Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) is the third largest city in China and the capital of Guangdong, the province I live in. It’s about an hour by metro from Foshan. I’m going to Guangzhou this weekend to check out this place called Loft 345 that I’ve wanted to go to since I heard about it from another American ex-pat on my first night in China. Loft 345 is a factory that was converted into an art space and bar. I’ve been searching for an artistic/creative community in Foshan since I arrived and just haven’t found it yet. I’m hoping that Loft 345 is everything I hope it is and that I meet some people there who can introduce me to some creative people in Foshan.
This will be my second time in Guangzhou. The first time was at the beginning of April over Qingming (Tomb-Sweeping Holiday). I had an interesting time in Guangzhou, and I’m gonna tell you about it below.
Renae and Michael (R/M from here on out) were taking weekly Chinese lessons from a woman from Guangzhou at the time. Their tutor used to come to Foshan for the lessons, but had become pregnant and was at the bursting stage at the point, so R/M were meeting her in her home instead. I wanted to go along and check out Guangzhou while they were in their lesson…afterward, we’d all meet up and get something to eat, them come back to Foshan since none of us had taken the initiative to book a room in a hostel for the night. That was our plan. It was a Saturday.
On the metro, I discovered that the woman sitting next to me spoke almost fluent English. She was on her way home—her family’s home, like most other people on the train. I asked her what she typically does to celebrate Qingming and she summed it up with these two points:
- Memorize family lineage.
- Burn fake luxury items to give to your ancestors in the next realm. Specific items include iPads, iPhones, and paper money.
My first thought was, “Why would your ancestors want an iPad?” It seemed really bizarre to me, but who am I to judge? We do a lot of bizarre things on the other side of the Pacific too. I didn’t express any of my thoughts out loud because I didn’t want to offend her, but I couldn’t get this image out of my head: Elderly Chinese people floating around with iPads in their hands, playing Angry Birds, LED screens lighting up their ancient wrinkled faces.
R/M and I split off to go our separate ways in the city and agreed on a specific place and time to meet up later because my cell phone service stopped working once we got out of Foshan. The place was a bookstore in a mall. I got to know the mall very well because I went there first after getting off the metro to make sure I was familiar with the meet up place. It turned out that Renae had given me bad directions and I never found the bookstore. (Amazingly, we ended up finding each other anyway 45 minutes after the agreed upon meeting time.)
Here’s the center of one of the towers in the mall:
The mall was like any high-end mall in the USA complete with MAC makeup professionals and Swarovski crystals…except it had an enormous arcade that spanned three floors. This arcade was out of control. I’m not a frequenter or arcades, but I’ve seen a few in my time and this one was above and beyond. The flashing lights made me worry that my brain would short-circuit and the volume of the noise made me wonder how loud was loud enough to make ears bleed. Everyone in there was having a great time.
On my way out of the mall, I stopped in Sephora to see if it had started carrying my favorite nail polish again. A sales rep locked eyes on me as soon as she noticed me approaching the store and hounded me the entire time I was in there. After making it clear that I wanted to browse on my own, she followed two steps behind me and pulled things off the shelves to sell me every two minutes. I bought my nail polish and got the hell out of there. She was very nice though. She told me she liked my smile 😀
I noticed these guys just outside of the mall. They were doing traditional street theater for tips.
I had no plans for how to spend my three hours alone in Guangzhou, so I just wandered. About two hours in, I met some other foreigners and their Chinese friend who had time to kill and the four of us headed off to another part of town for a change of scenery. The two foreigners (one American, one French) were friends who came to Guangzhou to start a wine business. It didn’t work out, so they were returning to their respective homes that very evening.
I read in my guidebook about an awesome Turkish restaurant called Sultan. After finding each other miraculously, R/M and I went there for dinner and confirmed that it was indeed awesome. Everyone in the restaurant except for the staff and us looked Turkish, which we took as a very good sign. We stuffed ourselves like Thanksgiving turkeys.
While M/R were at their lesson, their friends, a French Canadian couple (D/M), invited the three of us to crash at their apartment for the weekend. We were happy to accept and rushed over to a pub to meet them after dinner. D and M are–in one word–crazy. In three words: A crazy delight. The first thing I learned about D was that he is a recent self-made millionaire from his bobble-head manufacturing and exporting business. I kid you not. That night, he was celebrating his latest idea that he promised will make him another million by the end of the year: Custom printed toilet paper. He told me this: “Give me a photo of your ex-boss that you hate. I will print it on every ply of a roll of toilet paper so that you can smile while you wipe your ass with it.” He sold me!
M broke the news that she and D will be leaving China for good in a few months to embark on a two year long road trip around the US in a souped-up tour-bus-sized RV that D bought in Montana.
Here’s the view from M’s and D’s apartment:
One of M’s friends who was at the pub that night happens to be from Florida and an alumna of Florida State University like me. That friend brought her own friend to the pub, a guy named Andy. Andy is a successful architect and designer in Guangzhou. After a few minutes of conversation, I discovered that he is also one of the official organizers of Paris Fashion Week and is currently organizing a private fashion week in Hong Kong. In addition, Andy is Indian and offered to hook me up with some great travel and accommodation deals when I eventually visit India. Score!
D doesn’t like to venture outside of walking distance from his apartment because he despises the metro, so both Sunday and Monday mornings, we went to breakfast at a restaurant called The Brew where they serve halfway decent Western food. The food, as I said, wasn’t too bad, but the service was horrendous. There was one waitress and she didn’t get a single order right. The kitchen took forever to make the food, the waitress brought the dishes out a half hour apart (so only one person could eat at a time), she completely forgot one person’s order…the list goes on. I don’t know why we went back a second time, but we did and the waitress was just as bad the second time as she was the first time.
Despite the poor service, the highlight of The Brew is that each table has it’s own beer tap.
The very best part of The Brew is this poster in the bathroom:
I have actually gone into a public bathroom with a Western toilet and discovered footprints on the toilet seat. Many Westerners think that squatter toilets are disgusting, but many Chinese consider the squatter to be much more sanitary than the Western toilet precisely because there is no seat.
On Sunday, M recommended that we go hiking in Baiyun Shan, which is a mountain in a park.
I had heard that this place is beautiful and I was excited to get out of the urban landscape. As soon as we got there, however, I realized that it was not what I was looking for. The hiking paths were littered with trash and crowded with people chain-smoking their way to the top. Ladies were hiking in high heels and flip flops. There was a natural stream running down the mountain that had been completely dammed up by plastic bags. The main attraction of the park was the gift shop and cafeteria area at the bottom of the mountain. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and I got really home sick for the mountains in North Carolina. Besides disappointed, I was really sad to see that the park hadn’t been better cared for.
On the way down, we noticed this giant BBQ party:
It was really hot and I had run out of water while hiking. Dehydration combined with extreme disappointment put me in a very sour mood. To make matters worse, M/R and I had a very frustrating taxi ride from the park to the metro. The taxi driver didn’t know the city very well and took halfway around the world before we finally just got out and walked until we found the metro.
Right in front of the metro, we discovered an Indian restaurant and suddenly got fixated on the idea that a mango lassi would cure us of all bad feelings. The restaurant looked suspicious, but we were exhausted and just didn’t care. We were the only people in there, which made me certain that the food wouldn’t be great, but it was cool inside and we were grateful for the quiet atmosphere. I ordered my lassi, M/R ordered a few appetizers, and we waited. The appetizers came first with a side of ketchup. My lassi came after and I got right into it. It wasn’t disgusting, it was inedible. It was a salty lassi, even though I’d asked for a sweet lassi, and it was so salty that it burned my mouth. The waitress took it away and promised to bring me a sweet lassi, but what she brought back was obviously the same lassi with a little bit of sugar added. The salty lassi was the cherry on top of one huge disappointing day. We got out of there pretty quickly and the staff seamed relieved. I’m sure now that the restaurant is a front for an illegal business because it obviously didn’t serve food and the staff actually looked surprised that we were there. Thinking about the whole thing now makes me chuckle.
All things considered, I had a great time. D and M were excellent hosts. Very generous, fun, easy-going. We played a board game called Settlers of Catan (great game!), ate pizza, drank wine, and had Irish coffees for breakfast. R/M and I will be seeing them again next weekend to hang out at some man-made hot-springs. In the meantime, I’ve got Loft 345 to look forward to!