Hidden Guangzhou – the Hong

66363911When people think about Guangzhou, they think of factories, shops and a place where money can be made. However, when you turn away from the overcrowded main roads into the alleys, you’ll find a world utterly different from the commercial side of this age old city. Like the Hutongs of Beijing and the Long Dangs of Shanghai, the 巷 (“Hong” in Cantonese dialect) of Guangzhou have their own regional cultural uniqueness.

The Hongs of Guangzhou usually begin from a tiny entrance off a main street, from a street market, or a traditional style round stone gate. They curve and meander for miles behind the main roads, spawning, not only residential buildings, but all purposes shops, fresh food markets, hairdressers, food stalls, repair shops and even schools. Life in the Hong is tranquil, away from the hustle and bustle of 21st century noise, most of them being too narrow for cars to pass. The occasional bicyle bell,  and children’s laughter ring in the stone paved alleys, amidst the chirping of pet birds. Around noon, the smell of cured sausage and steamed rice accompanied by the sound of Cantonese opera or Wuxia stories narrated on the radio, fill the air. In the afternoon the sight of old ladies preparing fish, poultry or offal, with cleavers on thick chopping boards near the gutter, and old men smoking pipes while sitting on cane chairs and playing Chinese chess outside the door. In the evenings, the clatter of mahjong tiles, chattering of people cooling by their front door and later, those enjoying a night snack at the food stalls.

Up until the age of four, we lived with my paternal grandfather, in an old alley in the Haizhu district, called Jellyfish Bay(an indication of the sandy bay origins of the area 300 hundred years ago).  Some of my best memories were climbing up the neighbour’s Tong Moon 趟门[1] ,playing with alley cats, taking a bowl to the stall up the alley to buy delicious smelling breakfast cheung fun (Cantonese soft rice rolls), and going to the local  markets to look at live frogs, snakes, chickens. Later I found out that no. 21 Jellyfish Bay played a significant role in modern Chinese history, something I’m very proud of, and will go into in a later article.

We moved to a high rise flat by a main central road for a few years, before we settled in another alley in the west of the city, with a very poetic name, White Lotus Pond Alley. It was a short cut I took every day to school, collecting my friends along the way, hollering until they opened the carved windows on the upper floor.  It was great fun to thread through the twists and curves of the alley, and find all the hidden places.

A few decades ago, many alleyway communities along with the much of the old Xiguan architecture in the oldest of the city, were demolished wholesale for redevelopment, including White Lotus Pond Alley, which is now half the length it used to be.  I was very glad  to hear, that recently, some features of the Lingnan regional cultural heritage has been restored, such as the mote in the Liwan district, which was dug out after having previously been sealed up, cleaned up with a museum built next to it, housed in an original Xiguan mansion.

However, this shift to protection of Guangzhou’s heritage has come too late for some places, and other  Xiguan houses, have already been  slated for demolition. Last year, I had the opportunity to film some footage of the old city, to preserve and tell people about the Guangzhou that I knew and loved, even as I explore this shining new one that seems to be growing out of its bones.


[1] Traditional Cantonese double layered wooden doors, the outer layer of which is solid wooden double doors, usually open in the summer, leaving only the inner layer, consisting of a door frame with circular wooden bars across the width of it, allowing the air to circulate while still fulfilling the function of a door.

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