David, Roberta, and I started our adventure in Singapore, which is a 75% Chinese city but was ruled by the British from 1818 to 1957 and after 1965 by the late great Lee Kwan Yew, who established English as the common language. Far from being Third World, it is a place I call ‘Toronto in the Tropics’ and it has had to preserve some of its older Chinese, Malay, and Indian quarters just to have them, for the local people as well as tourists. The downtown section of the city reminded us of the planet Coruscant in Star Wars, but then again most of the larger Chinese cities give that impression. We stayed two nights at the Raffles to get over jet lag, and another two nights at a house away from downtown leased by a family that is friends of ours that has a fund that invests in ’emerging markets’ like Ethiopia and Georgia.
The Raffles Hotel is an old landmark in old British colonial architecture, quite unlike what surrounds it, which looks like a tropical American city with a higher skyline. It is such an attraction, in fact, that part of the grounds are fenced off for guests, and part is open to the public with shops and restaurants. The area where our friends live, however, is a low rise area somewhat out of the downtown. Singapore is British enough so that the low rise area is out of the center. Whereas in China, the oldest part of town may actually have the lowest skyline! And as you head out of the center of a Chinese city, the apartment buildings get taller and taller until eventually you get farmland mixed in – but in the more populated areas, farmers farm within sight of high rise apartment buildings on the horizon. But we will get to China soon enough.
We did see a variety of things in Singapore; we saw a church, a mosque, and two Buddhist temples, and a shop where they sell paper versions of favorite goods to burn at funerals to send with the deceased! The most magnificent thing we saw was the huge domed glass Indoor Gardens, where you can pay an admission and walk around – one of the two had an artificial hill in it and on the top of it had rare mountain plants! The locals love to go there, partly because Chinese people have a sense of nature and natural beauty, and partly, one suspects, for the air conditioning, for the climate of Singapore can be best described as steamy. It is just barely in the Northern Hemisphere by less than a hundred miles!
GUANGZHOU AND THE PEARL RIVER AREA
After four nights we flew to Guangzhou, the only open trade port until 1842, and known to Westerners by the name Canton. The Cantonese language and Cantonese cuisine were, in fact, ‘Chinese language’ and ‘Chinese food’ for many years. And there is also the fact that Overseas Chinese people and their descendants tend to come from the southern coast running from the Vietnamese border through Shanghai, where the language we teach as Chinese now, generally called ‘Mandarin,’ is not native.
A bit of explanation about the ‘Chinese language’ is in order. The various Chinese languages, like the Romance or Germanic languages, diverged from a common ancestor, but because the Chinese script is primarily ideographic and not phonetic, and the word order of the developing languages did not change all that much, they were able to keep using the written language without having to keep alive the ancestral spoken language – so they needed no Latin, or Sanskrit, or Koranic Arabic to hold them together. Mandarin is based on the language of Beijing, and most of the languages in the north and west central parts of the country are close enough to it to be considered varieties of it.
We landed in Guangzhou at a fancy airport and were driven down a long broad turnpike toward and through the city. In 2011 the length of the Chinese freeway and turnpike system in total became longer than the Interstate System of the United States! We were escorted to a hotel that was on top of an office building, had its check-in on the 70th floor, and a restaurant on top on the 100th floor! This was in a district that was set aside for the tallest buildings, about 7 miles east of the old town. The oldest part of town is just across the river from the old traders’ island, and its skyline is very low! We walked around there and the traders’ island, which is called Shamian and is now very pleasant. There is a hotel there called the White Swan that was known to the Chinese as the Baby Hotel, because until the Chinese government limited foreign adoption a few years ago, it was full of Americans waiting to adopt babies!
Another important thing we did was to go to the tomb of the Nan Yue king, where they have a fancy museum. During our first century, Nan Yue was a semi-independent kingdom that acknowledged the overlordship of China – all the artifacts are in Chinese, but the people probably spoke a language closer to Vietnamese, which is quite unrelated, though also tonal. It’s an interesting fact that the Cantonese language, though now clearly a Chinese one, is called Yue, which is also the Chinese form of the word Viet as in Viet Nam!
About the skyline; the population of Chinese cities is incredibly high! The Pearl River Delta, which runs from Macao through Zhuhai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong, has 42 million people. Were California a Chinese province, it would be somewhere in the middle of the population rankings!