(A florist shop operating out of a tiny corner of an abandoned apartment complex--a rarity here. Maybe there is a big construction project planned for the site.)
After a late afternoon snack on my third night here I wandered the little side streets around the hotel. I love that people congregate in the evenings on the sidewalks and by the little stairway entrances to apartment blocks or neighborhoods, everyone catching up on the latest gossip and generally being part of the community. (This is especially intriguing to me in that I have no such interface with my own community.) I especially love the knots of mostly men surrounding makeshift card and tile games, the boards resting on the ground or an upturned crate with people crowded around. There are far more people involved than the two or four who play, so that the games become spectator sports (I saw these games all around the city at all times of day, but there's clearly a nightly gathering after work in the neighborhoods). Everyone smokes and stands around chattering. Sometimes there is a loud commentary to the game, and other times it's clear that people are there just because other people are there.
(As I write this, I think my own community disengagement comes in part from America having no analogous milieu to this street culture. We are a culture of individuals; people gather around a cause, or for some specific reason, and not simply as a herd instinct. Maybe the church used to serve this function--maybe it still does--but I'm not aware of these Chinese gatherings having an ideological or political underpinning.)
The apartments, as seen in the windows and on balconies, are littered with the detritus of modern life lived in cramped, ancient spaces. The balconies and windows are all hung with laundry--one must assume that almost no one not upper-middle-class has a clothes dryer. I can't help wondering how the living spaces are allotted. Clearly the country's recent foray into private enterprise has enabled (or exacerbated) a differential in living conditions (I'm sure it's always been there, but surely more people have more money now than in the past); along the river the residences are much swankier than in other parts of town. Does everyone get a certain housing allowance based on age or job or family size or party membership? And is one then able to augment the housing allowance to live in nicer digs? Or is it done some other way? Many of the older apartment buildings look crumbling and filthy, but I have no idea what they are like on the inside. And are these coveted spaces? Or is this just the baseline government-issued housing? Is housing issued near where one works? Or can one just up and move at will?
On my last day in town I thought I'd head off in a direction I don't usually walk and see what I came across. I generally head East out of the hotel for half or 3/4 mile and then head South toward the electronics market and the river. This is how we began our 12 mile walk on Tuesday. But I'd never been further East than where I turn South. So today I just continued a couple miles further along this stretch, and planned to head South from there and pick up the river back West. Once underway I remembered there were a couple gigantic skyscrapers under construction in this part of town, and decided to make them the goal of my walk.
I think I could simply wander the streets for a living. (I'm reminded that my mother could be perfectly entertained to ride around in the car, and I share this love of gently changing scenery with her.) A walking pace gives one time to absorb all the little details, the smells and sounds and bits of human interaction that almost any other mode of transport would gloss over.
The two big buildings at the terminus of my walk, it turns out, are the new Guangzhou International Finance Center and the TV and Sightseeing Tower. The latter is on the other side of the river, so I didn't get terribly close to that one. But I made it to the base of the IFC. (Both buildings are so new that not a trace of them shows up on the Google maps images.) These both appear to be ambitious, architecturally-innovative showcase structures. And along the way one passes all manner of old and new, big and small, China in a nutshell.
My experiences in Guangzhou convince me more than ever that China is ascendant; it's the most aggressively forward-moving place I've seen. The sense of electric expectancy is everywhere. People have their heads down as they move forward step by step, but the sense of forward motion and of incremental steps turning into massive movement is palpable. One of my sightseeing partners on day 1 felt that Guangzhou is a dirty city (and he's from Manhattan, no less), but I just don't see it. Any city of multiple millions will have its sanitation issues, but most everyone is employed and everyone takes a bit of care for their little corner of the word (though it's interesting to note that people sweeping their sidewalks are virtually all middle-aged or older). People are clean and nicely, if unostentatiously, dressed, most places are swept and cleaned up of trash, graffiti is under control and there's an order to most of the big city clutter. There is a sense of a massive and growing middle class on the streets, and I suspect this would not have been so in decades past.
It sounds like I may have occasion to visit Guangzhou again, as our Shenzhen facility is still in the works. In any case, all indications are that Shenzhen is of a very similar stamp to Guangzhou.