On the banks of the Pearl a gritty gem starts to shine

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On the banks of the Pearl a gritty gem starts to shine

I’m on my back in a swimming pool the color of Liv Tyler’s eyes. The translucent blue shimmers with the wind and I hear the leaves of nearby palm trees rustle. The sound is like Michelangelo playing the snare drum, a sculptor’s fingers caressing stretched pig skin. So I must be on some paradise island, right? Wrong. This is Guangzhou, Guandong Province, in the People’s Republic of China, which claims, with pride and justification, to be “the factory of the world.”
Zoom out from the pool and the lens captures a two-acre water park, the brand new Shangri-La Hotel and the great Pearl River, China’s third largest and an artery of international trade for over two thousand years.
Increase the focal length a few more millimeters and the viewfinder brings in the first phase of a convention center that can house 50,000 people. Next door is phase two, which will double the center’s capacity and will be finished in five months. Next to that is a village of cabins that house eight hundred migrant workers.
The roofs of these cabins, found all over Guangzhou, also resemble the color of Tyler’s eyes. Seen from the window of my flight from Seoul, the roofs reminded me of Los Angeles, where the approach to the airport brings travelers over thousands of glistening blue pools, which suggest moneyed leisure and a mature economy.
Here the blue patches sit above tiny rooms where migrant workers share rows of bunk beds without the benefit of air-conditioning. These are the worker bees of Guangzhou’s construction boom, which has helped turn it into the fastest growing and most hectic city in China.
Guangzhou will soon become more familiar. It is the host city for the 2010 Asian Games and its futuristic new convention center is set to make it a popular destination for Asian conventioneers. Korea dreams of being a hub, but Guangzhou is one. Located 119 kilometers northwest of Hong Kong, the city, once known as Canton, now has a population of almost 9 million and its economy grew by more than 10 percent in each of the last six years. Guandong Province’s GDP has doubled since 1997.
This breakneck development has made Guangzhou a city of contrasts. Men on bicycles that predate Mao jostle for space with Porsches on streets that veer from fresh blacktop to dirt every few meters; brand-new freeways soar over decrepit rice paddies; steel-clad monsters from the most deranged depths of an architect’s imagination line up in front of tenement buildings that look like rotten teeth remodeled by a dentist with Art Deco sensibilities, and temples of capitalism rub shoulders with pristine Communist Party offices, built with the style and opulence of corporate headquarters.
These contradictions make Guangzhou a great place to visit. It’s a bit like watching a video of the future shot by a time-traveling Adam Smith on amphetamines.
I arrived in Guangzhou on a blistering hot Sunday. I was scheduled to direct the China segment of a documentary film for a British company. They had booked me into the Shangri-La, the newest member of the Shangri-La chain, a hotel group which has its roots in Asia ― its first hotel opened in Singapore in 1971. Its first China branch opened in 1984.
In China, tradition holds that one should be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou and die in Liuzhou.
This saying could be updated to “Eat in Guangzhou, shop in Guangzhou, stay in a Guangzhou hotel and die happy,” for all three activities are blissful in a garlanded metropolis that, despite the industrial mayhem, lives up to its nickname, which is “flower city.”
The quality and price of the hotels in Guangzhou are important reasons for coming here. They offer high-end luxury at motel prices.
The Shangri-La Guangzhou is a four-star hotel in every sense. Its marbled lobbies, gorgeous views, world-class cuisine, state-of-the-art gym, luxurious spa and massive ballroom put it in on a par with hotels like the Grand Hyatt and the Shilla in Seoul, but there’s one big difference.
The average price of an executive room with a view and access to the executive club is around 600,000 won ($660) per night at four-star hotels in Seoul. The same package at the Shangri-La Guangzhou is one-third that price.
My seat on the flight from Seoul in Asiana Airline’s Travel class cost 388,000 won, which means that the cost of travel to Guangzhou is covered by the savings from the first night in the hotel. And that leaves lots of cash for shopping and food.
The first night my fiancee and I went to the Wenchang Lu branch of the Guangzhou Ancestral Restaurant. The street outside was packed with locals waiting for tables. This omen of good food did not disappoint. We wolfed down steamed fish cooked with ginger, chosen from a big tank that included sharks and turtles, Cantonese vegetables with delicious baby eggplants and some greasy noodles with beef that I’d rather forget. The duck feet stuffed with shrimp are a house specialty. I didn’t try them but I enjoyed watching one of China’s new entrepreneurs suck his way through a dozen as he juggled two gold-plated cell phones and a girlfriend who seemed to be wearing enough Gucci to stock a Shinsegae department store ― and I thought this was a communist country.
The next day I filmed, but in the late afternoon we had time for shopping. We were hunting for porcelain and the hotel sent us to the Guangzhou International Hotel Articles City. This place is twice the size of Namdaemun and is full of shops selling everything anybody has ever seen in a hotel. It’s as if a giant vacuum cleaner sucked up the contents of every Hilton, Westin and Hyatt and emptied itself into 300 shops along a dusty road in southern China. If you want a hotel safe or a shoe shine machine, they have them. They also have porcelain at incredibly low prices.
We bought two large bone-china cats complete with red silk cushions for 10,000 won each. Smaller ones were on sale at the airport duty-free shop for ten times the price.
That night we swam again in the Shangri-La pool, under the stars, worked out in the plush gym and thought about playing tennis on the hotel’s rooftop courts, but by then hunger had overtaken us.
We dined in the hotel’s Thai restaurant, coolThai. I know people will say we should have stuck to Chinese food, but I love Thai cuisine and the chef at coolThai, Vacharaphol W, has a worldwide reputation. I wasn’t disappointed. His food was memorable, especially the steamed fish and green curry with chicken.
Unusual markets are not the only thing to see in Guangzhou. There is Shamian Island, an oasis with wide, calm streets that are reminiscent of the city’s colonial past. The Ancestral Temple of the Chen family offers a fascinating look inside traditional Chinese life. It has some wonderful wood carvings depicting birds and trees. There are also vivid stone sculptures. The Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall on Yuexiu Hill is a 1920s monument to the man many say is the father of modern China. It is famous for the jade orchid trees in its courtyard.
And once you’ve seen all this, the shopping is still there. The best place to go is the Beijing Nan-Lu market. Here merchants offer clothes, tea, tea sets, toys and every conceivable type of bedding at prices that made Namdaemun look expensive. However, be wary. Many of the name brands are counterfeit. As we shopped a posse of tough looking police descended on one store that was selling high-end knock-offs. China has said it is determined to clamp down on counterfeiting and seems to mean business. The police officers took away piles of merchandise and issued the shopkeeper a crippling fine of $10,000.
After three hours of buying endless packages I needed some spiritual relief. The Shangri-La gave me just what I wanted in the form of the Chi spa. The hotel chain says there has been a sharp shift in the behavior of guests over the last 10 years.
The typical corporate road warrior used to relax with Scotch and a cigarette, which meant bars were the main profit center. Now the average business professional ― who is often female ― wants a spa and such facilities often make more money than the beverage department.
The Chi in Guangzhou is the first of its type in the Shangri-La chain and it was a wonderful treat. I had the Chi balance treatment. It began with my feet soaking in warm water, scented with rose petals, then a full body massage with aromatic oils. The session finished with the ringing of tiny temple bells and a period of meditation. I left the deluxe massage suite ― one of eleven in the spa ― by crossing the Lotus Pond that leads to the gym. I finished the session with a swim in the indoor pool.
I had arrived in Guangzhou with some trepidation, wondering if I could enjoy myself in a town with such a gritty reputation. I left with fond memories of wonderful food, a great hotel, vibrant experiences, interesting people and a sharp desire to visit again.

Essential Information
Transportation: Asiana Airlines flies to Guangzhou twice a day departing from Seoul at 11:35 a.m. and 16:10 p.m. Return flights leave Guangzhou at 8:10 a.m and 12:45 p.m. The flight takes 3 hours and 15 minutes. Travel class costs between 400,000 won ($438) and 500,000 won when booked through the airline’s Web site. For information see www.flyasiana.com.
Lodging: The Shangri-La Hotel has 704 rooms. It is located in the Hai Zhu district on the Pearl River. Room rates range from $130 to $210. The hotel has five top-class restaurants, the Chi spa and two swimming pools. For information see www.shangri-la.com.
Dining: The Guangzhou Restaurant serves excellent Cantonese food. Prices range from $30 up. Call (020) 8138-0439. Dongjiang Seafood Restaurant has an extensive menu of local delicacies and fresh fish. Prices range from $22 up. Call (020) 8322-9188

By Daniel Jefffreys Style and Culture Editor [danielj@joongang.co.kr]
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