'World's workshop' boasts a rich history

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 March, 2010, 12:00am

Guangzhou - formerly known in the West as Canton - is the capital and commercial hub of Guangdong province, and a major port at the apex of the Pearl River Delta, about 120km northwest of Hong Kong.

A sprawling city, Guangzhou is the most important manufacturing hub of the delta, which is sometimes referred to as the 'world's workshop', owing to the massive amount of goods that are produced there. The biannual Import and Export Fair, also known as the Canton Trade Fair, has been held in the city since 1957 and it has recently moved into a new venue in the city's up-and-coming Pazhou district.

There are three key industrial zones: the Guangzhou Economic and Technological Development Zone, the Guangzhou Nansha Development Zone and the Shantou Free Trade Zone. There is an international airport, with a growing number of domestic and foreign carriers linking the city to domestic and international destinations. The city also boasts a modern metro and rail links to Hong Kong.

Guangzhou dates back to at least 214 BC, when a settlement was established at Panyu, and it has been continuously populated ever since. Temples, monuments and archaeological finds dot the city, often in out-of-the-way places.

Prior to the Opium Wars, Guangzhou had a monopoly on trade with Britain and, by the mid-1800s, it attracted merchants from around the globe. Remnants of this heady era are scattered about town, most notably on Shamian Island in the city's Liwan district, with its stately Western-style buildings - among the oldest on Chinese soil - that are being restored one by one. The old Customs House has been renovated and turned into a museum, while Starbucks occupies another historic structure.

Another key heritage site, the Chen Clan Temple, is also located in the district and is arguably the finest example of traditional Chinese architecture in the city.

The government is also pulling out all the stops to renovate some of the city's other neighbourhoods, giving a new lease on life to the two- and three-storey shophouses and tenements built in the earlier part of the last century.

There are some attractive parks in Guangzhou. On weekends and holidays, they teem with professionals and amateurs alike practising ballroom dancing, Chinese opera, fan dancing, karaoke, kite flying, tai chi and kung fu.

Guangzhou is a sub-provincial city with 10 districts and two county-level cities, four of which are located within the city proper. The other six are considered suburban or rural. The registered population as of 2006 was about 7.7 million, plus an untold number of migrant workers.

Haizhu is Guangzhou's only island district and is home to the main campus of Sun Yat-sen University, one of China's most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Traditionally dominated by agriculture and industry, Haizhu is in the midst of a massive construction project, which is transforming the district into one of the most stylish parts of town. There are soaring skyscrapers, impressive landscaping, shopping malls, luxury housing, entertainment venues and foreign consulates. There are also plans for two light industrial areas in the zone.

A new central business district is being built in Haizhu's Pazhou section and a state-of-the-art convention and exhibition centre is already up and running to host the city's renowned Canton Trade Fair, which takes place twice a year. Other key events are held consecutively at the 150,000-square-metre site. New luxury hotels are nearby, with a Shangri-La on the shores of the Pearl River. On the other side of the river, Ritz-Carlton, the tallest hotel in town, towers spectacularly over the landscape. Other significant structures to have risen recently include the futuristic Guangzhou TV & Sightseeing Tower and the Guangdong Provincial Museum.

Tianhe has been Guangzhou's commercial heart for decades, with multinational companies having offices in the district's Citic Plaza. Guangzhou East train station, which has express services to Hong Kong, is also in the zone. Other notable buildings include the Tianhe Sports Centre and the Pearl River Tower, which is one of the city's most stunning examples of cutting-edge architecture.

Guangzhou Science City is also located in Tianhe. The government hopes to turn it into a state-of-the-art centre for hi-tech research and development, with residential and commercial components developed in line with environmental principles. By 2025, an estimated 85,000 people will be living in the district, with another 180,000 to 200,000 expected to be working there.

Established in 1960, Yuexiu is Guangzhou's oldest urban district. It was traditionally thought of as the city's cultural, educational and political hub, but is now one of its most important commercial zones.

With a population of close to 1.2 million, it is Guangzhou's most densely populated district. Yuexiu has attracted an increasing number of traders from Africa and the Middle East in recent years and many have offices there. Others have opened cafes, restaurants and shops, giving the district a decidedly cosmopolitan flair.

There are many cultural artefacts and heritage sites in Yuexiu and its many parks make it the greenest part of town. The district merged with neighbouring Dongshan in 2005, which is home to the provincial headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party. Many overseas Chinese also live there.

Liwan is an important commercial area with several key shopping districts. The Shangxiajiu pedestrian shopping mall is without doubt the most interesting one for heritage buffs. Lined with restored shophouses, occupied by chain outlets and family-run businesses, it is popular with local bargain hunters and tourists alike.

Satellite zones

In suburban and rural Guangzhou, Baiyun is the largest district in terms of land mass and features rolling hills in the northern reaches.

Sparsely populated, it is home to Guangzhou Baiyun, or White Cloud, International Airport. There is also a secondary port at Jiaoxin.

With a large number of factories and wharves, Huangpu is a key industrial zone. Located 20 kilometres to the east of the city centre, it is home to Guangzhou's main port and the Guangzhou Economic and Technological Development Zone. One of the city's key heritage sites, the Whampoa Military Academy, a training ground for the Nationalist Army in the Republican era, is also located in the district. Transport links to the city centre, however, are limited, making access a problem.

Panyu, 17 kilometres from the city centre, boasts the city's second largest population and was a city in its own right before being incorporated into Guangzhou. It now has a large number of Japanese, Malaysian and Thai expatriates living there. It is also designated to be the hub for the Hong Kong link to the national high-speed rail network.

Other suburban districts include Huadu, Nansha and Luogang. Conghua and Zengcheng are county-level cities in the northeast of Guangzhou and all have been earmarked for future development.