On our third day in Guangzhou, our understanding of this ancient city, its complexity and contradictions, deepened. Or at least, it moved on.
Guangzhou embodies a flourishing advanced economy. It boasts efficient, modern infrastructure and public services that it offers to registered residents of the hukou system and injured tourists (judging by the care one of our team received). Compared to a public hospital in Austria or the UK, Xinhai Hospital stands out for the quality of its service. When looking at public transportations such as taxis and metro, and the many laundries, hair salons, and bakeries, the price discrepancy with Europe is striking. (Can you even get into a taxi in London for £2?) But iphones are expensive. Designer clothes are expensive (and this is compared to London).
Questions arise as we take a cab to a large glass and steel shopping centre. Is it cheap labour that makes services so much more affordable in China? If so, what is the real price society pays for such affordable luxuries? Are the people who buy consumer goods in China of the same economic class as the people who buy the same goods in Britain? Or, is the small section of Chinese society who can afford this so numerically large that it warrants vast city centre shopping centres to meet its needs?
In Guangzhou, middle-aged men, mothers, office workers, seem to display the same attitudes as their European counterparts. They use fitness machines that resemble the playgrounds of children. Somewhere between gym equipment and teeter-totters, their bodies cross the chasms of public and private that are maintained as a testament to supposed bourgeois civility.
In the afternoon we visited Kanglecun, an 'urban-village', inhabited, we are told, mostly by rural migrants. This brought us face-to-face with the hidden, half acknowledged other side of Guangzhou’s prosperity. Once we stepped out, past the contemporary residential tower blocks near Sun Yat-Sen university, the polarisation of the life in the city became all too clear. The residential blocks in the village are called 'shake-hands' buildings because they are built so close together that residents need only to open a window to shake hands with neighbours in the opposite building. Narrow streets with four to five storey buildings on both sides wind into dark, congested alleys. The network of streets is mirrored many times over above our heads by an intricate labyrinth of wires, CCTV cameras, clothes drying and up-turned umbrellas half-filled with rain water. The divisions between plots, stalls, shops and apartments seem to emerge out of sheer pragmatism. Someone sleeps in a bed by the feet of a food-seller. A make-shift internet cafe consisting of three computers exists next to a family who sews while their children play. A hair salon, with swirling mirror balls, sleek-hipped, stylishly clad barbers and preening clients nestles at the heart of the village adding another layer of contradiction to this story of the hard consequences of economic necessity.
In the darkness of the village, only the narrow pavement reminds you that you are outside. People talk of the 'concrete jungle'. Do we really know what it looks like from the inside? Here, no space is left for the green boulevards, squares and parks of the Guangzhou that first met us. The city of prosperity offers no windows to its poorest tailors, whose sowing machines rest against dull walls. We had our cameras, ready to document, to record. They had their life. The camera flashes wanted to reveal a secret, but the secret disappeared with the light. Every time, a new illusion. We had the cameras, but they were looking at us.
- The Oecumene Team, 12 June 2013