Recently a college friend asked me through e-mail what Foshan was like. My response was (probably not very surpisingly) negative. Since returning from Thailand I’ve been mulling over this question – why I instinctively dislike life in Foshan, why I’ve pulled out every negative factor of living in this city, and why I’m really not willing to live here for two years. I don’t think I would have the same reaction if I was new to China. Like many of my co-workers I would probably find it new, unexpected and exciting, too stimulated to find the dullness that (in my experience) plagues this city. But because I have lived in China for about three years now, and Foshan is less dynamic than the other places I have lived, I find it neither very interesting nor extraordinarily comfortable – and in that it isn’t suitable.
Foshan is fine for everyday living, and it offers plenty of newness and strangeness to those who have just moved to China. It is a decent place. But because I want to practice Chinese and engage more with people who have ideas, and because I’d like to be in a place with an art or music scene – a feeling that, culturally, intellectually, things are happening – Foshan isn’t the right place for me. It isn’t challenging, or satisfying.
Guangzhou is, to a greater extent. It’s a hybrid city. Today I went to Travel 6054 in Martyr’s Park for lunch and coffee, then wandered around the are for around an hour. Central Guangzhou used to be a city of small towns. The area around M’P warble between quiet lanes of single-room Cantonese restaurants under crammed brick apartment buildings and giant steel skyscrapers. One block I passed was full of half demolished old residential buildings – their faces had been sliced off while the rest stood still in their rubble. Cool rushes of greenery succeeded by streams of people clanking bags and boxes into a bus station, followed by more high rises and huge urban shops. Guangzhou is challenging – more so – because it still seems uncertain about it’s own identity. Foshan is on the clear march to modern suburbanization.
Though there are traces of ‘old Canton culture’ (and pockets of Foshan are practically rural) , these are all but gone in the center, pushed out by mammoth apartment complexes and identical shopping malls. I don’t think there is a single structure built before 1950 within several miles of my apartment. What’s – sad – is that the same thing is happening to cities (and even towns) all over China: anything old (or of distinct identity) is being torn down in favor of more commercialized spaces. China is becoming gentrified. Upon moving to Yunnan in 2010 one of the things that shocked me was how normal farflung provincial cities like Lincang seemed. Perhaps China is disappearing.