广州,别人的沙漠,我们的天堂 – Guangzhou, desert for others paradise for us – English

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Qing Lang: planner. Founded “cold Mandarin duck culture” (dyy.hk), he is committed to cultural exchange across the Pearl River Delta, promoting various types of high quality exhibitions and performances, and developing independent film and music; he is  also the agent of Hong Kong bands 人山人, 麦兜 and others in Mainland China.

When I think about GuangZhou city, I find it is not as striking as Beijing and Shanghai. GuangZhou has its own language, culture and food tradition, and so it is harder to feel close to the city. When talking about Hong Kong, people praise its level of development, its kaleidoscopic appearance, its unique cultural atmosphere – it’s almost like a cult. But when it comes to nearby GuangZhou, things are more awkward: we probably don’t really understand GuangZhou, or the people of GuangZhou. This city is located in the far south of China and – like all other Chinese cities – is quickly transforming and innovating.

Question: People from the rest of China find GuangZhou people self-satisfied and self-centered. They use a completely different language,  they have a different food culture, and Guangzhou was the first city in China with large numbers of very rich people. Yet in city rankings, GuangZhou always comes after Beijing and Shanghai. How do people from GuangZhou perceive this contradiction?

Answer: It’s true. Because of its particular language, culture and level of development, there was a time when GuangZhou people, Hong Kong people and people from Mainland China were considered as three different ethnic groups living in the same place.  We’re used to calling all Mandarin-speaking people from the rest of China “northerners” -  the expression is more common in GuangZhou than on Hainan island, although it is further South. But I don’t think that this exceptional situation generated a feeling of superiority. On the contrary, I think that GuangZhou often has an inferiority complex.

That inferiority complex comes from the comparison with Hong Kong. Because we’re so close to Hong-Kong, Guangdong is the province where people most often have relatives there. After the liberation, many people had “desperate” relatives who left for Hong Kong (which at the time was a small fishing village). But from the early 80s on,  on Chinese New Year, these Hong Kong relatives have been coming back to GuangZhou with expensive household appliances, trendy clothes and good food, giving a hundred red envelopes (envelopes with money) to their relatives from here, inviting the whole family to classy restaurants, even the bars they visited and hotels that they stayed at became the settings for a must-see TV show: the ugly duckling!

So we, the little children, started to highly anticipate the arrival of these Hong Kong relatives, year after year. We completely worshipped the Hong Kong economy, we completely identified with Hong Kong culture, and without realising it, we naturally became aware of our inferiority complex. If you say that in those years, people from GuangZhou had a superiority complex in relation to Northerners, 99% of it is due to them getting closer to Hong Kongers. But the sense of superiority that comes from this proximity, how deep and long-lasting can it be?

At the beginning of the 90s, we could no longer freely follow Hong Kong radio and television, we could only watch Hong Kong TV intermittently, and after 2000, the development of sea, land and air transport, and the booming economy of Mainland China, all contributed to making GuangZhou, the big Southern doorway, somehow pointless.

But even though Northerners from Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have become richer and more prosperous, this was not enough for people from GuangZhou to develop an inferiority complex towards them, because the trend originated with us.

Question: GuangZhou is a river city, close to the sea. All this water, of course, gives it a somewhat feminine, delicate and sensitive atmosphere;  yet people from GuangZhou are shrewd in business and good at calculating. What do you think is the cumulated effect of this environment on GuangZhou people’s temperament?

Answer: In fact, there are water villages everywhere in China. “Feminine”, delicate, sensitive  – these are not unique characteristics of GuangZhou. I personally think that the established temperament of GuangZhou people can be defined as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘inclusive’: pragmatic with things and inclusive with people – both elements are correlated. Overall, these are the core elements of Cantonese culture; and in the details, it means people from GuangZhou believe that everyone should sweep their own doorstep, and not mind what happens on others’ doorsteps. This seemingly indifferent attitude to life is the best way to ensure that ‘the gentleman lets the water flow below the bridge’. Gossip a bit less, and focus a bit more on getting things done.

Question: In GuangZhou, young people can speak good Mandarin, and easily communicate with Northerners, while being more inclusive and open; but people 40 and above are quite stubborn in following local GuangZhou customs. In other cities, that difference may not be so obvious. So what do you think is the opinion and attitude of young people about the culture of GuangZhou, and about changes and development in Guangzhou?

Answer: In fact, any person over forty who lives in a city with a local dialect (that is, anyone born in or before the 60s) will be relatively “anachronistic” – the first reason being age, the second being that they developed a certain set of values and a certain worldview before the reforms and the opening up, which they can and will no longer change.

But after the reforms and opening up, regional specificities gradually weakened, and cultural trends became more homogeneous. If you add to that economic development and media unification throughout the country (especially the internet), and as a result, Mandarin has become more normal, and the difference between young people from GuangZhou and their peers from other big cities in China has become very small. But honestly, this is a sad and boring thing.

In each city that I travel to, not only do I see the same Mc Donald’s, Starbucks and 7/11, but also the same entertainment offer, the same kind of nightlife, and the same faces on billboards. This always reminds me of McDull movies – many years ago, I asked the author, why do you draw all the male characters with the same long face, and all the women as miss chanchan, shouldn’t all of them have their own identity? After that, he just answered me: “I just believe that today, a thousand people have the same face, isn’t that so?” I had no answer to that.

Question: There is a paradox about Cantonese culture: it exists independently, yet seems to have a strong influence; yet on the other hand, GuangDong has been said to be a “cultural desert”. What is your opinion on that?

Answer: As I said earlier, Cantonese people are pragmatic, and therefore quite indifferent towards vain pursuits. And contemporary culture is very much about the pursuit of vanity,so of course, in the eyes of others, GuangDong has come to be perceived as a cultural desert. I think it doesn’t matter – a desert for others, a paradise for us – the place is quite good enough for us.

Question: Talking about fashion and trends, people say that they first emerge in Europe, then  spread to Japan, and, transformed there, later spread to Hong Kong. They go through another  wash cycle in Hong Kong, then enter GuangDong and, finally, spread to the North of China.  Earlier, GuangZhou was indeed leading in fashion, ahead of the mainland, for instance with the Cantonese school or music, cantopop, etc. These days, does GuangZhou still lead the trends in youth pop-culture?

Answer: What you say is very true. In popular culture, this was the pattern in the last two decades. For instance, earlier, in television variety shows, the pattern has always been that the North of China copied the South, the South copied Hong Kong, Hong Kong copied Taiwan, Taiwan copied Japan, and Japan copied Europe and America. The same was true for variety shows and for pop music.  But the world has already changed. Since the coalition army of Western culture has started searching for the door to “invade China” from, new generations of young people can just go online to workship America, Europe, Korea and Japan, and the role of GuangZhou – even Hong Kong and Taiwan – as intermediaries can be cut down. For that reason, on the mainland, we have seen a new generation laugh at Korea and Japan Korean and Japanese shows?, and worship Europe and the US; the super-girls and super-boys on TV are copied from British and American idols.  This kind of “talent program” has come even earlier than in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and its influence is even greater.

What role can GuangZhou play in the re-emergence of youth pop culture? My answer is, there is not much hope. These slogans saying “build a great province of culture” are not only illusory, 其核心只是为部分集团谋求利益的,其实际 行为还是“去本土化”的. In a city which has given up its roots, how can there still be cultural vitality?  Along with neighbouring Hong Kong, this city which used to be the “Pearl of the Orient” is getting more and more bleak, as its economic influence is becoming thinner and thinner; 又在大一统的 体制的钳制下,粤语文化的重新振兴更无从说起。Rain and wind have trashed the merry beauty of the 80s and 90s, all that remains is a few bald ladies in their throne, what’s the point?

For people with a heart, the only thing you can do is try to save Cantonese cultural heritage, pack up a few specimens before they die, gather them in a cultural shrine, and leave them as materials for the future research or discussions of idle academics.

Question: 创意文化对每个年轻人,甚至每个城市来说都已经是非常重要的一个icon。For the majority of artists, when most creative design industries moved to Beijing and Shanghai, has the creative environment of GuangZhou become desolate? Where does the energy of local artists and designers go, and what are their expectations?

Answer:  Artists are OK, designers are OK: in a market economy, they are producing and selling commodities, and have to act as businessmen; and as businessmen, it is natural that they should seek to maximize their own interest. When the local business environment will not support artists or designers, they will naturally try to go North or move South, or even to “internationalize”.  Therefore, those who need to work hard are not so much the local artists or designers, but rather the local government, to ensure that there is a favorable business environment for these creators of local folk culture, even using government resources or funds to directly help creators; this way, if they can expect to achieve something locally, they will not choose to leave.

Question: When talking about GuangZhou, one has to mention Hong Kong and ShenZhen. Most people can easily see the difference between GuangZhou and Hong Kong, but they find it harder to see the difference between GuangZhou and ShenZhen. In culture, and particularly youth culture, what would you say is the difference between these cities? Or what is the nature of their relationship?

Answer: GuangZhou and ShenZhen are two completely different cities. ShenZhen has a far more intimate relationship with Hong Kong and DongGuan than GuangZhou.

ShenZhen only has 30 years of urban history. Before that, it used to be just a little fishing village with a hundred people – even the language of that small fishing village was different; Cantonese was the trading language, but the real local culture of the village is not very well documented, and outsiders don’t know anything more about it.

What we now call “ShenZhen” is a city of Mandarin-speaking migrants. Many people from other provinces have come to the “special economic zone” with the goal of “casting the net, then move on”, and their situations differ. Many people have moved on, after catching some fish, or without catching anything, but the number of people who kept coming in to join in the gold rush is even bigger.

Because everyone here has the same, simple goal, and because the average age of people in ShenZhen is around 22-25, everyone says the place is “vibrant” – yet there is another way of putting things, and call it impetuous.

But culture actually requires a long process of sedimentation, and the seeds of culture will only bear fruit in adequately nutritious soil. 所以不要强求在这时候,就为这个由五湖四海年轻人组成的经济特区总结出一种什么样的共同的文化来,如果说有,那也是骗你的。

GuangZhou is not like that, GuangZhou has 2000 years of history, and deep levels of cultural sedimentation. In my view, Cantonese is the world’s loveliest language. But from the earliest age, poor us,  we are taught Mandarin in class. In ten years of study, we are not given a single Cantonese text book to read. But you know, Cantonese is the closest language to ancient Chinese, and if you use Cantonese to read Tang poetry aloud, you get closer to the original intention, intonation and rhyme of writers from a thousand years ago than if you were using Mandarin. This issomething that people who speak only Mandarin will never understand. Now these cultural subtleties are all being destroyed and murdered.

So culturally speaking, ShenZhen is a city of migrants, whereas GuangZhou is more like a colonial city.

Question: Cantonese culture is actually different not only from northern culture, but also from other southern cultures. GuangZhou is the “core city” of Southern China, but is GuangZhou also working hard on building the conditions to become a cultural centre? Talking not about GuangZhou’s location, but about GuangZhou’s cultural position, does it only look to influence the area from itself to Hong-Kong – or is it looking to influence a larger number of cities?

Answer: GuangDong has a population of over 100 million pepole, and GuangZhou almost 20 million – actually, GuangZhou alone has a lot more people than many countries in the world. So if we can take good care of GuangZhou itself, and exert some influence on the rest of GuangDong, that’s enough, there’s no need to try and influence a wider number of cities and provinces.

But unfortunately, what we see happening  is that buildings of historical and cultural significance are replaced or removed one by one, and in their place grow high-rises similar to those you can see all around the world. Each day, people walk out into a forest of reinforced concrete, and the space available for local culture is getting smaller and smaller — but I think this is a problem that not only GuangZhou is facing; a large number of cities in the rest of China can cry together with us.

Question: I’d like to talk about GuangZhou’s architecture. Urban landmarks have already become an important point of discussion for first-tier cities, and they’re an important tool to highlight and differentiate the temperaments of different cities. GuangZhou is very special, it has the basic setting of a maritime culture, it has the remains of a colonial past, and it has the influence of Hong-Kong’s “urban forest”. So how do you evaluate what is typical GuangZhou architecture, and what constitutes a GuangZhou landmark?

Answer: Like I said before, the “pragmatic” and “inclusive” nature of people from GuangZhou is such that they will not seek landmark buildings to show their local advantage. So called official GuangZhou landmarks, such as the “wuyang stone”, are places that the locals never visit. More significant landmark buildings for us would be ancient tea-houses, or street-stalls: these are places relevant to our lives, although they are not “culturally significant” as such.

Question: The Asian Games must be a good opportunity for GuangZhou, but you’ve also mentioned the impact of this event on people, including housing affordability and other issues. In fact, this is a more general phenomenon, and I would like to know the difference between the habits and rhythms of old and new residents of GuangZhou. Will GuangZhou residents adapt to or embrace these changes, or will they be negative towards them?

Answer: It will be very difficult for the Asian games to distupt the life and habits of old GuangZhou residents. Most of them live in the West part of the city, so there is a certain distance with the districts of Tianhe, Huangpu and Luogang where most of the games will take place.

People from GuangZhou will neither adapt to nor embrace these changes, but even less will they violently oppose them.  They will only silently accept or reject them, then go on drinking their own tea, eating their own food, listening to their own songs, and walking at their own pace.

Question: GuangZhou is a “garden city”: in the city centre, you can find park after park, giving the impression that people from GuangZhou really care for green spaces and the environment . During the process of urban change, all cities will be faced with ecological problems, so what is the level of envronmental awareness among people from GuangZhou?

Answer: In fact, I have many foreign friends who got very disappointed when they came to Guangzhou. They say: doesn’t GuangZhou call itself the “flower city”? Then what about the grey sky and the bare streets, and how come there are more children selling flowers than flowers  — these are a very common sight in GuangZhou’s new district. But the so-called ‘Guangzhou Park’ has only been accessible for free since this year on the first July. Before that, our enjoyment of a green environment has come at the cost of an entrance ticket – a few cents  难得享受到一回。So the question should not be about the level of environmental awareness among the people of GuangZhou, but about the level of environmental awareness in the government of GuangZhou – and because this is something we don’t understand, we will not and cannot give an answer, thank you.

Question: GuangZhou is a city with a big population of foreigners, but there is a phenomenon which is unique to Guangzhou, that is places with a large number of Africans, like “gold street” – the name of this place itself is very interesting. What is the attitude of people from Guangzhou regarding foreigners and foreign cultures?  And partticularly about this group of Africans I mentioned, they have now become part of GuangZhou, so what is their influence on GuanZhou? And how are they accepted and regarded by people from GuangZhou?

Answer: People from GuangZhou are very tolerant, as long as they don’t impact on our daily life, people who come here, whatever their colour, language or culture, generally don’t suffer any ‘discrimination’. So if any group of foreigners feel that they are experiencing “discrimination”, that is surely their own problem, and they should reflect on the reasons for it.

Question: If you were to use a few keywords to describe contemporary GuangZhou, which would you choose?

Answer: Location, location, location.

Question: Tell us about the differences and similarities among China’s big cities.

Answer: The song “One world” that Zhou Yaohui wrote for Anthony Wong in 2008 goes like this: everywhere is different, but everywhere will be the same in the end, 几多的都市为何从没有异象。

This is not only a problem for China, this is a problem faced by the entire “urban” world. Buildings that look exactly the same, the same shops along the streets, bars, cafes, fast food and convenience store which all have the same name… people like me who travel often can easily get confused in the morning, and forget which city we’re in; but fortunately, after a shower, when we get out on the street and start engaging with people, we can hear the different accent or language. However, under the radiant influence of Mandarin and English, soon these differences will vanish.

We should quickly do something to preserve the city digitally, then later we would only need a computer and a network connection to travel around the world – that would be a way to “do more with less”!

Question: Chinese people like to distinguish between first, second and third tier cities; if you were to establish that distinction, what standards would you be using?

Answer: I would use quality of life as my standard to distinguish among cities. The distinction between first, second and third tier cities is now based on GDP, population and size; city characteristics have been abstracted into cold figures, and they have becomes sources of profit for organisations and property developers, but the “livability” index has been completely neglected. Of course cities are made for people! They’re not made for money!

So I will use quality of life to rank cities. Among the Chinese cities that I have been to, I would say that GuangZhou, Xiamen, Hong Kong, Macau, Shuhe, Chengdu, Kunming and Nanjing are the first tier cities – apart from GuangZhou, this list is in alphabetical order.

Question: Tell us, what is your favorite Chinese city, big or small.

Answer: Apart from GuangZhou, my two favourite cities so far are the small coastal cities of Xiamen and Macau. They offer a convenient lifestyle, a mild cuisine, old architecture reasonably preserved, and locals enjoying life lazily on the streets. The most important thing is, they’re both on the coast. I love the sea – because when I’m there, I don’t have to be ‘down to earth’.

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About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org