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Feeling at Home in L.A.'s Sister City

Palmy, balmy Guangzhou is an easygoing boomtown

July 11, 1999|ANDREW BENDER | Andrew Bender is a restaurant reviewer for The Times' Westside Weekly section. He has lived in Asia and travels there often

GUANGZHOU, China — Quick, think of a major coastal city, sunny, successful and far from the nation's political center. Year after year its population expands as people from all over arrive in search of warm weather, a free-spirited atmosphere and economic prosperity. Yet despite its prominence, the city is disparaged by much of the rest of the nation as overrun and uncultured.

If that sounds like Los Angeles, it also describes Guangzhou, in southern China. It's no wonder they are sister cities.

Like L.A., Guangzhou is a very big place, almost 7 million people in the city and 10 million in the metro area, at the head of the Pearl River delta on the South China Sea. Like L.A., Guangzhou is the product of go-go deal makers; long a key port, it is the hub of booming Guangdong province, and has China's highest per capita gross domestic product.

Like L.A., the warm climate, the influx of newcomers and the air of entrepreneurship have fostered an informality in dress and manners that is sneered at in tonier places like Shanghai and Beijing; locals dismiss it as jealousy.

Although Guangzhou's involvement with foreigners is the longest and, arguably, most contentious among China's cities, modern Guangzhou has fewer historical and cultural attractions of the sort that draw foreigners by the planeload to Shanghai and Beijing.

Still, if you're going to China and you want to see an authentic but modern Chinese city, Guangzhou is worth a stop.

"So," the skeptical Angeleno might ask, "if Guangzhou is such a prize, why haven't I heard of it?" You probably have, just not by that name. The British called Guangzhou "Canton," a name popularized by the waves of 19th century emigrants who introduced Cantonese cooking to the U.S., England and Australia.

In the 1970s, around the time Mao Tse-tung became Mao Zedong, China anglicized city names to approximate the Chinese pronunciations. Guangzhou is pronounced "Gwahng-JOE" or sometimes "Gwaeng-ZOW" by people who ought to know better, just as people in Hollywood pronounce Cannes like the thing tuna comes in. (Cannes, by the way, is the sister city of Beverly Hills. L.A.'s French sister city is Bordeaux, although it's hard to say why.)

I visited Guangzhou this past spring, out of brotherly curiosity. I had moved to L.A. since my last Guangzhou visit in 1986, and wanted to see the changes in South China on the cheap. (Hong Kong, 100 miles away, is roughly four times as expensive.)

This trip followed visits to Shanghai and Xian, of terra-cotta army fame. My lunch choices on China Northwest Airlines were described by the flight attendant as either "rice" or "noodles." The rice came steamed--so far, so good--but next to it were some marble-sized meatballs that tasted like hot dogs, accompanied by little potato wedges, all covered in a bright orange sauce along the lines of sweet-and-sour catsup. (The "noodles" were an ersatz spaghetti Bolognese.) The soundtrack for the in-flight entertainment, "America's Funniest Home Videos," played over the p.a. system. The whole effect was numbing, tempered only by the knowledge that I would be dining in the cradle of stir-fried vegetables.

True to Guangzhou's go-getter reputation, everyone around me stood up before the plane was parked at the gate, heedless of the illuminated "Fasten Seat Belt" light. We deplaned to the strains of "New York, New York," which made me wonder why we don't have a catchy signature song.

I arrived at the towering Guangzhou Hotel to find a room that was spacious, clean and comfortably appointed. I'd chosen the hotel because it was close to the river and a 15-minute walk from some tourist sites. Guangzhou has more glamorous hotels, such as the Landmark across the square, or the White Swan in the old European quarter, but for $35 per night with private bath, I couldn't quibble.

But there was no room key. Instead each floor has a holdover from the old communist era, an attendant who unlocks your door when you return, checks that the lights work and the sheets are fresh, makes sure your hot water thermos is filled and fetches you an iron or hair dryer--and won't accept a tip.

After Xian, I was on a crypt kick, so I rushed out to see the 2,200-year-old tomb of Emperor Wen, also called the Han Dynasty Tombs, the Nanyue King Tombs or some variation thereof. These sandstone burial chambers in the middle of the city were discovered during a construction excavation in 1983, and entrepreneurial Guangzhou quickly built a smart, multilevel museum around them.

The emperor was buried with what he'd need in the next world--food, weapons and prized possessions, now displayed in adjacent galleries. Most impressive was a vest made of matchbook-size jade.

Unlike in Xian, the public can enter the tomb chambers. You can see residue where the remains were found.

It was awesome to think of the emperor entombed beneath the city as centuries passed above. I was reminded of another L.A. sister city, Giza, in Egypt.

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