Architecture China Culture History

Disappearing Guangzhou – Part 1

Over the past few years I’ve visited Guangzhou (广州) countless times for both work and travel, but besides the excellent cuisine, never found it particularly inspiring – it’s grey, heavily polluted and over congested. However, on my last trip I stumbled across an area which gave me a whole new perspective…

Rooftop Repair

Being a little bored in Hong Kong during the 2012/13 new year holidays I took the rickety old intercity through train (soon to be replaced by a new high-speed link) direct from Hung Hom to Guangzhou East station – a trip of about 2.5 hours.

Backstreet Mahjong

After arrival at my extremely modest hotel I looked out the window and saw an amazing cluster of ramshackle old houses sandwiched between the surrounding office towers. With a free afternoon ahead I decided to explore the interior.

Cycle Silhouette

The district is called Xudi (许地) and many of the houses probably once belonged to rich and powerful families or merchants.

Sleeping Beauty

While still a residential area, it appears that many of the houses have been taken over by small import and export companies who transport manufactured goods around by bicycle.

Glimpse of Sunlight

Light barely reached the ground in these tightly packed houses.

Concrete Pit

I was able to climb the stairs and get a better view from the roof.

Downcast Facades

Xudi District Rooftops

From the rooftop the layers of additions and modifications create a patchwork of various building styles, some hundred of years old while others are more recent. I particularly liked the small 4-story towers that some residents had built – an Englishman’s home is his castle after all.

Stacked Boxes

Stacks of cardboard boxes awaiting delivery lay on every corner.

Cardboard Box Transport

Where there is waste, there is always someone to collect and recycle it.

Hidden Stairway

Full Speed Ahead


I was curious about what the license plates on some bicycles were for.

Carved Door

Many older houses had traditional carved wooden doors but most were not in a good state of repair.

Facing Out

I loved this old house where pages of a magazines with Western celebrities faces had been pasted over the glass.

Cluttered Alley

Faded Glory

There was a distinct feeling of faded glory in the area with intricate stonework, like on this building in Jiling Li (畸零里红砖楼), betraying a more opulent past.

Circular Gateway

Tight Corner

Transporting the goods through the tight alleyways is a challenge in itself.

Former Officials Residence

Around one corner I found a residence or a former government official under renovation. In China ‘restoration’ usually equates to ‘rebuilding’ but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

House Burner

The house opposite had a large wood burning stove in one corner.

Communal Area

Cycling Through

It was at this point that an old lady came around the corner, saw me taking photos, and berated me for “trying to damage the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party” (“年轻人不要做对不起社会主义的事”). It’s ironic to think that she thought I was trying to expose poor living conditions when this is the side of China I love the most and wish could be preserved.

Playing Children

The sad fact is that you simply can’t build communities like this in high-rise apartment blocks.

Wholesale Clothing Street

After walking through the rabbit warren of houses I came to Gaodi Street. Opened in 1980, it was the first open commercial product market in Guangzhou, with over 1000 individual traders along the long street.

More to come in Part 2.


Originally from the UK, David is designer and wanderer currently based in Kamakura. Prior to this, he lived in China and still returns frequently to continue exploring this vast and varied land. He started Randomwire in 2003 to chronicle his travels and occasional musings. Feel free to drop him a line.

4 Comments Add New Comment

  1. MKL says:

    Great photos. I enjoyed reading and looking at your awesome pics in both posts. I myself love to visit such places, but this is quite rare in Taipei. There are few old streets, but most neighborhoods have been heavily modified in the past half a century.

  2. Great Pics David as always 🙂 I am curious about the old lady being mad at you… Was she talking to you in English? I find that really amazing I never had anybody come after me for taking shots but then maybe I was just lucky…

    1. David says:

      Thanks David – she was talking in Chinese, a friend translated. I was a little annoyed at the time but in retrospect it was quite funny!

      1. yes especially considering what I know of you… I might let something ” stream of consciousness” slip but you’re pretty aware. And of course the fact that what she see’s as the negative side is actually what I and I assume you find most worthwhile…

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