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Leisure and Shopping

It can take quite some while for expat newcomers to get acclimatized to their new host town of Guangzhou. Our local contributor offers valuable tips to help you make heads and tails of life in this southern Chinese megalopolis.

Going to the Park

There is a park within walking distance of the Zhujiang New Town. For Jacques, the three year old we were looking after, this was also reasonable scootering distance. Jacques enthusiastically zipped off down the thankfully wide pavements, calling out “Ni hao!” to every Chinese family he passed, soliciting friendly responses and many smiles. The stereotype that Chinese people love children is true: especially blonde, curly haired young ones.

Be aware of the grossly uneven pavements, which are common in even the best kept parts of the city. To a three year old, it ends up being as much rock-climbing as it is riding the push scooter. In fact, on this instance, there was one bumpy displacement and knee bashing too many, and he gave up with his scooter.

The other care to take is, naturally, crossing the road. Jacques is excellent at waiting, unlike the average Chinese driver who respects no pedestrians, even young ones and even at clearly marked pedestrian crossing. It is not so much that the car has right of way by law – the most assertive person has the right of way. A tonne of black steel wins.

There are no sign-posted directions to the park; a friendly teenager had to point it out using hand-gestures. When we arrived the security guard on the ornate entrance leapt into life and forcibly told us we could not enter. He pointed to the scooter and the ball and then to a sign with the biggest list of crossed-out, banned activities I have ever seen. The Chinese love children but not as much as rules. Fortunately, outside the park entrance, a woman was selling balloons. Jacques picked one and that happily distracted him all the way back to the flat.

The Garment Market

Need a new suit? Don’t waste your time elbowing through the heaving malls. Instead, head to a Garment Market on Yanjiang Dong Lu, Haizu District, and have your suit made, something you might have to do if you’re tall like me.

The first time I went with my partner we were new and we found the indoor warren of fabric shops and tailors fascinating but overwhelming. We used our basic Chinese and the universally understood pointing-finger gesture and smiles to purchase a few metres of linen. There was amusement had at us learning our numbers and, in turn, teaching friendly locals the equivalent English. But we had no idea how to get clothes made.

More recently, my intrepid friend Jillian took me to have my wedding suit made. She navigated me through the wonderfully simple process. First, you visit one of the lower floor linen shops and select the material you want. We found one tiny silk shop with a saleswoman able to speak enough English to help us. The saleswoman recommended us to a tailor – an older but equally friendly expert who went to great lengths to take every possible length, height and breadth. She knew another linen shop that sold suit linings.

You could spend a whole day perusing cottons, nylons, wools and fabrics and work up a sweat haggling but, I have to admit, I was relieved to find the entire process could be achieved in under two hours. Admittedly, I had to make several return trips, partly to give more measurements and partly because the clothing wasn’t finished on the time agreed. (A Chinese friend told me he was not surprised at this.) However, the three-piece suit was worth the wait and tailor delivered all the remaining clothes.

Loft345 – The “hidden” Secret

Loft345 is one of those rare gems in this business orientated city - a bar-come-arts space that hosts cinema viewings, galleries and spoken word events.

Supposedly part of the mystique, actually finding Loft345 is undoubtedly an act of urban exploration. The address on the website will get you to a “nearby” road, and that’s supposing your taxi driver knows the road. We were lucky. We followed a small map (google maps wasn’t working), keeping a low-lying canal to our right. The advice we were following was: follow the graffiti and find a converted factory full of artist studios. The road suddenly narrowed as it reached housing estates. Motorbikes and cyclists zoomed past at typically alarming speeds, beeping their horns.

There was, immediately on the left, a narrow, graffiti smothered factory-style building but with no lights on and no obvious entry. So we carried on exploring, making many confusing turns, encouraged by friendly locals who all waved arms in contradictory directions. Two young men on motorbikes took us to an apartment block and pointed up to some lights and noise. We strode into the room and found several hundred Chinese people staring at us, distracted from their communal cinema event. We froze. They stared. We ducked out. They all laughed.

We went back to the beginning and tried the first building. Looking for a door, we turned into a dark courtyard and a squatting local pointed up some dark stairs. More graffiti looked promising. Finally, on the fourth floor, we found the painted corridors and heard a low hum. A night of mingling with young artists, expat teachers, writers and painters began, complemented by playing pool and table football, and sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels with a hip-hop performance poet.

A Weekend Away

Have you heard of the phrase “when you’re tired of Guangzhou, you need a weekend in Hong Kong”? It’s not an official phrase but many of us here have said it.

Only two hours away by train is the major destinations unfairly considered by many long-haul flyers as a mere stop over. How wrong they are and how lucky you are to be so near.  I’ve taken advantage of it numerous times and I will do again.

Hong Kong has much to offer that Guangzhou cannot. Firstly there is plenty of green space: mountains, hills, coastline with beaches and numerous idyllic islands that are easy to access from the Central ferry point.

Hong Kong is West meets East and, after living in Guangzhou for a while, you will definitely be wanting to meet some of the West again. The city itself offers much in the way of cultural pursuits that you’ve probably been craving. There is also food choices, such as Indian cuisine and comfort foods from Europe, that you may be craving. English is much more widely spoken, so it’s generally easily to orientate the big city.

Getting to Hong Kong is easy enough. There is a train service from Guangzhou East train station, which goes numerous times a day. It’s cheap (compared to a comparable Western or Japanese train service), reliable and goes from city centre to city centre. It’s hugely important you know and remember that entering and exiting either train station involves passing through immigrations and customs. 

A multi-entry Chinese visa is essential if you want to return. A single-entry visa means when you leave China you don’t intend to return. And while Guangzhou struggles to compete with its nearby glitzy neighbour it is, for the time being, my home. I’m MJF and that’s 303 words.

Return to Guangzhou

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, friends are keen to say when one beloved person is away, but it seems this applies to places as well. I would not use the word 'beloved' about Guangzhou though, I have to admit, I have been missing that grey skied, humid metropolis. I've been away on school holidays, getting married and enjoying clear skies, big views and clean water.

When wedding guests quizzed me about living in China, it is far easier to share a long list of things I don't miss: spending inordinate amounts of time in the apartment for fear of breathing in the pollution; the endless food scares and scams; the intermittent internet access; the bizarre skin rashes; the public displays of body fluids; the impatience masses on the metro, etc.

But I have also been saying how much I love my teaching job in China, working with incredible students and making new Chinese friends. The shared humanity, honesty and experiences with these people has shattered stereotypes and taught me so much.

I'm actually proud I live in China. I enjoy the reaction of friends - a mix of surprise, curiosity and mild concern. I also now think it is really important for my partner and I to be in China, at this time in our lives, in this time in history. Asking questions about the pollution invariably leads to uncomfortable conclusions. Look at your clothing, your copious gadgets, your children's toys - mostly all made in China. Our consumption has turned China into a factory state and Chinese people are baring the brunt of it.

Living in Guangzhou is making me question everything I have come from in the West, and I am radically changing as a result. So I'm a married MJF, this is still Guangzhou and that's 303 words.

The Shopping Malls

Guangzhou is home to many big shopping malls. They are veritable cathedrals to consumerism, which at first seems strange for a Communist country. However, the big cities in China have been rapidly developing, relaxing certain economic models and allowing for the spread of the shopping malls.

The experience of walking around and around, up and down the many levels is like any other mall though with some Chinese quirks that make it worth experience, even if, like me, you find your soul sighing in discomfort after the first few shops. I'll explain using the nearest mall to me – Grand View Mall – as an example.

Firstly, fashion stores are by far the most popular choice for the Chinese consumer. There are countless high-end Western label choices, and far more than I have ever seen in London. They are mostly all dominated by the same type of advertising: young, good looking, Caucasian men and women all seeming happy and affluent. Why aren’t they Chinese models?

The cost is also very Western and often much higher. You can easily find an average-looking pair of men’s shoes from selling between 2-4 hundred pounds. This tells you something about the clientele – the new and wealthy urban middle class. So new, the fashion shops have not (and perhaps don’t need to) adapt their advertising. Perhaps being an affluent Westerner is the driving aspiration here.

The other driving force is the same driving force that will shock and anger you on the metro: the inability for local people to respect any kind of queue. Even queuing in H&M, you will be pushed and nudged and people will blatantly jump in front. Thankfully, the cashiers direct these keen customers back to the long and obvious line they are ignoring. I’m MJF, this is Guangzhou and that’s 303 words.

 

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