HAVE SHOES WILL WALK

Sharing 2011 visit to Guangzhou, China for Lens Artist Challenge #163: “Keep Walking

Ingenuity….Somewhere on one of the market streets of Guangzhou

A shoe is not only a design, but it’s a part of your body language, the way you walk. The way you’re going to move is quite dictated by your shoes. Christian Louboutin

When in China it does not help to think minuscule and as I zigzag through the humongous East Guangzhou railway station l feel a ‘Lilliputian’ in the land of ‘Gulliver’. (Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift). I wonder if this is a precursor of the size of the city.

My friend was at the station to receive me, felt grateful, as she is a long time resident of Hong Kong and China and could speak the local languages. Majority taxi drivers refuse to speak/understand English or even Cantonese and this was my maiden visit to Guangzhou. I did not want to get lost in a warren of congested lanes and roads lined by drab structures, newer skyscrapers, shopping malls and street markets.

Antiquity…size does not matter but antecedents. I was not the first visitor to be swamped by the size and offerings of Guangzhou. History tells us that the city attracted a continuous stream of travellers, marauders and settlers from the time when it was Panyu (214 BC). They came in search of its famed wealth and the first to ransack the city, in 786 AD, were the Persians. They were followed by the Portuguese, the first Europeans to arrive in Guangzhou in 1517. The Dutch clogged close on their heels with the British East India Company fast catching up in 1711. Finally the Japanese, who occupied Guangzhou between 1938 till 1945. The British had colonised Guangzhou and remnants of colonial structures are present on Shamin Island in Liwan District that was divided into French and English quarters by the Qing Dynasty.

Between 1757 and 1842 Guangzhou was the only Chinese port open to international trade and till outbreak of Opium War one of three important trading ports of the world. At same time it was an important land route on the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ linking southern China with India, South-East Asia, the Middle East and Africa and was centre of tea trade that existed between China and Europe during the 19th century.

Guangzhou is a populous trade city held together by the collective dreams of locals, expatriates and immigrants. An excellent way to collect vignettes of these dreams is to wander around the neighbourhood markets connected with labyrinth of narrow lanes. You walk through one and you feel you have seen all …the identical tiny shops stacked with local produce, antiques, fake or real, the tailoring dens, boutiques with pictures of Russian models and svelte mannequins, the crowded roadside eateries.

Walking on crowded market roads, abruptly ending or bifurcating, the pedestrians are at mercy of inattentive drivers, especially on inner roads. First night in the city and while loitering around the market, near friend’s apartment, we stopped at a lottery cum phone shop to try the 15 minute lottery. I waited the stipulated time and when the winning numbers rolled out on the computer the 2 Yuan ticket was ‘a piece of paper’ and not 20,000 plus as I was expecting. Maybe I should have visited the nearby temple before playing the lottery. The girl in the next door food and general store refused to pose for me letting the men folk be the models. Probably I should master Putonghua/Mandarin/Cantonese like other visitors and settlers, mostly into trading, who speak the Chinese languages. English is understood and spoken by the younger generation and even though the English roadsigns (not everywhere) and English literal translation of Chinese words on hoardings makes difficult to communicate or find one’s way in the city.Somehow we managed to reach home unscathed.

This shopping city is meant for movement, With choice between trade edifices or visiting tourist landmarks, the Baiyun Mountains, the Liurong or the Six Banyan Tree Temple, museums or art galleries, I gave into the temptation of rummaging into various whole sale markets such as the International Shoes Trade Center, the sprawling Baiyun World leather Trading Center (Jie Fang Bei Road) and One Link Plaza on Jiefangnan Road in Yuexiu district for gifts and accessories. Majority traders refuse to entertain single item sale and my friend managed to bargain for a single handbag. I should have scooped up dozens of bags and distributed them to friends but then ‘Made in China’ is no guarantee for a lasting product. The lingerie wholesale market was a freakout as same stuff I purchase at ten times the price in India. Visions of being a ‘bag woman on the train’ crushed my purchasing enthusiasm. The place for bargains is Beijing Road lined with chain stores, shopping malls and book stores. The fake markets for watches and designer brands were impulsive visits and in one managed to dodge a police raid.

Food is a gainer and instead of only Chinese or Cantonese cuisine a visitor has choice of Russian, German, Danish, Kosher, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and South Eastern cuisine. I did try out a few. The night entertainment scene is fast catching up with Hong Kong and Shenzhen with proliferating bars and clubs.

Yuexiu Park: Retail walking needed a therapy and the ideal neutralizer was the sprawling Yeixie Park, the largest in China, on Jiefang North Road, Yuexiu District. The 690,000 square meters Park is located on Yuexiu Hill or ‘Mount Yuexiu’ or ‘Yuexiu Shan’ (Mandarin) and has been a favourite since the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC). Sun Yat-sen had proposed to configure Yuexiu Park on the basis of Yuexiu Hill but this could ony happen by 1949.

Yuexiu Park sits atop seven hills and is embedded with three man-made lakes, ponds, luxuriant vegetation, playing areas for children and spaces for adults. As we walked around we could see pockets or groups of seniors meditating, doing Tai Chi, playing musical instruments, skate boarding, dancing to loud music, jogging, paddle boat riding, cycling, or simply dozing around. Viewing the undulating well manicured terrain it is easy to understand why it was popular with Chinese leaders including Chairman Mao. Foreign dignitaries included President Nixon of USA and Korea’s Kim Il-sung.

For us it was climbing up to the ‘Statue of the Five Rams’ supposedly the city’s symbol. The story behind the Statue is that present Guangzhou, the capital and largest city of Guangdong, the wealthiest province of China, was a gift of celestial beings who had descended in this area riding rams and carrying sheaves of rice. The sheaves represented prosperity and abundance and once the celestials left the rams turned into stone and the region developed into an affluent and influential city. The Temple of Five Celestial Beings in Yuexiu district showcases gigantic footprints of the Five Celestial Beings.

Ram represents Capricorn birth sign and being a Capricornian I felt I was witnessing a magical moment with the Five Rams especially when my friend told me that the statue brings luck to the viewer. By chance I had bought a replica showpiece, from Dubai, as my birth charm without knowing that it is a representation of an original statue.

There are other historical must- sees in the Park: the Guangzhou museum; Sun Yat-sen Monument; Si-fang (Square) and remnants of the 600 year old Wall built during early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and one of the three cultural relics at that time. Most of the wall is damaged except the portion near the Zhenhai Tower. An attraction for tourists and for locals an exercise domain.

The ‘green’ walk was a change from the city meanderings and as we neared the exit a tableaux caught my attention. There were couples, Caucasians, with Chinese babies in identical clothes and prams. Seeing me ogle my friend, the long time resident of Guangzhou, said that these were legally adopted babies. In 2010 approximately 3401 children from China were adopted by USA families alone. The reason was the one child norm and the Chinese preference for boys and as result girl babies found their way into the laps of foreigners. Now Chinese government has changed rules to two children per family. A relief for parents.

I wish I had sneaked in a picture of the chubby cheeks and their excited new parents.

Back to the apartment and the walking shoes were dusted and placed on the mat to be worn the next day for continuing Guangzhou walk discoveries.

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