This is the fifth city newsletter.  We shall now take a break to research and write a book.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
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Guests at Guangzhou’s first five star hotel, The White Swan, which opened in 1983, have included Deng Xiaoping, Queen Elizabeth II and George W. Bush. It was renovated in 2015. The history of the hotel is not a bad metaphor for Guangzhou itself, traditionally the third most important Chinese city.
Guangzhou has had an impressive past and now needs to reimagine itself for the future – as part of the Greater Bay Area (GBA), a megalopolis which is a constellation of nine cities and the two Special Administrative Regions of Macao and Hong Kong, with a total population of 70 million.
About the historical importance of Guangzhou, there can be no doubt. It was the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road more than 2000 years ago, was the place where in 1923 Sun Yat-sen made a fragile alliance with Moscow’s Comintern; and it has been from the 80s the manufacturing hub not only of China but of the world.
At this moment it is worth mentioning that Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University (see image above) set up in 1924 spawned the Sun Yat-sen Communist University in Moscow the following year. The cultural links between Guangzhou and Moscow are long – and at least before Covid there was a decent Russian community in the city.
Since 2002, Guangzhou has also been the home of the important and internationally-minded Guangzhou Triennal of Art which has had to navigate some complex political times in China, and whose 7th edition takes place December 2022 to February 2023.

ports and museums
Nansha Port. Site of proposed Free Trade Data Port
Read any Chinese account of the GBA and the story is that Guangzhou is its political heart. Testament to this is the fact that it is the home of foreign diplomats to southern China. Yet Guangzhou has competition from its near-neighbours.
Shenzhen is the city into which capital has flowed and which hosts China’s Silicon Valley; Hong Kong is designated the GBA’s cultural hub – although` political changes and its inability to control Covid may change matters. So, what exactly is the place of Guangzhou culture in the GBA’s ecology? Well, there are two important signs of the new times. It has just been announced that China’s first international ‘free trade port for data’ will be built in Nansha, Guangzhou city, with an investment of 31.8 billion CNY (US$ 5 billion). A cross-border data centre, an industrial park for big data, labs for telecommunications for the Greater Bay Area – these are some of the elements that will constitute the free trade data port, according to the South China Morning Post.
Rendering of new Guangdong Museum of Art.
Ten or twenty years ago, Hong Kong might have been designated as the data centre hub, but given the Chinese government’s increasing sensitivity over control of data flows it has been rooted on the mainland, in Guangzhou. A not dissimilar tilt from Hong Kong can be seen in the flow of traffic through the airports of the Greater Bay Area. Traditionally Hong Kong airport outperformed those of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. It changed in 2019.
The other major cultural initiative is the new Guangdong Museum of Art, scheduled to open next year in the White Swan Bay area. This new museum is sited at the confluence of three rivers, historically the very heart of Guangzhou’s commerce and trade with the world. Like the data free port, the museum is there to connect Guangzhou and, more widely, China with the world – and both port and museum are a further sign that State driven cultural enterprises are again moving centre stage.
He Jingtang Studio is the architect of the museum (the studio designed the China Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo), which will have 11 floors, with a space of 60000 sqm. The existing Guangdong Museum will not be closed. Currently, its collection is encyclopaedic, with traditional, modern and contemporary art; the museum has also been home to the Triennal and to many major exhibitions of domestic and international artists (disclosure: we have curated shows there). It is said that the ‘old’ museum will house only traditional art.
Much responsibility will rest on the shoulders on the new White Swan Bay museum. Unlike Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou no longer has an art district. It did have one, the Red Tory Art District (where there were galleries and a private museum) but it was closed in November 2019. In 2020 an art fair in Guangzhou was launched but its standard, according to those who have showed there, was not as good as either of the two art fairs in Shenzhen.
The city does have a strong artschool, well-regarded galleries such as Vitamin Creative Space, and a lively Times Museum which in European terms would be called a kunsthalle. But for a city of its importance, Guangzhou does not have as yet a corresponding art infrastructure. (The He Art Museum, an important private art museum, designed by Tadao Ando and owned by the son of the founder of the Midea Group, is in nearby Shunde). In these circumstances, the new Guangdong Museum may have to be not only museum but also help as artist and gallery incubator – or perhaps its opening next year might prompt an independent art ecology into being, that reflects the impressive international history that is Guangzhou’s.

food culture
The self-perception of the citizens of a city is always part of its culture. Anecdotally, Guangzhouers from taxi drivers to entrepreneurs say that they are not like Shenzheners whose only concern is work and money; people in Guangzhou, they say, value a more relaxed way of life. Self-perceptions are often not accurate, but with food and beverage consumption in Guangzhou the highest in the whole of China according to the Blue Book of Guangzhou (广州蓝皮书), Guangzhouers may know what they are talking about. There are 60000 food and beverage outlets in Guangzhou – and even if it is not comparing like with like, it is remarkable that a food crazy city like New York has only 26000.
Average individual expenditure at any one restaurant in Guangzhou is not particularly high, it is true – below 100 CNY (US$ 15.7). But there is an exception. With French restaurants (there are 21 of them in the city), the average individual expenditure jumps – French wine is much prized – to 293 CNY (US$ 46.2), according to Python Pyecharts. It turns out that the old Chinese saying 食在广州 (Eat in Guangzhou) is as true for Guangzhouers as for those who visit. On Little Red Book (小红书), a social media and e-commerce platform, the profile of the Guangzhou Michelin restaurants has had more than 2.63 million views.
With its traditional poor reputation for F&B, the UK government may have been right to exclude cuisine from Britain’s creative industries. Guangzhou ought not to make that mistake.

the african connection
Zhong Feifei, in Produce 2020
Guangzhou has traditionally distinguished itself from many other Chinese cities by the composition of its population. As China’s greatest trading city, it has been home to many nationalities; and since the late 90s, Guangzhou has been a place where Africans, particularly West Africans, have settled, passed through on business or sometimes overstayed. There is a place in Guangzhou dubbed ‘Little Africa’, within a few kilometres of the city’s major railway station which  has attracted traders,  who buy goods to trade across Africa. These traders are part of globalisation – but not one regulated by the WTO.
There seems to be no agreement about the number of Africans in Guangzhou pre Covid: estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to around 10000. Culturally, these traders have brought Christian and Islamic religious habits into the city, filling churches and mosques and developing their own sacred spaces. They have also of course brought to the city many of their cultural interests, not least music.
Zhong Feifei is the child of a Guangzhou-based Congolese father and a Chinese mother and in 2020 she participated in the Tencent survival show Produce Camp 2020. She seemed a sign that a hybrid identity rooted in Guangzhou might break through into the Chinese mainstream entertainment industry. She went far but not far enough.
Covid has led, among many other things, to the shrinking of the African communities in Guangzhou. The ‘stigmatization and discrimination’, to quote African officials, suffered by Africans in Guangzhou over Covid is one reason. Another is technology. With travel restrictions, e-commerce sites have allowed African traders to do business in China without visiting. Third, or at least so it is argued, Chinese people in Africa can do business with Guangzhou suppliers without the intermediary of Africans.
There is another African population in Guangzhou, in addition to the traders – African students who are studying at Sun Yat-sen University as well as in other ones in the city. One of the great and relatively unnoticed successes of China over the last ten years has been its emergence as an educational hub for overseas students- principally from Asia but increasingly from Africa, especially from low income countries. Before Covid there were around 80000 African students studying in China.
During the early days of Covid, African students, especially in Guangzhou,  were vocal about what they saw as their mistreatment. How much this will diminish the flow of African students to China once the quarantine restrictions are lifted is hard to tell.
Covid and its cultural ramification have helped to erode one of the features of the city that have made it distinctive – its multiculturalism.

the fans and the sponsor
Fans of Guangzhou F.C.: the Evergrande connection
On 22 February it was announced that Guangzhou F.C. had put a cap on the salaries of all its major players, down from 5 million CNY (US$ 788000) two years ago to 600,000 CNY (US$ 94600) before tax in the new season.  This is just the latest in a series of crises at Guangzhou F.C., whose majority shareholder since 2010 has been the now chronically troubled property developer Evergrande. Its financial woes have reached down to Guangzhou F.C. which is not simply the local football team, but the pride of the city, winning the Super League eight times. The club became internationally famous for buying foreign players for huge sums of money – as well as for foreign coaches such as the Italians Marcello Lippi and Fabio Cannavaro.
Another recent sign of Guangzhou F.C.’s problems was the removal from Evergrande’s control of its new football stadium, which aims to be the largest football stadium in the world in terms of capacity. It will now be put up for auction.
The problems of Evergrande have become so overwhelming that it has asked the Guangzhou government to intervene in the club, something not likely to happen in Europe. But then Guangzhou F.C. is, or rather was, being developed as, in effect, the Chinese national team. Even some of its foreign players were naturalised so they could play for China.
President Xi has put great store by Chinese sport and is on record as wanting China to be a football superpower. Sadly, China has failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It’s an interesting question whether Evergrande’s involvement in the club which brought such short-term fame and success has in the end benefited the club. How much should a football team belong to a city and to its fans and how much should it follow the desires of its sponsor and owner and perhaps the national government? This is a problem for Guangzhou F.C. and, if more simply, for London’s Chelsea FC, owned by the sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

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