The city of Guangzhou evokes metaphors of water. Of course Guangzhou is literary a city of water, surrounded by the majestic Pearl River. Its name, Guangzhou, means a wide sandbank or shallows. The hot and humid summer of Guangzhou, which apparently lasts at least 9 months of the year, constantly reminds us of water. But there is much more to it.
Guangzhou has been one of the most important ports in China for centuries. Not only goods were imported and exported though here. Peoples and knowledge went through this city like water. When the first British diplomatic mission to the Qing empire arrived in 1793, Guangzhou was the only port where Europeans were allowed to reside. The mission wanted to achieve a better deal for British merchants and to open diplomatic relations, but the mission failed in all its objectives. The emperor assumed that the British were simply another new tributary state offering gifts and honours. For Britain it marked an epoch, because it brought new knowledge of China, marked by scientific reports, travel books and prints (even though the only member of the group to learn Chinese was an eleven year old boy!). It set the stage for a more aggressive policy later on in the century.
Guangzhou is a harbour of migrant peoples. The sight of a man swimming in the river with a tire strapped to him against a background of the well lit skyscrapers of the nouveau riche was a symbolic reminder of this. From here millions of Chinese migrants went abroad with nothing and some came back with fortunes. The harbour is both a place of exploitation and of hope for a better future.
The Entry and Exit Office might be the best place to see contemporary immigration to this city. We met people from Senegal, Turkey, Russia, US, and Japan, among others, all waiting for their official status to be legitimised. While the system itself is amazingly efficient, with an online application service and English and Chinese descriptions for each procedure, it still seems to be a global phenomenon that people working for large bureaucratic entities lose their kindness for other humans. The immigration procedure is always like going through a jungle, or mangrove. You struggle to go through it, not knowing what may be waiting next.
Guangzhou is a wide port to the sea. If, as Derek Walcott once said, the sea is history, Guangzhou was, and still is, at the very opening of history.
- The Oecumene Team, 17 June 2013