Summer in Guangzhou

So far I can describe my summer in Guangzhou with one word: wet.

It may just be the tail-end of typhoon Chanchu which, after having devastated the Phillipines, messed up much of South-East China and came very close to Hong Kong. Or this may be perfectly normal.

Friends tell me that I should expect the summer to get hotter and stickier. All very therapeutic I’m sure, but now I understand exactly why there is always so much washing hung out from Chinese windows.

When it’s not being hot and sticky, it’s being hot and rainy. In the space of one day the weather can change from this:

Rainfall in Guangzhou

To this:

Now that’s what I call variable!

All that Jazz

Let me start this by stating that Jazz is not my thing. Not at all. It instantly brings to mind Starbucks-esque nondescript croonings that send me to sleep faster than just about anything.

With that in mind the rest of this post is about Jazz. Twice.

It was with some trepidation that I found myself paying a visit to the Backstreet Jazz Bar, situated in the lovely environs of Guangzhou’s Ersha Island. Around the corner is the Xinghai Concert Hall, and at the end of the street is the Pearl River. You can’t be any better situated.

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99th Canton Fair

Guangzhou is all a-buzz at the moment with the semi-annual Canton Fair. This is South-East Asia’s biggest trade exhibition. We’re talking serious big here, and the numbers speak for themselves: last years show had a turnover of US$29,430 million, with 150,000 different products, and 210 trading countries. Not something to be ignored.

As you’d expect, the effect on the local economy is very pronounced. Hotels are all booked-up, and charge wildly exaggerated rates. Restaurants are trying their hardest to catch potential customers, with lots of bright English advertisements and special offers. The whole place feels alive.

From a personal perspective, just walking about the streets, it feels much more like a multi-cultural Hong Kong. Even the supermarkets seem different, and for a few moments yesterday I had a distinct feeling of confusion: am I walking around Chinatown, or am I in China?

Still, there are some differences. The influx of visitors has brought with it an increase in street traders, beggars, and all manner of methods to relieve foreigners of their money. It’s not uncommon to see young mother’s sitting on the street with one or two children, all wrapped up in many layers of clothes (despite the humid temperatures of 30 degrees). Upon seeing a foreigner the mother quickly directs the child to run alongside and chatter in a cheerful manner.

A more seedy effect of all this was experienced when taking a taxi to a restaurant that happened to be close to a popular luxury hotel. As the taxi neared the destination it went through an area crowded with people. Suddenly, there was a rush of noise, and 5 or 6 boys (maybe around 8-10 years old) came forward, pushing cards through a tiny slit in the car window next to me. It felt both disconcerting, and a little threatening. The cards were, of course, for call girls.

The thing I find interesting are the street traders. The fair seems to be very famous nationally, and it attracts a lot of people from the more rural parts of China, hoping to sell their products. In particular, there is one group of people wearing distinctively different clothes that have formed a semi-permanent encampment outside a nearby hotel. They are obviously some ethnic Chinese minority, although I’m not sure where from. They sit on a blanket on the street, all day and night, with their entire family (including Grandma!) and sell everything from jewelry to giant machetes and dried animal genitalia. The latter, I’m told, is because some Chinese believe that eating the genitalia of an animal is akin to an aphrodisiac/natural Viagra. Whatever the reason, it does make you look twice.


So it’s been a very long time since I posted anything here, and it is not from apathy. Since returning from Norway I decided that I wanted to go to Asia, and so after a lot of hard work renewing passports and obtaining visas, I am now living in Guangzhou, the third largest city in China.

I was very much hoping that China would be relatively free of the whole Christmas mania that blights everywhere in the West, but it seems not. In fact, the Christmas experience is heightened with the high pitched warbles of some child screeching Christmas songs out in every shop that are loud enough to do permanent damage to ears. Everyone seems oblivious to it apart from me. My ‘favourite’ was the adaptation of Jingle Bells:

Jingle Bells
Jingle Bells
Good every day

So why Guangzhou? Well, it’s certainly not for the clean and pollution free environment, but it is a big city with many advantages, the biggest being its vicinity to Hong Kong. Apparently Guangzhou is over 2000 years old, and is famed for it’s food (another name for the city is Canton, home of the Cantonese language and cuisine). The name itself apparently means ‘Goat Town’. Nice.

The weather averages a pleasant 20 degrees in winter, but it sure does feel cold at night with no heating.

And life in China? Very, very, strange. It’s a whole different world. I am constantly amazed by the amount of money that flows through the city. Restaurants and shops are always full to bursting, car dealers are selling 500 new cars a day, construction sites appear daily, and the whole place is alive. The eating experience is something that requires more details. Back home I’m used to restaurants and cafes being fairly small places, maybe serving 20 or 30 people. Restaurants here serve 1000’s at a time, over several floors, full of noise, chaos, and confusion (for me anyway). Need a table for two? No problem, the table folds down. Need a table for 20? Staff appear from nowhere rolling a giant table-top that fits over the smaller table.

It’s going to take a long time to fit everything inside my head.

(and I will get round to replying to all questions eventually).

Learning Chinese

I’ve been trying to learn Chinese for over half a year now and, well, it’s kinda tough going. Not only do you need to learn a whole new way of speaking, but you also need to learn two written languages: pinyin (the English transliteration of Chinese words, so you can actually read anything), and Chinese characters themselves.

The spoken language is difficult in its own right due to tones. These are like the accents found in other languages, but more complicated and unfortunately much more important – getting the wrong tone in a word can change the meaning completely, to the extent that you could call your mother a horse by using the wrong inflection.

This is further complicated by different dialects. The majority of people in China speak Mandarin, while people in the South (and most of the Hong Kong expatriates around the world) speak Cantonese. They both use the same characters, but they are pronounced very differently. Actually, that’s not entirely true – Mandarin speakers use ‘simplified Chinese characters’, while Hong Kong and Taiwan use ‘traditional characters’. Sometimes they look similar, sometimes not.

Did I mention the other half-dozen regional variations? It’s enough to cause you to weep.

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The real reason for blogs

I came across a series of photos at Notes From A Desi Geek that show the amusing-yet-interesting cultural oddities in India. One thought led to another and I arrived at the conclusion that the blog is the perfect vehicle to show all my international oddities discovered on my own travels. I think I am developing a hobby in this respect, as this follows on from a previous post about the best onions in China. Still, photos for amusement sake are fine by me (and I so wish I had a photo of the Chinese shampoo ‘Ugly Girl’).

Anyway, the first picture is of the control panel on my Chinese microwave. It is innocuous enough until you look closely and discover that an ordinary microwave can possess the power to cause universal discord.

Chaos Button

Sadly the actual meaning is ‘defrost’, but way to go on that translation! A nice touch is the coupling with ‘white fungus’ – you can either cause havoc, or zap mushrooms (white ones anyway).

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Best onions

Freshly returned from Hong Kong, I remembered this photo I took in Zhaoqing, in Guangdong province, Southern China. As far as I can tell, this may be the best example of Chinglish discovered. I should add that I did not go on an onion-smelling tour (the bus actually stopped at a mushroom farm, but that’s another issue), and the area was not known for its prize onions.

Best Onions

I managed to loose my mp3 player on arrival to HK, which caused much distress, but fortunately it was found by Lufthansa when I returned to the airport. Probably as a product of this, and the fact that gadgets are quite a bit cheaper over there, I picked up an iPod shuffle. A review may ensue.

Other than that I turned 30 and had a super time.