Guangzhou is China’s third largest city, after Beijing & Shanghai, and one of the Pearl River Delta megalopolis trifecta along mainland China’s South-Eastern coast along with Shenzhen and across the border from Hong Kong. Guangzhou is home to over 14 million people, of which immigrant and migrant populations make up nearly half the city, with people flocking to Guangzhou for trade from every nearly continent: Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and South East Asia.
Guangzhou has been an important world trading hub more or less continuously for the past 22 centuries. The British invaded during the Opium Wars, then Sun Yat-Sen briefly made Guagnzhou the capital of the Republic of China before the Communists took over in 1949. Many of Guangzhou’s temples and monuments were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, while the city’s traditional junkboat-dwelling Tanka and Hoklo people were forced to settle on land. After forty years of self-isolation, Deng Xiaoping re-opened international trade in Guangzhou as a Special Economic Zone in 1980s, kicking off the city’s lightning-fast development.
As some people got rich first, Guangzhou became a major manufacturing and trading hub, and all kinds of media flooded in over the airwaves. Guangzhou’s creative scene burgeoned very early on for mainland China, influenced by the radio and TV broadcasts people could capture from overseas by setting up their own antennas, while censorship kept the rest of the mainland in isolation. These frequencies from across the border, as well as physical copies of cassettes and videos brought over Cantopop, action flicks, and soap operas, as well as the rock, punk, and electronic music stemming from the UK outward to its colonies. This influx of media deeply influenced Guangzhou’s creative scenes ten to twenty years before the rest of the mainland has access to productions from the outside world. As factories spread across the coastline, the city sprawled across wetlands and islands to create mainland China’s first interconnected forest of skyscrapers, malls, and highways through the tropical mountainous landscape.
Several of China’s groundbreaking artist collectives took root in Guangzhou, with the most well-remembered amongst them Big Tail Elephants, four individual artists active in the 1990s that worked with found materials and created guerilla projects in alternative urban spaces. Artist projects in Guangzhou have a tendency to expand and experiment, like the artist-led bookshop and artspace Liberia Borges, started by Chen Tong in 1997 who then went on to co-found the nonprofit video art archive Video Bureau and the gallery Bonacon. The city’s strong independent streak has also fostered a robust network of independent art spaces, collectives, and initiatives like Observation Society and Canton Gallery, which specifically works with artists from the region. Other expansive gallery projects branched off into design and architecture, like Fei Gallery. Major institutions like the Vitamin Creative Space flourished since 2002, spawning satellite locations elsewhere in the city, creating Mirrored Gardens in a posh jungle enclave. With Art Basel Hong Kong organizing annual trips for art patrons to visit spaces across the border, the two cities’ geographic proximity has continued to be a boon to Guangzhou’s creative scene. As the economy continues to expand and envelop the neighboring regions, the PRC government's master plan for the region is to engulf Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen, as well as the independent territories of Hong Kong and Macao into the “Greater Bay Area,” rebranding the Pearl River Delta in order to create the world’s most economically powerful region.
It’s hot and humid and subject to massive monsoons, and though 40% of the people living in Guangzhou come from elsewhere in China and another 10% are immigrants from all over the world, those originally from the region continue to speak Cantonese. Many of the students coming to study at the Art Academy stay on long after graduation, attracted by the city’s pace of living: fast, but not “as fast” as Beijing or Shanghai. Being far from power centers and close to Hong Kong and Macao also affords Guangzhou a greater degree of freedom from scrutiny and openness towards the rest of the world. In the past decade, Guangzhou sprouted some supreme starchitecture with Zarah Hadid’s ‘double pebble’ Opera House, the hourglass Canton TV Tower, the gigantic Guangzhou Library and the boxy Guangdong Museum which now hosts the Guangzhou Triennial that continues this city’s legacy of supporting China and the world’s most cutting-edge artists working with new technologies. As Guangzhou’s art scene continues to grow, institutions like the world-class Times Museum took Huangbian Zhan under their wing, giving ground floor space for emerging artists to develop more experimental work, and also support the collective-run Shangyangtai, a DIY space combining an open kitchen, a bar, a thrift shop, and a makeshift screening room for discussions and events.
Guangzhou’s creative scene now spans the entire spectrum of scale, fostering both a deeply independent environment for burgeoning young artists as well as world-class institutions connecting established creators with their peers on the global stage.
This city was written & filmed by Kira Simon-Kennedy, and edited by Li-Lian Alhskog-Hou.
Tang Dayao 汤大尧, Wu Jie 吳潔，Jian Kun 茧困, Song Ta 宋拓，Liang Jianhua 梁建华， Chen Jialu 陈嘉璐 & Artwork by Lo Lailai Natalie at Cantobon & Felipe Esparza at 5Art
Music by sususu & YEHAIYAHAN
This is the sixth video in China Residencies' Creative City Guide series. Read all the guides here: https://chinaresidencies.org/resources. Many thanks to all our friends in Guangzhou for sharing their takes on the city they call home, and to the British Council China for their support in developing these resources. Like all of our resources, this guide is a work-in-progress and will be updated regularly. Send us a note at email@example.com with your suggestions and recommendations!