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

Andrew Bender is a restaurant reviewer for The Times' Westside Weekly section. He has lived in Asia and travels there often

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.

It also was chilling to think of the concubines, slaves and others who weren't dead when the tomb was sealed with them inside.

For a change of pace, I can recommend another beautiful museum, the Chen Ancestral Academy. This compound is only 100 years old, but it is a trove of classical regional architecture, sculpture and landscaping. The roof line is particularly noteworthy, with its brightly painted eaves and cornices. The site also houses the Guangzhou Folk Arts Museum, where some attractive things are for sale.

As is the case in most of China, major museum displays are annotated in English as well as Chinese. But in casual contact, I encountered far fewer English-speakers here than in Shanghai and Beijing.

Sightseeing can build quite an appetite, and you're in luck here. There's a common Chinese expression, "eating in Guangzhou," which is the equivalent of our "having it made."

A friend had recommended that I dine in the new Tian He district, which resembles Century City with a sports stadium. Just outside its Teem Plaza shopping center are twin restaurants called Soup City (Tang Cheng) and Porridge City (Zhou Cheng). The decor is modern, if unglamorous, but the food shines.

Soup City's amazing chicken soup was--may she never hear this--almost as good as my Nana's. You don't eat the meat and vegetables in the bottom of the pot--the broth is considered to have all the good stuff in it. "Three Cups Chicken" was also outstanding--broiled morsels that were then steamed in a banana leaf with scallion and ginger. Downstairs at Soup City is a diverse, popular food court serving pig stomach and snake for the adventurous, and grilled ham and eggs for the less so, along with stews.

The best way to order here, as in many other places in China with limited English, is to point at a dish that looks good. If you don't like it, get something else; most dishes here cost less than $3, and even the most expensive meal shouldn't top $15. Keep in mind, though, that, except for tea, drinks can add up quickly.

The Guangzhou Restaurant is still regarded among the city's best. It's fine, upscale and expensive, with menus in English. I ate there on my earlier trip, but this time the big treat turned out to be a hole-in-the-wall near the river, called Wan Zi Fan Dian. It is deservedly popular for its classic stir-fried greens, meat and tofu dishes and (still rare in China) friendly service. The live animals waiting in the cage out front leave little doubt as to the food's freshness.

For Americana, there is a Hard Rock Cafe in the China Hotel, and KFC is everywhere. McDonald's is also a bargain--about $1.20 buys a Big Mac or the McPepper Burger (topped with green peppers and black bean sauce).

After all that eating, you may need a walk, and Guangzhou has numerous options. One great place for walking is the spanking new Yuntai Garden, China's largest horticultural garden, at Baiyun Shan (White Cloud Mountain) about 10 miles outside the city. The view is similar to that of L.A. from the TV towers above Pasadena--and similarly often smog-bound. For an admission fee of about $1.20, you can stroll the manicured grounds with fountains, rock gardens and greenhouses, all manner of tropical and semitropical plants and the "Tennessee Waltz" and rumbas piped in among the flora.

In one corner are gifts from Guangzhou's sister cities--an impressive totem pole from Auckland, a lovely sundial from Vancouver, a 6-foot-tall ceramic cider jug from Frankfurt. And from L.A.? An official blue city street sign. What were we thinking?

Hilly Yuexiu Park, rising from the city center, is Guangzhou's Griffith Park. At the top is a historical museum in a five-story pagoda said to be the city's oldest building. This is also the locale of the revered statue of five rams, symbol of the city, said to have been founded by spirits borne by rams.

A walk along the banks of the Pearl is a must, but the best way to see the city at its liveliest may be to stroll the shopping districts.

Communist country or no, Guangzhou has a very active market culture. The local Rodeo Drive is the shopping floor of the China Hotel, lined with famous-name boutiques. Under arcades along nearby Beijing Road, shops specialize in casual clothing and housewares. The Qingping Free Market, near the White Swan hotel, features a vast array of herbs, roots and animal products for medicinal purposes. (Not recommended for the squeamish.)

But the soul of Guangzhou may be its night markets. These spring up downtown after the workday on streets that are closed to traffic. (Traffic-ologists will love Guangzhou's ingenious stoplights that count down the seconds until the light changes.) Everything is sold, from underwear to furniture, and bargaining is expected, particularly for foreigners adept at facial language and hand gestures. So if you're in China, drop in on our sister for a day or two. Guangzhou may be relatively unknown in the U.S., but it is sure to grow in prominence as South China continues to boom.

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Gone to Guangzhou

Getting there: China Southern Airlines flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Guangzhou three times a week. Round-trip fare starts at $1,142. Asiana, China Eastern and Malaysian also have service to Guangzhou, but involving plane changes en route.

Where to stay: I was happy with my clean, modern single room with bath for $35 at the Guangzhou Hotel on Haizhu Square, telephone 011-86-20-8333-8168, fax 011-86-20-8333-0791.

The Landmark Hotel across the square charges $120 for a double room; tel. 011-86-20-8335-5988; fax 011-86-20-8333-6197.

The White Swan Hotel, 1 Shamian Nanjie, is an old favorite with foreign visitors. Rates run from $120 (singles) to $250 and above for suites; tel. 011-86-20-8188-6968, fax 011-86-20-8186-1188.

Where to eat: The central Guangzhou Restaurant, 2 Wenchang Nan Lu, a few blocks north of Shamian Island, is very good, handsome and popular with VIPs. Reserve through your hotel concierge.

I stuck to locally popular places where I could try a number of dishes for little money. The best were Soup City (Teng Chang) at Teem Plaza in Tian He district, and Wan Zi Fan Dian, 60 Bagi Lu (Road).

For more information: China National Tourist Office, 600 W. Broadway, Suite 320, Glendale, CA 91204; tel. (818) 545-7507, fax (818) 545-7506, Internet http://www.cnta.com.

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