In Hong Kong it’s tailors, in Guangzhou it’s Gym membership. A flock of youths in tee-shirts accost me on seemingly every street corner seeking a positive sign to get me pumping iron (or at my age fatigued aluminium). Alas it’s a doctrine I am even less enthused by than religion, still they continue thrusting their flyers and price plans at me. It is part of the big city nuisance; how many of them are employed solely to convert the disinterested with surely diminishing returns? But there is something else about Guangzhou, a steady infusion of pale yellow. Yes, every overpass is painted in what in my oil pastel illustration days called Naples Yellow and I could only wonder why.
Most cities are defined by colour to some extent: London’s red buses, New York’s yellow cabs, Cardiff’s petrol green buses etc but I can’t think of one where the natural state of concrete has been made over. It does give the city some sort of identity though. By contrast Guangzhou’s taxi’s are anything from blue to green to an orange/silver concoction which I’m told is a new edition. So far the city feels like a mix of Bangkok and Hong Kong; two I’m not overtly fond of, no wonder I was still pining for the open space of Shenzhen. No other big city seems to handle this in the way SZ does.
However, for now GZ is home and everything is set up ready to go. There are of course pros and cons to being back in the big smoke, mostly the welcome return of western food though that is accompanied by western prices. I have gone from zero Starbucks and one McDonald’s to seeing them in abundance. Yet, the one thing I do need is strangely absent. You might think that because there are a multitude of Walmart’s in Shenzhen (China’s fourth largest city) that Guangzhou (China’s third) would have even more right? WRONG!! Three years here and China is still playing with me, throwing unwanted and unfathomable curveballs. There are believe it or not, NONE or at least not in the local vicinity.
So where does this leave me – not only in a boat without a paddle but in a creek with no water. I am flabbergasted, how could this be!! So what does GZ have in the way of supermarkets? Well there’s Japanese staple AEON – OK no stranger to that, French giant Carrefour (though I’ve yet to find one) and TESCO (on a boulevard so long it may be easier to book a flight home). Oh and the very classy Olé is here too in the equally classy Taikoo Tower with classy prices.
Like it’s neighbour GZ doesn’t, on the surface, have a great deal to do in terms of entertainment. There is the very visible tower on the south bank, a modern museum, a zoo and a lot of shopping malls. Next to the modernist museum is the latest library and it’s there in the relative comfort of strangers and air conditioning, I found myself trying to make sense of things.
What was Walmart’s strategic thinking? Did they think Guangdong begins and ends with Shenzhen? Sure I much prefer it there but I wasn’t anticipating any headaches relating to food here. There is somewhere else unusual to spend hours browsing which doesn’t often come up on ‘things to do’ lists. The local IKEA store. Why? I hardly needed household items, what with being the eternal nomad. Nope, I mention the blue behemoth because it provided hours of fun or retail hell depending how you look on it. The place is quite simply a maze! Once you’re in, it can take hours to figure out how the hell to get out! Their way finding system is just not happening. If only they were German and not Swedish, their signage would most likely be a pragmatic dream!
When I’d finished pondering the merits of Guangzhou’s food and entertainment facilities on the libraries eighth floor, I sought out some music biographies; I’ve been meaning to read John Taylor’s very aptly named ‘In The Pleasure Groove’ since its publication a couple of years back. The computer says no. In my little kingdom Duran Duran may be superstars but in the mammoth middle kingdom they were nothing. They do however have an illustrated history of RUSH! And that makes do for a morning’s reading.
The library also has a display on another subject of interest; twin towns. No less than 34 cities are twinned with Guangzhou including two in the UK. One, Bristol I can fully understand as both are – crazy as it sounds – inland port cities. The other is Birmingham which apart from its musical heritage and Bourneville chocolate I don’t know as well or at all would be a better statement. Others include Sydney, Auckland, Los Angeles, Kuwait, Dubai, Istanbul and the one that got the ball rolling – Fukuoka in Japan.
Bearing that in mind one wonders why Cardiff has been so slow hooking up with among others Shenzhen which also makes a great deal of sense. Both are rapidly rising on the world stage, both have bays and a reasonable climate. Someone answered my query of how towns select their bed buddies once but the revelation has since been lost to the digital confines of internet history.
As the summer thunder rumbles outside another conundrum of the modern day nomad occurs.. to buy pans or not. To buy means I can only use them for however long I am based in any given place as travelling with them is a non starter. My previous masters in Hunan provided an apartment with a wok and pot, sadly my new employers are not so kind. To forgo means eating out every night – it’s doable but will mean a year of the same meals at whatever cheap eatery I can find. While Saizeriya is a God-send, could I stomach eating there over 12 months!? I needed to find some other alternatives and fast.
And then.. pay day. Tipped off about another supermarket in Tangxiacun (a few stops on the BRT) it transpired that after checking my map the METRO store was in fact someway south at the bottom of a slender park. I decided to check out the info handed to me anyway which in turn was supremely fortuitous. As I alighted the bus and made my way through the aisles of the new found TRUST MART I realised it was none other than Walmart in disguise! (although why they substitute the name I’m not sure). This meant that I could now shop at the same prices with the added bonus of an expansive product range. The city was beginning to fall into place even if I had only scratched the surface.
Rumble rumble, more rain and claps of thunder from the monsoon summer brings me to conclude with one more big city nuisance. Shortly after moving I found a German sausage place nearby. At 15rmb it was reasonable. I went twice and on my third visit.. gone. No word of warning. A similar fate met me soon after at one of the local Vanguard stores (not one of the major players per se, they’re similar to SPA, though useful if in a rush). Overnight, the sub-branch had also thrown in the towel. As John Foxx would say.. the city is like a huge coral reef; constantly in a state of flux. Part built, part demolished, never finished and in Guangzhou’s case pale yellow.