The freewheeling port city of Guangzhou may be the heart of modern China, but for Bonnie Tsui, it’s also a window into her family’s past


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.

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.

When to Go

Plan to visit from late fall through early spring, when the weather is the most comfortable; from June through September, Guangzhou is quite hot.

Getting There

More than a half-dozen major airlines fly into Hong Kong. From there, you can travel by either ferry or train to Guangzhou. For visa information, contact the Chinese embassy or consulate nearest you.

Where to Stay

The Garden Hotel
A 1,028-room tower, with a soaring marble lobby and great restaurants.
368 Huanshi Dong Rd.; 86-20/ 8333-8989;; doubles from $160.

White Swan Hotel
A city classic, on Shamian Island, overlooking the river.
Shamian Island; 86-20/8188-6968;; doubles from $101.

Where to Eat

Peach Blossom Restaurant
The Garden Hotel (see Where to Stay); dim sum for two $40.

Yumin Restaurant
559–567 Yingbin Rd., Dashi Town, Panyu; 86-20/ 2287-8811; dinner for two $25.

What to Do

Yuyin Mountain House
Also called Yuyin Garden, this is one of four major Qing dynasty gardens in the province.
Nancun Town, Panyu; 86-20/3882-8309.

Where to Shop

Haiyin Market
Silks and wools; next to Haiyin Bridge.

Haizhu Market
In Haizhu Circle, off Yanjiang Road.

Jade Market
On Changshou Road.

Jiangnan Market
To get to this "wedding dress street," head south from Haizhu Circle on Jiangnan Road.

Qingping Market
Take an afternoon to explore the maze of stalls and shops across from Shamian Island.

Yuyin Mountain House

Also called Yuying Garden, this is one of four major Qing dynasty gardens in the province.

Yumin Restaurant

Peach Blossom Restaurant

White Swan Hotel, Guangzhou

The Garden Hotel