In the city of Guangzhou, 75 miles north of Hong Kong on the Pearl River, I can feel the promise of present-day China everywhere I go: a new international airport, a sleek ferry terminal, a state-of-the-art convention center. The skyline changes from week to week, as high-rise condos climb upward and shopping complexes rise throughout the neighboring suburbs. The city’s markets are filled with people, and just beyond Guangzhou’s borders, the Pearl River factories begin. If the old Hong Kong was all about eating, shopping, and global business, then this mainland city is poised to fill its 21st-century shoes. Here, I discover that most things sold in the United States with a Made in China label were probably made in Guangzhou.
The city, once known to Westerners as Canton, has long been a trade hub. Beginning in the seventh century, it served as the starting point of the maritime Silk Road, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the base for British and French commercial enterprises. Later, Guangzhou native Sun Yat-sen made the city the center of his revolutionary Nationalist Party. Along with the rest of China, Guangzhou fell to the Communists in 1949. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when Deng Xiaoping declared his famous "open door" policy, that the Pearl River Delta industrial boom began, and the region started to reclaim its mercantile roots. Today, this complicated, contradictory place—a provincial capital that’s a teeming international marketplace, a relentlessly forward-looking city that’s rich in reminders of its colonial past—is one of China’s largest cities. Though Guangzhou’s manufacturing reputation keeps it off the itineraries of most nonbusiness travelers, the city is the heart of modern China. And if the opening of the Ritz-Carlton and Westin luxury hotels next year is any indication, Guangzhou has become, once again, a definitive center of world trade.
I have come here to visit my father, a painter who recently moved his studio from Beijing to Panyu, on Guangzhou’s outskirts, for its warm, humid weather and proximity to Hong Kong. But my connection to the place runs deeper still: my mother and her family fled the area in 1949 when the Communists came to power and landed in Hong Kong. There, she met my father in a swimming pool. As I walk along the Pearl River with my father and watch old men cast fishing lines into the water, with the downtown skyscrapers as a backdrop, I try to reconcile my mother’s tales of rice paddies with the fast-paced, smog-filled behemoth I see before me. In her recollections and those of her family, the area around Guangzhou maintained the traditions of village life: farming, communal meals, and trips to the market. The sounds and textures of all that history still play a part in the city even now—you just have to know where to look.
Guangzhou, of course, is the home of Cantonese cooking, and locals are fiercely loyal to it. Forget what you’ve heard about Hong Kong’s cuisine being the best; when it comes to dim sum, Guangzhou’s is unrivaled. Everyone tells me that I must rise early to get the freshest selections: sesame balls, steamed buns filled with red-bean paste, fried taro puffs with crab, sweet egg-custard tarts, and rice noodles with barbecued pork. My father and I don’t exactly get up at the crack of dawn, but we do arrive with the morning rush at the Garden Hotel, where the Peach Blossom restaurant serves dim sum throughout the morning and afternoon. Inside, waitresses in red lipstick and starched gold-and-white uniforms pour us fragrant chrysanthemum tea. My favorite dish is the glutinous steamed rice dumplings, which come wrapped in bamboo leaves and are eaten dipped in sugar.
Later, we eat at Yumin, the largest and most famous of the pick-what-you-eat, live-seafood restaurants in Guangzhou. On the ground floor, dozens of tanks line the room and are filled with giant lobsters, sturgeon, striped Japonica shrimp, and Mandarin fish. The saying goes that the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs—except the table. Four-foot-long alligators roam through Yumin’s front dining room, their mouths tied shut with pieces of twine. (Yes, you can order one for dinner, and no, we didn’t.) The restaurant’s array of sweets is almost as spectacular: fried peanut crêpes, intricately constructed buttercream pastries, and dofu fa, a sweet silky-tofu dessert. I think of my mother. When I was growing up, she would make the delicate confection by hand at home by squeezing out the soybean water through cheesecloth. Her mother—my paw-paw (grandmother)—taught her how to make dofu fa just as it had been made by generations of women before her.
True to its history, guangzhou is, most of all, a buying-and-selling kind of town. In the city’s famous specialty markets, of which there are many, everything is on offer. Jiangnan Road, on the south side of Haizhu Bridge, is dedicated entirely to the sale of traditional Chinese wedding gowns; here, I buy a sleek red-and-black silk sheath for a friend to wear during her upcoming wedding reception. There’s a center for fabrics (Haiyin Market), one for pets and plants (Huadiwan Market), and another for jade (Jade Market, on Changshou Road). In boutiques all across the city, I find designer labels such as Prada, Armani, Hugo Boss, and Perry Ellis and wonder how much of the clothing has been made in Guangzhou. I also spot, in black-market displays, their counterfeit counterparts, which don’t look very different from the legitimate ones.