Cantonese culture is close to my heart. Just out of high school I moved to Hong Kong and spent one and a half years there. Over the years I have traveled to Hong Kong and Guangzhou on several occasions. In fact, I learned Cantonese before I ever learned Mandarin. Students often ask me which language I like better. My response is, “It depends on where I am.” I much prefer Cantonese when I am in Hong Kong or the Cantonese speaking areas of Southern China. In fact, it seems that it is still a bit of a novelty for a foreigner to speak Cantonese. It reminded me of what it was like for a foreigner to speak Mandarin back in the 1980’s. Now it seems foreigners speaking Mandarin is not such a big deal.
Though I have been to Guangzhou on several occasions, before this year, my last trip there was in 1998. In late February of this year I spent a couple weeks in Guangzhou and the surrounding area on a research trip. Needless to say, much has changed and I hardly recognized the place. It took me a couple days to get into the swing of things with my Cantonese as I don’t have much opportunity to use it these days and I was definitely rusty. But after a few days I was feeling fairly comfortable. I was very fortunate in that one of my colleagues at BYU is from Guangzhou and I was able to meet her parents and spend some time with them. They showed me the city and introduced me to some excellent Cantonese restaurants. Guangzhou, along with Beijing and Shanghai, is one of China’s most important economic centers. It is also a major metropolitan city in China with major universities, a sophisticated subway system, and significant foreign investment.
The Cantonese are passionate about two things—eating and shopping, and it is evident everywhere in Guangzhou. If they are not eating, they are talking about eating, at the market shopping for ingredients, or at the least thinking about food. Cantonese cuisine is one of the four major cuisines in China with a long and rich history. Restaurants, meat and produce markets, and street vendors are everywhere and it seems the Cantonese are eating at all times of the day and late into the night.
Though there are now large grocery stores all over China, the Cantonese still do a fair amount of shopping in outdoor meat, poultry, and produce markets. They are similar to farmer’s markets here in the U.S. Just a couple decades ago all Chinese shopped this way. At that time most Chinese did not own refrigerators and shopped every day for produce. This habit is still practiced by many Chinese who insist on the freshest ingredients. In the past, it was not uncommon for someone to buy a live chicken, take it home, and let it strut around in the kitchen until time to prepare the meal. Live fish are also bought and either taken home alive, or prepared by the vendor on the spot. These kinds of markets are still around in China though they are a bit harder to find and the Chinese are shopping more and more in grocery stores.
With Guangzhou’s proximity to Hong Kong, the Cantonese have been exposed to the West and Western goods for quite a bit longer than the rest of China. Even back in the eighties Guangzhou received some TV and radio stations from Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s fanatic attitude toward shopping rubbed off on Guangzhou. They is everything from European designer boutiques to tiny shops selling Chinese brands.
Finally, here are a few random shots from Guangzhou.