NOT TOO LONG AGO Guangzhou nightlife was, to put it mildly, nothing you would want to expose your children to. Perhaps no area establishment symbolised the zeitgeist better than the deliciously named Dongguan Royal Opera. Anyone venturing to the Dongguan Royal Opera for a night of high culture realised their mistake as soon as the high-class karaoke bar loomed into view, all lit up like a little bit of Las Vegas misplanted in the Pearl River Delta. Uniformed security personnel directed drivers to parking spaces with outlandishly choreographed twirls of their lightsticks, like so many Flashdance enthusiasts directing jet fighter traffic onto the flight-deck of an aircraft carrier. Once inside the gaudy palace, patrons were greeted by a bevy of under-age beauties, and invited to select a sitting partner for an innocent (really) few hours of chatting and crooning. Any sinning was subject to further negotiation and conducted off the premises afterwards. Big spenders were whisked through the main hall to poolside villas, where potential sitting partners were lined up for them to choose from. The mama-sans orchestrating this seedy and degrading spectacle kept up a lively chatter throughout - boasting, for example, that they could provide sitting partners from every province. Alas for the Dongguan Royal Opera, its fat lady sang two years ago after the friends of a high-ranking Beijing princeling were beaten up by security personnel at the BMW Club, the opera's sister establishment. Both were closed, and their owner thrown in prison pending payment of an exorbitant bribe. Other dens of iniquity, of course, soon materialised to fill the market gap left by the opera's untimely demise. But at the same time something remarkable was happening. Across Guangzhou good restaurants, excellent museums, at least one decent jazz club and other cultural venues were sprouting up. Two years on, the city finally has nightlife spots you can take the family to. Consider Ersha island in the city's southeast. Two years ago it had little besides a couple of exclusive gated communities. There were few restaurants of repute, fewer shops and no taxis. If you did not have a car and a driver, you did not live on Ersha - one reason its luxury villas have long been favoured by the city's well-wheeled consul-generals. Today, however, on any given Friday or Saturday night, a large riverfront plaza on Ersha's southern shore teems with local and expatriate couples and families. Many have booked a table at La Seine, a fine French restaurant, for an early dinner, after which they will venture next door to the Xinghai Concert Hall for a classical music performance or even - yes - a real opera. Others have just emerged from an exhibition at the nearby Guangdong Museum of Art or its pleasant outdoor cafe, before going for a stroll on the waterfront. Guangzhou, it should be noted, also has a beautifully designed new art museum in the north of the city, adjoining Luhu Park. Across the Pearl River from Ersha, colourful beams of light shoot into the night sky from the roofs of luxury residential developments. Also clearly visible on the opposite bank under a flood of white lights is the handsomely restored north gate of Zhongshan University, and behind it the verdant campus. The riverfront promenade on Ersha extends for kilometres through old Guangzhou to Shamian island, the city's late 19th- and early 20th-century colonial enclave. Much of the promenade is shaded by trees, while the old city and Shamian have retained, respectively, their distinctive South China and colonial architectural styles. If only the same could be said of Hong Kong's treeless urban areas, long ago stripped of so many of their Chinese and colonial architectural treasures. A quick trip to Guangzhou is a depressing reminder of the immense relief a few trees and the odd architectural gem can provide in an otherwise concrete urban landscape. With much of its priceless colonial buildings already restored or under renovation, Shamian is emerging as a pleasant destination for families in search of a pleasant dinner and post-prandial stroll under century-old trees. Just a few blocks north, a stretch of colourfully restored traditional Chinese shopfronts along Xiajiu Road is closed to traffic each evening, allowing thousands of shoppers to spill into the street. Similar pedestrian zones in another key shopping district - along Beijing Road in the city centre - puts to shame Hong Kong's limited, half-hearted pedestrianisation trials. Guangzhou, in short, has come a long way from the days when local operas were X-rated and so many of the city's new civic improvements were just an urban planner's fantasy. Hong Kong may wish to take note.