Turning Back the Clock


By Thomas Chan

Guangzhou aims to be China’s culture capital

by restoring its past glory

Boosted by its success in hosting the Asian Games in 2010, the Guangzhou government has decided on a bold approach to revitalise the city’s historic legacy. It is a history that dates back 2200 years, to when the city, then known as Panyu, was the capital of the Southern Yue kingdom on the northern shore of the Pearl River. It was renamed Guangzhou in AD 246.

From the very beginning, Panyu was very different to the imperial cities of the interior. Its peripheral location far from the capital, on the southern edge of the empire, allowed it to preserve many of the local traditions. It also shielded the city from the attempts by the central government to wield its power by using symbols of the emperor and leaning on the machinery of the state. Panyu’s location attracted contact and trade with foreigners, who used to make their initial entry into China via the coast near Guangzhou. Local people, both natives and settlers from other places, also used the city as a seaport.

Centuries of foreign trade and easy access to local, regional and national markets led to an openness in Guangzhou that proved attractive to the Portuguese. Having failed to set up trading posts in Zhejiang and Fujian, they turned their attention to Macao, and were successful. It is no surprise that since the Han Dynasty, 2000 years ago, Guangzhou has served as a major starting point of the Maritime Silk Road. It has also been the hub of inter-Asian and cross-continental trade from the Tang Dynasty onwards.

China’s open-door policy and economic reform over the last three decades began in the Pearl River, and was centred on Guangzhou. After three decades of disruption caused by Beijing’s centrally planned economy, Guangzhou has seen a return to its local traditions and a continuation of its impressive history.

Rethinking the future

In 2011, after the glamour of the Asian Games and the completion of the infrastructure built up to serve the Games, Guangzhou began to re-think its direction for the future. It is no longer content to be a modern city of skyscrapers and monumental buildings. Nor does it want to follow in the footsteps of larger cities in China that have become symbols of industrialisation, such as Shanghai.

The success of the Asian Games shows that a cultural event can transform the image of a city. Barcelona and other European cities have provided good examples of places that have proclaimed themselves the cultural capitals of Europe. Guangzhou’s media often talk about the trilogy of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, yet Guangzhou feels it needs an identity and image that puts it on a par with the political and economic capitals of the nation.

Guangzhou was designated a historical city as early as 1982; but little was done to enhance its historical legacy. Instead, over the last three decades, especially the last ten years, old buildings and districts have been demolished to make way for new and modern urban areas, similar to areas in Hong Kong. The most notorious example was the first fly-over expressway that runs along Renmin South Road. Its construction has practically destroyed the once busy commercial heart of old Guangzhou – the Thirteen Hongs and the areas around Nanfang Mansion and the New Asia Hotel, close to the river front.

Guangzhou is ancient enough to compare itself very favourably with Beijing and Shanghai. In fact, when Guangzhou was a busy international port city, Beijing was only a small town and Shanghai no more than a fishing village. To compete with the two cities, Guangzhou can look to a colourful and glamorous past.

The historic area of the Thirteen Hongs was burnt down three times during the Qing Dynasty, and the old city wall and its 18 gates were pulled down during the Republican period – much earlier than in Beijing. Yet Guangzhou still has many Qing and Republican buildings that are a testament to its position in the past as the number one port city of China, and the cradle of the revolution that transformed the nation in the 20th century. It is also a city built on rivers, typical of the landscape of southern China. This marks it out from cities like Beijing, which is landlocked, and Jiangnan cities like Shanghai and Suzhou, who have filled in rivers and streams to create roads and buildings.

The new cultural direction of Guangzhou can be found in the new Master Plan of Guangzhou City (2010–2020), which is currently going through the approval process. The outline confirms the position of Guangzhou as a world city of culture, defined in the following terms – the maritime silk road; a centre of southern China (Lingnan) culture, as defined by the area south of the border of Guangdong with Jiangxi and Hunan; the source of China’s modern revolution; the frontier area of economic reform and open-door policy since 1979, and a place for international cultural exchanges. These attributes sum up the history of Guangzhou, not only in the past, but also the present, and probably the future. As such, it makes a good cultural basis for this new development strategy of Guangzhou, as the city enters a post-industrial phase.

Bold plan

The outline incorporates many elements of the revised ‘Famous City Preservation Plan’, which was enacted in 2003 but has had little impact until now. The revised Preservation Plan focuses on the old city centre. For the first time the historical city is defined clearly, covering an area of 20.39 square metres, taking in most of the districts of Yuexiu, Liwan and Haizhu. The plan has specified 48 historical and cultural preservation zones, 22 of which lie within the boundary of the historical city.

The main restriction set by the Preservation Plan is to limit the height of buildings within the historical city at no more than 30 metres; and the principle of preservation is to reduce the building and population density of the city. The target population will be 600,000, which will involve large-scale demolition of buildings that are not compatible with the plan, and the relocation of some residents to newly developed districts. A typical example is the renovation of Liwan River, named after the lychee trees which grow along the coast, which was completed in 2011. The project involved the demolition of many recent inappropriate structures, to give way to more green and public spaces along the riverside.

The Preservation Plan’s design is based on the concept of one city, two belts – that is, the design takes into account the historical city’s traditional axis and the scenic coasts of the Pearl River, as well as many districts that contain places of historical and cultural importance. Of the many preservation areas, the most interesting are the four with stretches of colonnaded streets. Such arcaded streets can be found in most port cities in southern China, including Hong Kong, Macao and Xiamen; they are said to have originated in Guangzhou. Most were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Guangzhou appears to have the largest number intact.

In 2004, the city conducted a project to preserve and develop its arcaded streets; this is used as the basis for the Preservation Plan. The four colonnaded zones include Da Xin Road – Haizhu South Road, Xiguan district, Beijing Road – Wanfu Road, and Tungfu Road – Nanhua Road.

The zones also contain imitations of Roman, Gothic and Baroque architectural styles as well as Nanyang and more traditional Chinese styles of arcade building. These buildings and streets will be preserved and renovated, and buildings erected nearby will be constructed in harmony with them.

The preservation area of 20.39 square kilometres covers the majority of the old city centre, which measures 33.61 square kilometres. The rest of the old city centre will be re-developed, but with the focus shifting from office buildings and orthodox real estate development to culture and commerce, to fit the overall strategy of Guangzhou as a world culture city.

Strong political will

The total cost of preservation, renovation and re-development will be about 100 billion yuan. The city authorities have dedicated 2.7 billion to be spent on the project over the next three years. The government will lead the project, supported by the relevant laws: plans and policies will be formulated and implemented in the coming years.

In order to preserve the entire old city centre and not just the historical areas, the government is also thinking of restricting the use of vehicles in the city, and changing the primary mode of transport used in the centre to walking, bicycles and public transport, with particular emphasis on underground railways for the latter option.

The government wants to follow the examples set by the governing authorities of London and Munich, who have set up protection zones in their cities through imposing higher parking and transit charges on vehicles passing through. In October last year, the Guangzhou city government published its Renmin South Road Historical Culture Zone Preservation Plan. The most surprising element of the plan is the proposed demolition of the flyover over Renmin South Road. It was the first such expressway in Guangzhou, and has served as a symbol of modernist construction over the last three decades. The decision to demolish it confirms the paradigm shift in the city’s urban planning.

The success of the re-development of Liwan River this year, and the international acclaim for the plan to preserve the Xin He Chung Historical Culture Protection Zone of 2006, have encouraged the city government to launch a more ambitious programme to restore most of its rivers. Within the urban boundary, Guangzhou has 231 rivers and streams, which form an extensive network of water connected to the Pearl River and the sea beyond.

The Asian Games provided the authorities with the chance to clean up many of these rivers by setting up a modern sewage system for waste water treatment; it has built 38 plants so far.

The overall strategy is to join up the newly built man-made Bai Yun Lake in the north of the city with water gates, and to regulate and add water flow to the rivers. Next in line will be a policy to uncover most of the rivers and streams turned into underground ditches by the recent construction of roads and buildings. Rivers involved include those in the networks of Tianhe and Haizhu districts. In 2011 the government also started the second phase of the coastal re-development project of Shijing River in the Baiyun District.

The Guangzhou government is applying to have the remains of the southern Yue Kingdom and the maritime Silk Road classified as world cultural heritage sites. Whether it is successful is not important. If all of these projects are completed, Guangzhou will have transformed itself into one of the cultural capitals of China. Due to its greater openness, Guangzhou is once again able to move ahead of the nation in this dedication to culture.