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Canton Revisited

Abutting the west side of Haizhu Circle is the massive labyrinthine Haizhu wholesale market, with hundreds of narrow stalls selling everything from heavy hand-carved stone Buddhas to more banal objects, like stainless-steel thermoses. It’s in this place, and in the crowded alleys of the historic Qingping Market, that I really feel the rhythm of Guangzhou. In Qingping, trucks rumble by inches from standing customers, and swapping offers is a staccato dance of words. My father and I have come for medicinal herbs and painting supplies, but if we want, we can buy dried mango, a baby duck, or even a snake.

At one cramped stall, I lean in to examine a strand of shiny pink pearls before asking the woman behind the table for a price. After a brief exchange, she looks me up and down suspiciously: "Where are you from?Not here. You don’t dress like you’re from around here. But you speak Cantonese!" These days, even in Guangzhou, the default dialect is Mandarin, thanks to the influx of Chinese from other parts of China, who come here seeking work. The pearl merchant, my new best friend, squeals with pleasure. Thus begins a barrage of questions so animated that my father, a private person, gives me a look as if to say, "See what you started?" During it all, the woman’s husband crouches, rapidly stringing dozens of pink kernel-shaped pearls on wire.

Unlike Hong Kong, where nightclubs and high-design boutiques set a glamorous model of urban life, Guangzhou is not all shiny and new. But, as signaled by the construction that hammers on day and night, the city is on its way, and the old has had to reposition itself alongside the new. Outside a silk shop and a contemporary-art gallery on Shamian Island, the old European quarter of the city, I hear the deep, furious clicking of mah-jongg tiles smacking together. In an alleyway around the corner, set back under hanging laundry lines and crumbling, colonial-style terraces, two tables of elderly Chinese men are involved in intense play. And along the Pearl River waterfront, as freighters crawl past and customers drink beer at a nearby street café, a man serenely practices tai chi under the shade of a large banyan tree.

My father, who grew up in Hong Kong and later lived in the United States, says that there’s something that feels more authentic about Guangzhou’s wealth, which sits firmly in history, than Hong Kong’s, where he grew up. In public spaces such as Haizhu Circle, where visitors on shopping extravaganzas mingle with residents putting on a Chinese opera in the grass, the richness of Guangzhou’s traditions comes face-to-face with its modern-day ambitions.

Across a footbridge from the raucous Qingping stalls, my father and I find tranquillity in colonial-flavored Shamian Island. This is where the British and French trade concessions were once situated, and the neighborhood’s well-tended parks have whimsical bronze sculptures whose chief theme appears to be Sino-European relations; appropriately enough, it’s a common meeting place for tour groups. The Western sensibility of this area appeals to my father, who misses certain aspects of his life in the States: coffee bars, freshly baked muffins, a good New York bagel. Outside a new outpost of the Canada-based Blenz Coffee chain, we watch two young Chinese schoolchildren tentatively approach a table of German tourists.

"Excuse me," asks one of the schoolgirls, shyly, in English. "What do you think of Guangzhou?"

An older German man at the table smiles at her and answers, emphatically, "It is very—nice!"

The two children run off to rejoin their class, dissolving in a fit of giggles. We laugh too. Nice may be the last word that comes to mind when I think of Guangzhou. Cacophonous, ambitious, sprawling, proud, authentic, enchanting, yes. But nice it is decidedly not.

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