So after almost 3 months away, I’m finally back at our homebase of Guangzhou. I missed it, and I thought I should write a little tribute to our dear 羊城 (Goat City), then I remembered I did that when I first arrived. I’ll post it here, embellished with some photo evidence. All photos courtesy of Priscilla “Witness the fitness” Migliore…

From: brendan mcgetrick
To: **********
Date: Apr 14, 2006 11:13 PM
Subject: GZ up


I got to Guangzhou early last week, but it already seems like months. After years of low-impact living in Rotterdam, my body-mind-soul wasn’t exactly prepared for this South China sense assault.

I’ve adopted a local name, Bing (Brendan has proven unpronounceable, even to a woman who introduced herself as Brenda), and I’m now trying to adjust Guangzhou’s counterintuitive mix of tropical heat and hyperactivity. The air here feels heavy and coats everything – arms, walls, produce – in a thin layer of permasweat. On arrival at Guangzhou airport, I nearly collapsed from temperature shock. I’d exceeded the luggage weight limit, so to compensate I was wearing three layers of clothes – a good idea in the climate-controlled confines of Schiphol, a form of ascetic self-torture in wilting heat of Guangzhou.


Like R’dam, GZ sits on the water under bright gray skies. But this Chinese version of the port city seems unfulfilled by its hazy daytime demeanor, and at night transforms itself into a twinkling neon drive-in. The Pearl Riverfront becomes a mini Vegas strip for pre-schoolers. The non-descript buildings along the banks are animated with light shows of rainbows and cartoon animals. The unaffected optimism and simplicity of the message is almost heartbreaking and utterly imaginable in anxiety-ridden “Old Europe”. An office building across from our apartment beams out a sequence of 20 meter high characters that add up to “Harmonious Society” and I can’t decide whether that’s inspiring or creepy.


I’m living in an enormous housing complex not far from the river’s edge. It’s gated and policed by impassive teenage guards. I don’t know how many towers it has, probably 7 or 8. That sounds like a lot, but our complex (“Century 21 Millenium”) is a pigmy compared to neighboring Neway Life Houses, a mini-metropolis of 20 green-yellow-white towers that I’ve been told houses 10,000. Life inside is a mixture of retirement village, play pen, and panopticon. Like many things in China, Century 21 Millenium offers a faint hint of utopia. Once you enter, the towers block off most of the horizon, sugary Canto-pop chirps out of camouflaged speakers, saturating you with C 21’s carefully engineered tranquility and making you feel like an cricket in the Biosphere.


The heart of the complex is a tiny palm tree-lined park-playground that serves a defacto recreation room for the residents. Particularly in the early morning, the park is dominated by extremely vigorous elderly people practicing tai chi and ballroom dancing. I’ll write more about this later hopefully, but it’s worth saying now that witnessing the obvious pleasure and confidence with which Guangzhou’s older citizens go about their daily business is deeply moving. I suppose partly do the warm climate and partly to a lingering Communist appreciation for public space, the parks, sidewalks, and underpasses here host a 24 hour cycle of socio-cultural activities of almost unimaginable variety. A five minute walk around any park in the city reveals groups of literally hundreds of young and mostly old people engaged in groups waltzes, line dancing, chorus singing, calesthenics, ping pong, mahjong, debate, education… In the West, aging is considered a slow preparation for death – to be endured with dignity and, ideally, silence. The reaction to the weakening of the body in Europe and America is usually to cease all unnecessary challenges – to avoid risk and potentially regrettable exertion. Here, the logic is opposite – the weakening of the body is cause for a more faithful commitment to maintaining its vitality and re-emphasizing our legitimacy as physical beings. This morning, I watched of woman in her 60s complete a set of probably 30 Rockette-style high kicks. It was weirdly invigorating and embarrassing at the same time. Like a porno maybe.


Most nights I try to take a walk by the river to help my system process the outrageous amounts of oil used in the food here. The riverbank is pleasant, there’s trees – some natural, some twinkling electronic – and benches every few meters occupied by half-dressed fathers with flattops and young lovers with wet intertwined and overlapping legs. Middle aged couples walk slowly past every so often, the women usually in silk pajamas, the men in shorts and sandals. Exposed skin is common here and physical fitness is in no way required. Most of the older men walk around with their shirts at half-mast to cool their prodigious bellies; their pants are generally hiked up past the navel with the shirt resting comfortably at the meeting place of stomach and pec, exposing a nondescript mound of beige flesh that leads their way. The young boys go shirtless, showing off for the nubile PYTs in short shorts and tans – not yet corrupted by the cult of whitening – who breeze past on bicycles or arm-in-arm with their girlfriends.

Street life here is incredibly dense and loud. There seems to be a crowd on hand to observe even the tiniest ‘event’ – a fallen tree limb, card game, picture taking… Standing still at the intersection outside our apartment complex you’re witness to all kinds of action – from cab drivers, fruit vendors, mahjong players, movers and loaders, curbside butchers, water bottle scavengers… In Holland, so much is done to avoid the messiness of metropolitan life. Here it is unavoidable. If Rotterdam is overplanned, Guangzhou seems totally unplanned. Elevated highways penetrate housing blocks in haphazard ways that give off the feeling of some kind of promiscuous, uncoordinated urgency. From a moving car, you can reach out and snatch up the drying underway hung up outside a fifth floor bedroom window (which i know is your thing.)

In Holland, there are hard rules to prevent this strange, futuristic intimacy with infrastructure. An expressway in Rotterdam is something to be cleverly disguised – pushed underground or buffered by hundreds of meters of uninhabitable space. Here it’s just another in a collection of dozens of overlapping layers. Guangzhou is a strange mixture of prophecy and decay, a futuristic megalopolis minus the Hollywood flair.

Guangzhou hosts a small, enthusiastic community of re-located Western designers of which I guess I’m now a part. Being a foreigner working in China produces a strange sort of schizophrenia – you’re perpetually feeling like an exploiter who’s being exploited. You don’t make money and you’re constantly jerked around, but still can’t shake the feeling of being just another opportunist. To help remedy the second part of that condition most of the people I know (me too) go out of our way to distinguish ourselves from the ‘bad’ ones – the cynical, uncurious Western carpetbaggers, here to tap into the Next Big Thing before moving onto the next Next Big Thing (Dubai? Is that played out already? India?…) But in fact we’re not so different. Everyone is here to take advantage of the China’s cheapness, its increasing openness and optimism, its lack of completeness. What we try to do with these qualities is ultimately a matter of taste. It seems that it’s those (like us?) who are idealistic and ideological about China who end up feeling embittered and victimized. But that seems fair to me. Nobody’s asking for our help.

Get back to me when you can. Nuff love.


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