Guangzhou, home time!!
Previous trips back to the third largest city in China have always evoked complicated mixed feelings of nostalgia and unfamiliarity, giving me a strange sense of melancholy every time I stepped into this place I call my hometown. I wanted so much to still be able to call myself a local, a true Cantonese, but I’m never sure if I can anymore. Well, at least that’s what it was like several years ago…
Then I realized that I had been overly sentimental and what I really should do was just enjoy this city, whether as a local or as a former resident or as a tourist or whatever! This was going to be the trip where I could spend precious time with family, be a host to some foreign friends of my own, and eat lots of good food! No existential crisis in Guangzhou for me this time – I’ve got all the fun and relaxation to look forward to during my first “winter” in Guangzhou since…1995. The average temperature in late December was 23 degrees Celsius, there was no smog (yay for being in the south), and I missed most of the infamous “frigid damp winter in southern China”. How perfect could this get!
First up: group photo with the extended family! Growing up, I’ve always been very close with my aunts, uncles, and cousins on my mom’s side of the family. The opportunity to see them together is rare, and this time my mom and grandma were also around, making this a super long-awaited reunion (though missing several people)!
I decided to go down memory lane and revisit some places that were so familiar to me in my childhood, starting with the kindergarten that I attended for four years. It was after classes and the gate was closed, and I doubt I would have been able to enter even if it were open. Still, I could see the vivid pictures of my childhood passing by in front of me. Those annoying boys that destroyed the brick zoo that we made, dancing to classic karaoke songs, being the head of the lion for the Chinese new year lion dance, school lunches with pickled radish, English classes…things only I would remember!
Continue down the road and we reach the elementary school that I attended for a year and a half before moving to Canada. As my caretaker, my aunt used to take me to school on a bike, so I never really had to walk to school. Through the eyes of a child, however, the school felt so far away from where I lived. Now, the trip takes me merely around half an hour, a distance which is considered quite small for a city as large as Guangzhou. And to think that second-grade-me felt sooooooo grown up…if only I could be a child again!
We now jump all the way from my own childhood to my DAD’s childhood, to a place where he spent a majority of his time when he was a young boy – Shamian Island in the Xiguan area of Guangzhou, a territory formerly leased to France and the UK. My dad always likes to ramble on and on about how he used to play with his siblings on Shamian and laments how much the place has changed over the years. However, since I haven’t experienced the evolution of Shamian through time, Shamian to me is just a tranquil place to spend a day away from the crowded metropolis. To be fair, I had been to Shamian several times, but never alone with the opportunity to walk around to my heart’s desire. Perhaps to some, the European architecture and remnants of colonial times make this place an attractive gem in Guangzhou, but I guess I only wanted to visit it again to try to imagine what it was like for my dad to grow up here, no matter how much it has changed beyond recognition (true words from my dad).
What I loved about Shamian were the bronze statues that are scattered all around the island depicting life on Shamian in the past. There must have been at least 20, but some of my favourites are shown here. Top left: an old man taking his caged pet bird for a walk, something that elderly people seemed to enjoy doing a lot in the past. Top right: a kid in clothing worn in the Qing dynasty, dropping a letter in the postbox. Middle right: an old man playing the fiddle. Bottom left: children catching fish in the river. Bottom right: elegant ladies singing and dancing to Cantonese opera wearing qipao.
Meow. I spotted this shy white cat hiding behind some potted plants near a church on Shamian and just wanted to say…hi! It kept running away from me though, and I could only observe it from a distance and try not to scare it. What a beauty you are!
Back in the city, it was time to meet up with my Malaysian guests! I had already traveled to Hangzhou with MC and YX but here in Guangzhou we were joined by MC’s husband, Mr. Blue. Of course I had to take them out to lunch and what better way to do it than the most traditional Cantonese way – “yum cha”, which literally means “drink tea”! To most people this only means dim sum, but tea is such an important aspect of the Cantonese lifestyle. Good tea and good dim sum complement each other, and good company makes it all the better!
I never used the word “beautiful” to describe Guangzhou until I took this photo from a pedestrian bridge. Friends who saw it commented that Guangzhou is such a beautiful city, and you know…I think they’re right. Like many of the places that I’ve called home and taken for granted, I hadn’t noticed its charm until I don’t live there anymore and returned to see it again with fresh eyes. Five years ago it would be an unfathomable to say that I’d even consider going back to China and living/working there long-term, but that possibility doesn’t seem so farfetched anymore. Who knows…I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow, but a stroke of luck, I end up back where I started…
I’ll end this post with a mission that I set out to complete in Guangzhou: the search of two famous local eateries in the Xiguan area. Needless to say, wonton noodles are one of the most popular street foods in Guangzhou, and Wucaiji (left) is one of those hole-in-the-wall places that locals know and love. I had heard about Wucaiji a while back and decided to finally look for it, and it took me a bit of time because it was literally located in a secluded alley and easily missed unless you looked closely. At Wucaiji I got their classic wonton noodle (top right) with wontons made the traditional way with pork only and without shrimp (according to my dad). It was a warm day (24+ degrees) and the soup was hot but so flavourful. I was sweating as I was eatiing – luckily I also ordered a bottle of cold soy milk – but I enjoyed it so much even with sweat dripping down my face. The simplest things are the best! After the noodles, I headed for a dessert shop 15 minutes away called “Nanxin”, which specializes in double skin milk pudding (bottom right). It may look plain and ordinary but it was spoonful after spoonful of sweet goodness with a custard-like texture. Delicious or as we say in Cantonese, “Ho sik!”
This is only the first of three posts in the Guangzhou mini-series in the grand “26 days in China” series – yes yes I’m showing obvious favouritism to my hometown, heh 😛 Part 2 is coming up and of course there is going to be a post dedicated to more amazing food!