Guangzhou: In Search of Old Baiyun

It may not be as famous as Kai Tak but Guangzhou or Canton has its own ‘old’ airport and although aware of it, I didn’t know it was so close to town! Not too far from the central train station and even closer to the station that will be built to replace it. Guangzhou like Hong Kong is a city in constant development. Unlike Kai Tak however the site of the old Baiyun airport (the present airport retains the name even if it is in Huadu district) has been completely remodelled in half the time! You can see the old terminal, now the Gate 5 Mall in the top left of the map above.

Also unlike Hong Kong, the Chinese are keen to bury their history so no airport titbits dotted around though the planes still approach overhead. In my amateur sleuth work I deduce that the three main buildings: the terminal, China Southern’s cargo block and the GAMECO hanger have all survived the brutal redevelopment. The view before me is the airside meaning the car park is where the planes would have parked, the new dual carriageway is the taxiway or possibly even the runway with Baiyun Mountain not too far behind. It’s the terminal that comes in for scrutiny first.

Most of it is centred on what was the domestic portion. Only the control tower and the odd ‘flight’ imagery give any inkling to its past. You could be forgiven for thinking it was purposely designed as a theme mall – see my article on Bangkok’s Terminal 21.
https://kelvinhayesofficial.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/terminal-21-flight-path-for-world-wide-savvy-shoppers/?frame-nonce=9377a408c0
Inside the mall is just that, an average three level shopping haunt that feels as stale as a three day old doughnut. Why they couldn’t maintain some of the features like the glass frontage is anyone’s guess. Wouldn’t you prefer natural light to a sterile shoe box of a mall? It’s the same both ends – the windows that would have looked onto the planes are bordered up with flags.

As I mention in my Bangkok piece, airports nowadays are more or less shopping malls with planes attached anyway so it isn’t too much of a stretch to convert a terminal into one. KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks are present, whether they are remainders from the aviation days I don’t know though my summation isn’t too far fetched, the place only closed in 2004.

Despite all its pleasant gleaming modernity it is of course the control tower which is the defining feature and as I stroll the floors my thoughts wander toward that secret door that might elevate me to the next level. It never comes and that is because I’m looking in the wrong place! I find myself darting through the kitchen area of a Chinese restaurant like a rat trying to evade capture when I notice in the main eating area through a slither of a gap between curtain and window frame that the tower is not above me but in front, the first hurdle to negotiate is going down potentially to go up and that begins on the courtyard below.

The courtyard has a few restaurants dotted around its square. I can see the higher levels must be the administrative offices but how do you get there? And even if I could, would there be anything worth seeing? Probably not though if the aforementioned buildings have survived then anything is possible. My breakthrough comes via an open doorway which is initially overlooked as the entrance to another restaurant. On closer inspection I saw an empty reception area, an unmanned desk and a lift. On the off chance I press the up button and the doors silently slide open. Surely it can’t be this easy or is there a security guard waiting to nab me?

I know, it’s one of those lifts that won’t move unless you swipe a card right? I hit the button for the 6th floor (the highest) and expect nothing and sure enough that is exactly what happens. For a few seconds anyway, then like a tiny earthquake I feel a miniature jolt, it’s moving! Would the door open or would it be shuttered? This has happened before in Asia especially around holiday time. Or would that security guy be waiting?

The lift approaches the sixth floor and with another small jolt stops. The doors open. No shutters. There are stairs leading further upwards. I scurry up again like a rat expecting to be caught any moment. It is what is left of the old control tower – I’ve made it! Well, kind of, it’s been dissected with only a slender short corridor available to view from and even then there really isn’t much to see. The former apron is full of cars, no big surprise there. To my left is a door which does require a security card. I dare say anything of interest would have by now been gutted and the offices would be just that. Places of controlled boredom.

Having taken all of three shots I dash down the stairs, a bit like Jerry in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. This time I take the stairs all the way down when mid-way I come across a disheveled room in the midst of being renovated. There are pool tables and chairs; were these relics from the terminal days?

With the terminal done my attention next turns to the GAMECO hanger. I may have made the control tower with considerable ease but it seems my approaching the hanger, now surrounded by a concrete wall and barbed wire, is ruffling some feathers, which is baffling. One guy waves a polite and friendly no (with a smile). I honour his request and turn around. Just across from what was the international terminal is a car dealership. The gate is open so I proceed unchallenged yet on approaching the walled hanger an ‘Oi’ comes from nowhere. Again this is not a security guard but some sort of car dealer. My guess is there is some sort of miscommunication and while I really want to know why again his request is met. I wondered if the hanger housed some sort of sensitive information or government secrets, neither of which was of interest to me. Investigative journalism is not my bag, my interest is purely in what may be left behind from its aviation past.

When an airport closes or relocates, the airlines move and the passengers follow suit however it was clear that while this was a dead airport there were still a number of businesses dotted around including a number of China Southern divisions and the Days Inn Hotel which is to (old) Baiyun what the Regal is to Kai Tak. Another of the survivors is the futuristic Gymnasium way over on the northeastern periphery which surprises me as it doesn’t look that old.

Back at Gate 5 a few more fragments hinting at its past are chanced upon; an eatery with aviation imagery and outside The Air Club bar which was empty. I feel terribly guilty looking at the menu with no intention of ordering anything and just want to take pictures. Incredibly they let me and I should have repaid their kindness but I’m keen to press on across the way to the China Southern Cargo Building.

Coming out of the Air Club, I gaze up to see a Qatar A380 winging its way into the new airport, 16 miles further up the road. My destination appears soon enough but there’s no clear way in. The building doesn’t seem to be in use though the loading bay is a den of activity. There’s also a sizeable police station tacked on the edge so best not look for any trouble. I shoot one of the best photos of the day and head forth through a literal hole in the wall into an urban village which absorbs me in its abundant lanes and overhead wires. Some of the locals view me with what feels like suspicion while others stop on their bicycles to watch me gaze up at the mass of cables. It takes longer then expected to find a way out.

A guy stops to offer me a lift in his people mover; this time it’s me that kindly declines with a wave and a smile. I am still on the lookout for anything related to the airport though with waning legs my sleuth work is done for the day. I’m beat in the heat and in need of another lemon tea. I could however get used to more activities of this nature, in search of… Hellinikon, Fornebu? Even Cardiff has it’s old airport at Pengam Moors though little of it remains and in any case that was well before the jet age. For now I am fortunate that in my geographic region there are two lost airports and while I saw Kai Tak in operation my arrival in Guangzhou was too late to see its former wonder but you can’t win them all.

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Credits: My thanks to Guangzhou Library for their assistance.
Images from Baiyun Past and Present – Guangzhou Daily Press Group (year unknown)
1949-1999: A Celebration of 50 Years of Baiyun Airport – Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport Group (year unknown)
Copyright remains with the publishers and photographers.
*I am not sure if these books are still in print, however the first is only in Chinese and is an overview of both old and new airports. The second book is in Chinese and English and is exclusively dedicated to the old Baiyun. Recommended.
Airport at Dusk, May 2004 by Chris Wu.
Thai Airbus and Gymnasium, June 2004 by K.H. Ng.
Baiyun – Two Days After Closure, August 2004 by Zhang Hua.
These three images courtesy of airliners.net
All other images taken in and around Baiyun Park during May 2017.

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