GZ Nights

The hot weather and long days are really reminding me of Guangzhou. And after a journey into the West End was completed by a rare scoop of green tea ice cream,  I thought about Guangzhou’s nocturnal street life.

Like the inhabitants of many tropical regions, the Cantonese rise early in the day, often head home for lunch and a siesta, and after dinner at around sixish, the night is only just starting.  Restaurants, street markets and stalls don’t close until 11 or 12.

A popular activity is to go out for a stroll in the cool evening air, either along the neighbouring streets, or to the park.  Parents often play badminton with their kids and old folk sing Cantonese opera, or dance along to music blaring from stereos. It’s common for people to wear their slippers out, usually (plastic and strapless due to the heat), and the pitter pattering noise of these against the pavement has given the Cantonese a word for dating. 拍拖 (“Pak Toh”) means to go pitter pattering, to take your date for a spot of night shopping and a stroll, or to a movie and a night snack.

Staying out late after an early dinner would mean getting hungry before bedtime, and many restaurants offer an menu for 宵夜 (“Siu Yeh”), or night snacks. These could vary between seafood or offal nibbles to accompany drinks, hot pot, cooked dishes or desserts. Although I’d always been told they were “not respectable”, my favourite night snack place is still the 大排档 (“Dai Pai Dong”) food stalls. Where low tables and stools are usually placed for customers across the pavement outer edge. River snails sauced in garlic and chilli, frogs legs, ginger and spring onions stir fry, washed down with 沙示  “Sar Si”, a chinese root beer, or pineapple beer (being mostly fruit with a tiny amount of alcohol).

Many of these stalls were closed as part of the “clean streets” initiative before the 2008 Olympics. They have returned, in highly mobile form, with the tendency to evaporate again at the hint of a police uniform.

Shops would also stay open late, the giant Westernized and air-conditioned department stores, to the small stalls in covered market complexes, would be open til 10 or 11. Locals tend to go and look around in department stores, but buy anything from clothes, to shoes, to accessories and make up in the markets. I remember going to Xi Hu Road 夜市 (“Ye Shi”) or night market, where one bargained for the top brands (real and fake), fuelled by the heat and the blazing white halogens. Xi Hu Night Market began in 1984 and was one of the first of its kind in the country. Often visited by foreign shoppers as well, it epitomized the new commercial freedom spearheaded by Guangzhou in the 80s, facilitating the start of many small independent businesses. It’s so much a part of the city, that they say  “if you haven’t been to Xi Hu Night Market, you haven’t seen Guangzhou”.

After two decades, the night market closed, as vendors found homes in the covered marketplaces that have grown around the city. Xi Hu Road does still host a night market, in the flower selling season that precedes Spring Festival, serving as a reminder of this once buzzing tradition along this age old Guangzhou street.

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