I finally made it to Guangdong province on China's southern coast. The palm trees are here, as are the bananas, but the warm balmy weather is still eluding me. The name Guangdong may sound unfamiliar to Western ears, as it is more commonly known as Canton. During the 18th and 19th centuries when the Western powers were expanding their influence around the world their main point of contact with the Middle Kingdom was through the various ports in the province, particularly Guangzhou (which was also, confusingly, named Canton). This is the Chinese region that has had the greatest contact with the outside world and has always been more open to foreign influences, which is easily evident both in its people and its places.
|One of the Kaiping diaolou, an eclectic marriage of Chinese and Western architectural styles as well as a utilitarian, defensive dwelling.|
Although Kaiping and its surroundings demonstrate the past merging of China and the West, to see the equivalent process happening today you must go to Guangzhou, the provincial capital and main city of the Pearl river delta. In China today there are four principal cities, each with its own sphere of influence: Beijing is the administrative centre and holds the political reins of power; Shanghai is the business capital and sees high-level business deals being struck; Shenzhen (and nearby Dongguan), also on the Pearl River, are the manufacturing centres where most of the useless crap that is made in China actually gets made; but Guangzhou is China's marketplace. This is where everything that is made in China (and that's a lot of stuff) is bought and sold. It is here that all the import-exporters, the middle-men, from all around the world come to buy their goods which eventually find their way into the markets and shops the world over. Here, more than anywhere else in China, even Shanghai, you will find people from all countries, ethnicities and walks of life rubbing shoulders together all united in their single, united, purpose of turning a profit. Every country in the world is represented: there are Nigerians, Ethiopians, Arabs, Europeans, Russians, Indonesians, Latin Americans and many more besides. Each group has its own little ghetto in town, but they come together at Guangzhou's chaotic markets.
|Guangzhou's wholesale markets see people flocking from all over the world to buy cheap, made-in-China goods.|
Markets the world over are always fascinating places, full of verve, bustle, noise and life. Guangzhou's are no exception. Large complexes, each devoted to a particular type of goods - watches and jewelry, men's clothing, shoes, domestic appliances, toys, etc. - house a multitude of shoebox-sized, cramped shops overflowing with products hot off the assembly lines of the many nearby factories. Every shade, colour, quality and design can be found, from convincing imitations, to cheap knock-offs (no authentic products though, mind you). Individual buyers, though, are not what the shopkeepers are after, and if you are just wanting to buy a pair of shoes you might be told that half the pairs on display are not available. That is because the market caters mainly to bulk-buyers who export the goods to their own countries (and even provinces around China). Here is a sample conversation that you might hear at the market:
Punter picking up a shoe and observing it closely. "How much does it cost?" (Due to the international nature of the market many of the shopkeepers speak some English, especially when it comes to numbers.)"Buy one or many? You buy one cost 100 RMB. Buy one thousand give you special price 90 RMB.""Can I get four thousand in five different colours?""Sure, no problem. You want pick up this afternoon? Ready at four o'clock."
As befits a city of such international importance, Guangzhou is awash with shiny new skyscrapers, clad in glass and steel contorted into wondrous shapes (since many of China's cities are being almost built from scratch they are a playground for the world's architects who can let loose with their imaginations as there is nothing too gaudy or outrageous for China's new, up-and-coming metropolises). Countless 5-star hotels from all the major international chains, shopping centres galore, a clean metro system, a few landscaped parks and even some cultural centres populate this modern city. But take a little alleyway between the skyscrapers and suddenly you are transported into a teeming world of smells, noises and friendly grime as the Potemkin facade gives way to the world of the ordinary Chinese, many of whom are migrant workers, who toil away to create China's economic miracle. Living in squalor so that they can save up money to secure a decent education for their children, who are usually left back in the home town, and dreaming of a better future.
|Towering high-rises sprouting like mushrooms in the boom-town of Guangzhou.|