Stealing beauty

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 12:00am

Nobody could accuse Guangzhou of being a pretty city. Air pollution sometimes makes it impossible to see the skyline from the top of Baiyun Mountain. Rampant corruption in the early years of development made a mockery of building codes and street planning, guaranteeing that much of the landscape would be permanently scarred. Noise is omnipresent, like loud elevator music in a cheap hotel.

Moreover, getting around Guangzhou is a struggle. Bus drivers are not above slamming the door shut on prospective passengers if they ask for information about their route. And unless you know what you are doing, taxi rides can turn into marathon journeys with out-of-town drivers who are easily lost.

But for those prepared to put aside first impressions and discover more about this intriguing, sprawling metropolis, there are oases of tranquillity to be found. The pollution can never be made to disappear, but the noise can be shut out, the mind eased, and the senses stimulated.

There are beautiful parks to walk in that muffle the city's roar; places where the only intrusion is the sound of retirees wailing away at makeshift Chinese opera karaoke stalls.

There is the Pearl River to cruise along at night and gaze at the lights. There are grand old buildings in the former international settlement of Shamian Island to marvel at. And there are ancient temples to sit in and contemplate nothingness.

Searching for paradise in Guangzhou is difficult, but not impossible. Time magazine recently ran a special series that challenged the very notion, asking readers why they might search for paradise and what they imagined it could be. From an Asian perspective, the case was made that paradise could be both real and illusory: from a mountain-climber's glimpse of Shangri-La to a migrant worker's joy at landing her first job in Shenzhen.

If an essay had been written on Guangzhou, it would have been about the city's indefatigable pursuit of culinary nirvana.

According to surveys conducted by a local newspaper, food accounts for the biggest portion of disposable income spent by Guangzhou households. At least one-third goes on dining out. Anecdotal evidence strongly supports the claim, with the most common confession among all walks of life being that 'in Beijing, they like to talk politics; in Shanghai, it's money; in Guangzhou, we just care about what we eat'.

A week spent in Guangzhou's best restaurants will convince any sceptic as to why this is so. Eating out is not just a pastime for citizens, it is a manifestation of their character.

Nowhere else in China will visitors find such extensive menus - illustrating every dish with a photograph - designed to suit the discerning tastes of a demanding clientele.

And nowhere else will they find so many 'fusion' restaurants.

The decor might not always be sophisticated, but the quality of the food seldom disappoints. Even Hongkongers who live and visit here acknowledge this, however grudgingly.

Indeed, the city's well-known resilience and ability to adapt is best personified in its food.

Japanese green tea-flavoured dim sum treats and Chinese dishes cooked with imported red wine show how locals have always been able to incorporate external influences into their culture in a way that is thoroughly Cantonese.

The biggest external influence of all waits on the calendar: the 2010 Asian Games. Talk to the locals about it and most often the conversation turns to how the event will help the city improve its quality of life.

When the Games begin, no one wants the region's attention to be focused on how dirty and messy their city is. The government is acutely aware of this. The environment is being given close attention and a pile of money, especially on water treatment. Last year, 2.15 per cent of GDP, or 7.5 billion yuan, was budgeted for the environment. Residents recognise that there has been an improvement.

Whether such noble goals are compatible with designs to build up heavy industry remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that the days of industry being allowed to run roughshod over the environment are numbered.

In the meantime, life in Guangzhou is getting better, bit by bit, day by day.