Guangzhou – the street food, the city and the architecture

You’ve probably heard of Guangzhou (GZ) as the computer screen you looking at will have been made or passed through somewhere near there.

The few remaining sampan people

It is the centre of what used to be known as Canton, i.e. the region where the Chinese food you eat in every Chinatown all around the world is from.  Because it was one of China’s first major ports they were its first people to begin the disapora. However, the city itself is not exactly a tourist destination.  Guidebooks and online are empty or inane but we thought all the better let’s go.

Street food

So to the food.  This is where everything you immediately think of when you think of Chinese food descended from.  There are no big name restaurants or draws so you just wander around and try to feel what you want.

Liang pi stall

We started with a type of liang pi or cold rice noodles with cucumber, vinegar, chilli oil, salt, mashed garlic in water and bean sprout from a stall off the street.  It was quickly frankly fantastic.  All the vinegar and chilli making the rice noodles ping in your mouth. It was 10 rmb or 90 pence.

Liang pi literally on the street

Thereafter places just revealed themselves as we drifted through the city on our bikes.  One particularly cool district was Haizhu which felt a bit like being in the more relaxed backstreets of Harajuku in Japan.  There were an array of little shops and narrow winding alleys full of places to drink and eat in and for mosquitos to snack on you.  We pulled up at one small restaurant which was spilling onto the street and started ordering.  Despite having two Mandarin speakers with us it was once again a game of pointing at neighbouring tables. See the header picture for a glimpse at the scarily attentive service.

The stinky tofu family rather surprised by me turning up

Despite being a game of pot luck the food was fantastic.  Everything you expect from Cantonese food with a great whole steamed fish right at the centre of the meal.  The restaurant also had the added character that came with us probably being the first non Chinese people to ever visit.  This was replicated slightly throughout the whole trip.  In two days of extensive cycling we saw about 10 white people in total which considering it is a mere 2 hours train ride from Hong Kong – one of the world’s major East meets West cities – is pretty amazing.

One layer of the steamed pancake thing

The rest of the trip was finished off by street food the most memorable of which was stinky tofu.  We were cycling through a backstreet and I casually remarked a sewer must have broken (and I am not saying this for effect).  Alex said it was stinky tofu which I had to try.  Now I knew about stinky tofu but hadn’t tried it… and well… it smells like effluence.  The taste is nothing that strong but a slight tinge of it remains.  It is not something I will regularly return to but is nothing to fear if you haven’t had it.

All five layers of the wrinkled rice pancake

One thing which none of us had ever tried before but we ate was steamed rice noodles cooked in metal drawers which was then scrapped back with a paint scrapper from a DIY shop and served in a wrinkled 5 layers with spring onion, char siu, soy, vinegear and spice.  Again about 10 rmb and fantastic.

The Loft club/ bar in an old industrial building

GZ as a city is big and relaxed and “cooler” than my experiences in Hong Kong.  This was demonstrated in part by a great bar we went to called the Loft which is worth going to if you visit.  In what looks like a derelict industrial block you climb up some ominious stairs and arrive in a bohemian industrial space.  The men’s loos are lit by holes ripped out of the wall and each floor is covered with grafitti and seeming squats.

Information Based Architecture's television tower

The trip to GZ also taught me something simple about Chinese cities.  They are big. Really really big.  The tourist destinations are not exactly apparent either.  You go to Paris and you know what to expect and where to go.  Throw in a few museums, some cafes and a wander in the Jardin des Tuileries.  Chinese cities don’t have that.  They have urbanisation.

A perspective on GZ with IBA's television tower on the left and Wilkinson Eyre's IFC on the right

So, as mentioned above, we cycled and actually took some fixed wheel bikes with us. We thought it was pretty much the only way to cover the distances and allow us to drift along and it worked.

Zaha Hadid's opera house

GZ is where the 2010 Asian games are being held so this has given the GZ authorities the excuse to get a bunch of big name architects in and go crazy. The best of the bunch is Information Based Architecture’s television tower which you can see a couple of pictures above.  Zaha Hadid’s cultural centre is initially impressive and from afar is alien and angular.  Unfortunately once you get close it reveals the kind of workmanship that you might expect from a kindergarden kid if you gave them some concrete and a crane.  Such sloppiness in execution that the beauty was destroyed.

Underneath Zaha Hadid's opera house

All in all I love GZ even if there is no obvious draw to go there.  As a city to drift around and easily immerse yourself in China it was great.  This was my first experience of the “mainland” and I loved it.

PS a major thanks to my tour guides Drew and Alex who are also responsible for the photos above as they took the burden of cycling with the camera.  Their blog is http://www.triplefiveshanghai.com/ which gives an insight into life in Shanghai.

15 Comments

  1. Guangzhou is where my parents come from. It can be hard work but I’m pleased you scratched beneath the service and found some treats. The crinkled rice noodle thing you had is a ‘street version’ of the rice noodle rolls aka cheung fun served in dim sum joints. Also like the story that you were the first ‘gweilo’ to visit that neighbourhood resturant.

    • I saw how they made cheung fan for the first time on Cheung Chau island a month or so ago… amazing is all I can say. So simple but so much potential for failure.

      Seriously there were just no non Chinese and it is a massive city and so close to everywhere. Kind of amazing really.

  2. That street food soounds superb. But ain’t that always the case in East Asian cities. You might as well forget about most of the restaurants and go straight for the street stalls where the food is fresh, fast and fabulous.

    I like the sound of Guangzhou, that enormous urban sprawl, cities expanding like bacteria across the landscape – it must be what America felt like in the early 20th century, or the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    It justs gives you an idea of what we lost (good and bad) when the Victorians regulated everything reducing crime, disease but also decimating the street food scene.

    • I have a slight fear that brit street food has always been crap. Though I do like that the working class used to be the ones who dined on oysters not the upper class and I would loved to have tried some street gin.

      Our only solution in the UK is more asian immigration. That is where the street food lives!

  3. My grandmother was from Guangzhou; apparently my grandmother walked to Hong Kong to relocate; sadly I’ve never been. It looks brilliant.

    • What is pretty incredible is that most ABCs or BBCs I know or have met (including Jen and Alex who I was there with) are heritage wise from GZ. They were better explorers than the VIkings!

  4. The amount of times I’ve been through Hong Kong and never been over to Guangzhou is pretty shameful.
    After reading this I regret not going now. Next time though.

    • I think I am definitely going back. I still haven’t tried Shenzhen yet and although I have heard many bad things I get the feeling it might be another city where once you scratch the surface…

  5. Nice photos – thanks me!

    I love how Zaha’s wasn’t finished and we were rolling around it like a skate park. Next time I’m taking a BMX for those surfaces.

    • Even when finished it will probably be treated the same. Kids will probably be waterskiing in the lake in front on our next visit whilst the concrete silently crumbles second by second.

  6. Sounds like an adventure – and good to go somewhere a bit off the well worn track. Very brave of you to try stinky tofu – don’t know if I could eat something that smells like effulence! I have had durian though and that comes close I suppose.

    • Tom

      Stinky tofu was definitely less of a taste adventure than durian. The taste is, well, unremarkable… The smell I presume just a form of advertising!?

  7. Jason Schlabach

    Just got back to Hong Kong from a weekend in Guangzhou and you nailed it with your description of there being no consensus on how to approach visiting the city. I think your tactic of cycling was superior to mine of sitting in cabs with maniacal, extortionist drivers while careening across the city from one ho-hum attraction to another. Even as a designer, I couldn’t get into the supposed exuberance of a city bursting at the seams and racing at/past modernity. Obviously, I did something wrong and I’ll use this post as a guide for how to tackle the city next time.
    Love the blog, btw.

    • Jason – thanks!

      And it definitely wasn’t all good. The first day there was a rainstorm all day and we spent the day cycling around getting absolutely soaked or wearing one of those plastic raincoats which make you sweat unbearably.

      Still as a way to get around big flat featureless cities I still think it can’t be beaten (until you get a puncture…)

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