Once a gritty industrial metropolis, Guangzhou has been quietly transforming itself into China’s new boomtown, adding show-stopping architecture, top-tier hotels, and vibrant art and nightlife scenes to its distinct Cantonese character
By Amy Fabris-Shi
Photographs by Forbes Conrad
My first visits to Guangzhou, almost a decade ago, were less than inspiring. After a stroll past the old European mansions on Shamian Island, a big Cantonese dinner, and a nighttime boat cruise along the Pearl River, it was time to decamp to the brighter lights of nearby Hong Kong.
Back then, the capital of Guangdong province was established as the hub of China’s “Factory of the World” manufacturing heartlands, and wore its history on its sleeve: long before Shanghai emerged as an international shipping port in the late 1800s, Guangzhou (then known to Westerners as Canton) was China’s strategic nexus with the outside world. But tourism infrastructure was sorely lacking, and although it counted a few reputable hotels, none merited a prolonged stay.
Times, you may have heard, have changed. On my most recent trip, I arrived via the high-speed KTT train from Hong Kong, which zips smoothly across the border in just shy of two hours. Before I knew it, I was rocketing skyward to the 70th-floor lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, which crowns the world’s 11th tallest building, the Guangzhou IFC tower. All of nighttime Guangzhou sparkled before me. Evidently, the City of Flowers had finally bloomed.
The catalyst for Guangzhou’s transformation was the 2010 Asian Games. Similarly to Beijing and Shanghai, whose ongoing makeovers were sparked by hosting the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo, respectively, China’s third city used a major international event as the rationale for investing in a transformative urban upgrade with soaring modern architecture at its center. To that end, the swampy northern shore of the Pearl River has been transformed into a new central business district, dubbed Pearl River New Town. Even by Chinese standards, the scale of sky-high construction is astounding. In essence, a new mini city is being built, featuring glassy hotel and office towers, giant shopping malls, and rows of exclusive riverside apartments with names like The Riviera.
“The focus has shifted to building a cleaner, more habitable city,” said Kent Li, the Four Seasons’ Guangzhou-born chief concierge. “It’s becoming a more fascinating place, too, combining tradition with a modern spirit and Guangzhou’s enduring openness and determination.”
Li invited me to peer down to the base of the 439-meter IFC tower to glimpse the centerpiece of Pearl River New Town—its leaf-shaped Flower City Square. Enveloped by signature structures, it forms what is arguably China’s most interesting cluster of modern architecture. Even at street level, its vast 56-hectare expanse and boldly shaped buildings seemed to dwarf the smattering of locals wandering across it.
On one edge of the square crouches Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid’s curvaceous Guangzhou Opera House, its dual humps encased in monochromatic granite that evokes the smooth rocks in the Pearl River. In stark contrast, the adjacent Guangdong Museum is styled after an antique trinket box with red-lacquered cutout windows in irregular shapes; its airy halls house a collection of more than 130,000 historical objects, and are free to the public. Next door stands the Guangzhou New Library, which resembles leaning stacks of books. This light-filled atrium of literature provides a cool place to rest on leather chairs after a walk around the square.