streets.
Take Yide Lu as a classic example. Situated close to the Pearl River and Haizhu Square, it is a great place to browse, bargain and finally buy, whatever age you are. The beauty of Yide Lu is that One Link is just one of the shopping options, with even seemingly basic frontages masking huge shopping spaces in behind. This is a place where fortune favours the brave. Just dive in and enjoy the vast array of toys, tricks, decorations, scarves and heaven-knows-what else on offer at any particular time.
Nearby, there are a couple of interesting places to seek sanctuary, notably the impressive Stone Church on Yide Lu itself. For those needing a different sort of spiritual revival, opt for the beer garden of the 1920 bar beside the Pearl River, where weary shoppers can be found in the early evening surrounded by huge plastic bags full of their many purchases, sipping on a hard-earned happy hour cocktail.
If Yide Lu is tat-tastic, Kangwang Lu is the place for antiques, pearls and jade. The old face of this part of Liwan District has been changed, although thankfully not completely, with large shopping malls replacing simple street stalls in recent years.
Liwan Plaza itself is a remarkable shopping outlet with floor upon floor selling pearls. Across the road, there is a similarly bewildering array of stalls selling jade. Whichever jewel you are interested in buying, it is advisable to have some knowledge about how to identify the quality of the goods on offer because, unsurprisingly, everyone seems to promise theirs are the very best – but bargains are available if you have the patience and the know-how to find them.
Old Guangzhou characteristics are clearly visible in the narrow passages that snake around the jade market and it is never a hardship to pass a couple of hours just following your nose and seeing what is on offer. The hassle so prevalent in many parts of Asian markets, and elsewhere around the world, is joyfully absent, as are the tour buses found in similar parts of Shanghai, Beijing and Xi'an.
Find the square with the antique stalls and there is one of Guangzhou's hidden treasures. The Tibetan shopfront is small and simple, often featuring a rug and a glass jewelry case. But the real pleasure comes when being taken around the corner, through a door, up the stairs and into an Aladdin's Cave full of wonderful furniture, rugs, prints and ornaments. The friendly owners are more than happy to let you browse at your leisure and there is never any hard sell.
Teem Mall and China Plaza are just two of many offering a massive variety of stores, but the adventurous shopper need not restrict themselves to inside the malls. Both are surrounded by interesting alternatives to part with your hard earned cash.
Throw in the Haiyin cloth market, where you can get clothes made-to-measure, the chaotic but entertaining sprawl around the old train station, the huge leather wholesale markets on Jiefang Beilu, and the ever-popular Beijing Lu, and the options really are limitless.

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