Guangzhou’s changing face: a city its people can’t recognise any more

As tower blocks replace its villages, Guangzhou has become unrecognisable to many locals. But is the flood of development worth it, asks Thomas Bird

 New apartment blocks in Guangzhou. Photos: Matjaz Tancic; An Ge; Thomas Bird; Corbis

It’s hard to miss the Canton Tower. At 600 metres, it stands high above Guangzhou and represents all that is new in ol’ Canton.

After an ear-popping ascent, one can savour macarons at the Lutece French revolving restaurant and, from the world’s second-highest observation deck, look out over Guangdong Museum and Guangdong Science Centre, both of which were built within the past decade. If you look hard enough (and if the city’s pervasive smog has desisted), you might even see the 53-metre tall, Ming-dynasty Chigang Pagoda, which is indicative of how towers looked before the mainland opened up to the world.

Chigang is one of three fung shui steeples scattered around the Pearl River that were intended to bring fortune to the people of the city. Canton Tower, by contrast, advocates the religion of modernity, as evidenced in the Science and Technology Marvel Tour Hall, on the 109th and 110th floors.

To locals, the latticed structure caressing the tower’s core resembles an idealised female physique, especially when the pink and purple illuminations are switched on at night. To the more cynical, the tower is a phallic expression of the extraordinary wealth this manufacturing centre has generated in the decades since the mainland embraced economic reform, which began here, in Guangdong province, in 1979.

“THERE USED TO BE one Guangzhou, now there are several,” says An Ge, a Dalian-born, award-winning photographer.

He lives on the seventh floor of a boxy, 1990s apartment block in the increasingly upmarket Tianhe district. There are no lifts, which might account for the sexagenarian’s slim physique.

“I can remember when Tianhe used to be fields and villages. Now it’s totally urban and everyone around here hails from other provinces.

“I was raised in Beijing,” An says, over a glass of hot water, explaining that both his parents had been active in the building of the People’s Republic. Like so many of their generation, though, they fell foul of the regime during the Cultural Revolution.

Canton Tower (left) looms over Guangzhou.

“My parents were sent to [do manual] labour in Jiangxi province along with many high-ranking cadres, like Deng Xiaoping. I was sent to Xishuangbanna [in southern Yunnan province] to pick bananas. Afterwards, I didn’t want to go back to Beijing. It’s always been such a political city.”

Instead, An found his way to Guangzhou.

“I liked it immediately, it was very green and there were a lot of Nationalist-era arcades that had survived – the Communist Party hadn’t built too much. People seemed more open-minded, more international. Almost everyone had relatives overseas. I remember the Spring Festival [Lunar New Year] after Chairman Mao died, people were setting off fireworks and celebrating.

“They’d moved on.”

Although An had been taking photographs since his childhood, even once snapping Mao Zedong during a political rally, he was not able to turn his passion for photography into a career until 1978, when the state began to interfere less in people’s occupations. His photos were made famous in two books that document the 80s and 90s, Living in the Age of Deng Xiaoping volumes one and two, which focus on Guangzhou.

“I remember things changing in the 1980s. First, everyone put up aerials to pick up Hong Kong television. Then they showed Superman; that was one of the first foreign films to be allowed in mainland cinemas. Sunglasses became fashionable, beautician [salons] opened and dancing was allowed again.”

An and his camera witnessed a society changing but also a cityscape that was fast disappearing. His Guangzhou was a place of bicycles, ferries, winding alleys, small businesses and labourers. It appears to have been a more innocent place, certainly impoverished, yet distinctive; a city defined by its own climate, culture and characteristics.

Today, the great southern metropolis is a sea of fluorescent billboards, luxury car dealerships and high-rise apartment buildings, that is home to 14 million people. Were it not for the palm trees and forested hills that snake along the hazy horizon, Guangzhou would be largely indistinguishable from many of the mainland’s other large cities.

There is, of course, no question that the standard of living has improved, but the transformation has been so absolute as to render the city almost entirely unrecognisable from that in An’s early photos.

An old part of Guangzhou.

Epitomising this radical metamorphosis is Zhujiang New Town. Paddy fields a decade ago, this mammoth riverside development has sprouted from the ground like concrete bamboo. It is divided into two principal sections: to the west stands a 21st-century business district replete with enormous shopping malls and gilded office towers, including the Guangzhou International Finance Centre, while the east side is dominated by modern, prosaic, residential housing.

“The villagers are all rich, they own several apartments each,” claims lawyer Peter Fenton, a resident of Liede, an ostentatious high-rise housing community in Zhujiang, which supplanted a chengzhong, or urban village, of the same name.

“In the village,” as this mini-Manhattan is referred to, “they still hold traditional festivals, like dragon boating and lion dances. The landlords all share a common family name, so it retains a communal feel,” says the Australian, noting the reconstructed Shi Clan Ancestral Hall.

Nevertheless, the faux Qing architecture and freshly painted angry door gods of the temple look out of place in these austere and imposing new surroundings.

One chengzhong that has made international headlines is Xian village. Located on the other side of Zhujiang, the controversial redevelopment plan for the village was last year linked to the downfall of Guangzhou deputy mayor Cao Jianliao, who developers had bribed to strip villagers of their right to decide the future of their land.

Real estate companies in cahoots with Cao tried to intimidate villagers who refused to sell. The residents’ stubbornness, however, paid off. With President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign in full swing, their war of attrition eventually exposed an “iron triangle of corruption”. Cao and two property developers have since been disgraced.

For many, however, it was too late. Last year, it was revealed that 350,000 square metres of the 470,000-square-metre village had been leased out to developers for a fraction of the market rate, at best fetching 25 yuan (HK$32) per square metre. Property in Zhujiang New Town now sells for up to 50,000 yuan per square metre.

Three photographs (above and below) by An Ge show Guangzhou circa 1985.

Xian remains in an awkward stand-off situation. It is next to Zhujiang New Town and earmarked to be absorbed into it but in its current state it is fenced off and semi-derelict. Land where buildings have been demolished often cannot be developed because the villagers who own the neighbouring plots refuse to sell; there is not a big enough block of land available for a wholesale redevelopment. Posters still advertise rooms to rent for migrants, however, and an open-air market and makeshift restaurants see brisk trade. The village lives through the chaos.

After leaving Xian, I encounter a group of fresh-faced migrants standing outside a McLaren car dealership handing out flyers for luxury apartments. China has built a lot of these, especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, when the government opened the financial floodgates to ward off recession. It now must fill the empty units, which number more than 60 million nationwide, a task that some China watchers believe might undo the economic miracle.

Yet still developers jump at the chance of erecting another glass-panelled tower. Despite Guangzhou covering 7,434 sq km (more than Shanghai, London, Paris or Tokyo), its residents live in a space-poor city, a fact that has turned developers’ attention to the remaining urban villages.

Guangzhou has 138 chengzhong, which are increasingly becoming high-rise through a process of shadowy exaction. To get a handle on the situation, I travel to Shabei, a village on the western outskirts of the city. I step off the metro to find land given over to crops.

“I was born here in 1946,” says Shabei resident Chen Weijin. “I’ve lived here all my life. Up until 10 years ago, this land was rice fields. What you see now is government-owned wasteland where they plan to build a big building. Impoverished migrant workers have illegally planted crops such as cabbages and carrots to supplement their income.

“The Pearl River Delta used to be a breadbasket; now there’s not much farmland left.”

We tour the winding streets of Shabei.

Zhujiang New Town under construction in 1998. Photo: An Ge

“A decade ago, the tallest house was three storeys,” Chen says, pointing out the remaining Nationalist and Qing farmhouses hidden from the street by blocks dubbed “kissing houses”, because they are built so close together.

“Locals build houses taller and taller so they can rent them to outsiders for more and more money.”

Tenements are built on the cheap, and often illegally, first to accommodate low-income migrants, then to barter a better settlement deal with property developers – the taller your house, the more, in theory, they should pay you.

As we navigate streets with electric wires dangling overhead and litter piled up, everyone seems to be renovating their property. Chen says such unregulated, rampant reconstruction is a by-product of the moral vacuum that the country’s economic miracle has left in its wake.

“Before the Communist Party controlled things, now they don’t manage anything,” he says, lamenting the days of Mao. “He was strong.”

It is a sentiment echoed by almost everyone I speak to. Although some of the villagers of Xian have been portrayed as heroes in both local and international media, cynicism abounds in Guangzhou.

“Those villagers have been renting their property profitably to migrants for years,” notes Fenton.

“They’re just fighting for more money,” says graphic designer Soso Su, who was born and raised in Guangzhou.

“I FOUND THAT THERE was an industrial revolution going on. I told my friends, ‘I missed the last one, I’m not going to miss this one,'” says Harley Seyedin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in South China, who first came to Guangzhou from Washington DC, in 1991.

He admits, though, that the Guangzhou of the early 90s was hardly a dream destination.

“I don’t think I saw the sun more than once a month until about 1997. Guangzhou moved over 3,500 outdated factories [out of the city] in the 2000s and built 176 water-treatment facilities to try to purify the Pearl River.”

Seyedin can also recall what a daily grind life was for the average Guangzhou citizen.

Morning rush hour on Haizhu Bridge in 1986. Photo: An Ge

“I remember I helped a guy who had such a big load on his bike he fell backwards four times,” he says, as if describing one of An’s photographs.

“When I arrived, I didn’t see a lot of relics being torn down. What I saw were ghettos being raised. Housing that didn’t make a lot of sense. The vast majority of apartments built in China in the 80s and 90s were way below standard. Some didn’t have running water or a flush toilet … There are still a lot of those apartment buildings in this city. They will eventually have to be replaced for sanitary or environmental reasons. People’s standard of living is going up and so are their expectations.”

Despite the radical and, at times, chaotic urban redevelopment, Seyedin believes that, in general, the changes taking place across the city are for the better.

“I’ve seen the progress. It’s amazing. Zhujiang New Town is only about five to seven years old. I remember seeing the plan of what Tianhe was going to look like and I didn’t believe it could be done. Seven years later it was built, complete with congestion,” he says.

Nevertheless, Seyedin perceives the need to cultivate a more compassionate society.

“The biggest problem is corruption,” he says. “In Guangzhou, people don’t drive to get there, they drive to make sure the other guy doesn’t get there. That’s really a philosophy. Because of poverty, because of the system that has been in place, because of the family fabric, you take care of yourself. Taking care of the other guy has never been an issue, it’s a luxury.”

That sentiment reflects the conflict between developers and villagers, a situation arising from a society short on camaraderie, operating within a poorly enforced legal framework.

China predates the People’s Republic by many thousands of years and the furious remodelling of the country since the 1949 revolution is leaving many citizens, particularly those from proud old towns such as Guangzhou, wondering whether the place in which they grew up still exists.

The city’s metro stations carry a series of posters depicting the Guangzhou of yesteryear; its winding alleys, bamboo doorways and tiny ferries. The posters are titled, “Guangzhou when I was young” and boldly proclaim, “I love Guangzhou.”

The architecture in the city, though functional, is of a type found across the mainland. Aesthetically, it is bereft. Inspiration could have been taken from Qing housing, which had sloping roofs – ideal for rainy seasons. Nationalist-era buildings have arcades that shade pedestrians from tropical downpours and savage sunlight. But the apartment blocks in places such as Zhujiang New Town take no inspiration from the past yet allude to no modern innovation either.

A woman prays at the Guangxiao Temple.

“The character of Guangdong’s architecture has been lost,” says Shenzhen-based documentary filmmaker Li Haiyi, who hails from Yunfu, a small Cantonese-speaking town west of Guangzhou. “But this is a problem all over China. Some people have tried to protect heritage but nobody has found the right way.”

Liu Jie, a Shenzhen-based architect, is one of those who are having a go. Alarmed by the lack of conservation of local buildings, she helped establish Docomomo China in 2012. Docomomo International has 59 chapters, each of which helps to raise heritage awareness by fostering interest in modern architecture and conservation technology.

“The problem is modernism doesn’t belong in China,” Liu says. “It’s a sociopolitical movement that requires architects to foster some kind of social responsibility. And, politically, the conservation principle is not there either, unless it’s authorities applying for Unesco heritage status in order to bolster tourism. The reality is building in China has nothing to do with the people; it is just a way to make money. But the economy is not the only way to judge a place. We must consider culture in design and planning.”

Photographer An Ge.

Jamie Wallace, co-founder, with Liu, of Found CN, an architectural design studio based in Shenzhen, agrees.

“Embedded cultural ideas affect design. What we see now across China are iconic buildings that have no inherent meaning to the culture of the city. New buildings are a product of speed, not research. Innovation is just a risk. Why bother innovating when you can copy the same grid plan over and over?” Wallace asks.

Liu also perceives an ongoing decline in quality, a symptom of corruption and rash profiteering.

“Some robust buildings were constructed in the 90s, but now the materials people use are terrible,” she says. “Real estate companies compete on speed, not quality.”

Gouki Zhang, business director at Guangdong tech company GlassX, takes me to Haizhu district, the area in Guangzhou in which he grew up. He points to some Mao-era buildings. “These were all dormitories, people lived together. Now they have become separate homes.”

Zhang, like any thoroughbred Cantonese, knows of a wanton hole-in-the-wall renowned among locals. On the way, I see a new sign lauding the virtues of socialism.

“Nobody looks at them except leaders,” Zhang says, with the candour I’ve come to expect from Guangzhou natives.

“The 80s were quite simple, not so polluted,” says Zhang, over a bowl of noodles. “Haizhu Bridge was jammed with bicycles. Then the 90s came, they were chaotic. Now things on the whole are better. I understand it’s not easy to run a country this big but we still see faults.

“Before the [2010] Asian Games [which were held in Guangzhou], street-facing buildings were redecorated while the rest were neglected. It’s just face – a leader sees it and feels happy. The problem is leaders aren’t from here; they don’t care for the city. You can see that in the annual Pearl River swim, when they switch off polluting factories a few days before, as if that proves the river is clean.”

Canton Tower, Guangzhou.

After my extensive tour of the city, I feel like I’ve seen some of the many Guangzhous photographer An has captured over the decades: the gilded modern city, the hurriedly erected post-reform tenements, the decaying relics of socialist communal living, the beautiful Nationalist-era arcades and the last Qing-dynasty farmhouses.

I ask Zhang if there is anything truly ancient to take in.

It’s a short drive to the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, in the west of the city. It’s one of four major Buddhist temples in Guangzhou. Originally constructed in AD537, its current name was bestowed upon it by Song-dynasty poet Su Dongpo. Central to the temple complex is the majestic Six Banyan Pagoda, also known as the Flower Pagoda, because the eaves curl upwards like petals. Erected in 1097, it stands in testament to a time when buildings were determined by aesthetics, rather than function or profit, and were built to last.

Zhang then takes me to the exquisite Guangxiao Temple. Through a haze of incense smoke, we take in the Mahavira Hall, the Sixth Ancestor Hall and the Qianfo Pagoda. Praying to Buddha is a young woman, with dyed blond hair, carrying a shopping bag and wearing designer labels.

Didn’t Buddha advocate humility?

“Yes, but round here people are pragmatic, they take what they can get,” says Zhang.

The Cantonese have endured much since the Europeans first arrived on Guangdong shores, and particularly since 1949. Things are, on the whole, better today than they have been in a long time. But a chasm exists, a gap between the people and their past and the people and their future. If the Communist Party is going to succeed in overseeing the next chapter in history, it will need to consider local mores to develop and build in ways that win the hearts and minds of the people.

After all, it is the people, not the buildings, that are the true fabric of any society.