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Ramble in Guangzhou: west side stories

 

The Chen Family Temple

While the rest of the metropolis gallops forward, a district on the west side of Guangzhou has wound down for a nostalgic embrace of its graceful past, says Raymond Zhou.

When I was a graduate student in the early 1980s, Guangzhou had only two bridges across the Pearl River, and what is now the center of town in Tianhe was still an endless swath of rice paddies. I would ride a bicycle along Haizhu Bridge and the boulevard that used to be the axis of the city.

As the city expands, mostly toward the east and the south, instead of being drowned in a canyon of skyscrapers, old Guangzhou has emerged in its regained glory of a century ago. Liwan district was the old commercial hub, with trading companies (most notably Sup Sam Hung) and retailers as well as residential buildings so unique they were given the name Xiguan manor.

Xiguan literally means "outside the west gate", but the city gate was demolished early in the 20th century and the 16.2-sq-km housing 700,000 residents is now officially Liwan district.

I never knew there was a Liwan Creek, one of a dozen that crisscross the city. That was once swallowed up by heaps of unseemly buildings. Now, a walkway has been created along the creek, which has been dredged and removed of its stench.

Old structures along the banks have been cleaned and retouched. You may even chance upon a wedding procession or a Cantonese Opera show that adds a punchy splash of color to the scenery.

The area used to have as many as 800 manors, two-story elongated houses (10 meters by 40 meters) the wealthy had built for their families. Now, only a dozen remain in their original form.

What distinguishes the Xiguan manor from private homes in other parts of southern China is the entrance: It has three doors, a swinging door similar to a saloon in the American frontier, a sliding gate with horizontal bars to keep the draft in and burglars out, and the real door.

What distinguishes the Xiguan manor from private homes in other parts of southern China is the entrance: It has three doors, a swinging door similar to a saloon in the American frontier, a sliding gate with horizontal bars to keep the draft in and burglars out, and the real door.

Not surprisingly, kids would use the barred door as an ad hoc playground and the naughty ones might even get their heads stuck between the bars.

Those who lived in Xiguan had money but little political power, which tended to congregate on the east side of town, which was, until recently, known as Dongshan district. So, the merchants would educate their daughters in one of the 300 family schools and marry them to young men who lived on the east.

The practice was obviously so common that the terms "Miss Xiguan" and "Master Dongshan" went into vogue.

Nowadays, visitors would most likely ramble along Shang Xia Jiu High Street, a pedestrian avenue lined with hundreds of tourist-friendly stores.

But even if you are not interested in antiques, artifacts or local crafts, you'll probably be unable to resist the temptation of local snacks. It is said that the variety is so rich, you'll not run out of choices if you tasted one a day.

Well, some of them are available at a typical Cantonese tea and breakfast, so you'd better savor those that you don't find elsewhere.