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Pearls of the Delta

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The Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province is known to the world by the “workshop-of-the-world” moniker. The region just above Hong Kong spearheaded economic reform in the 1980s transforming itself from a largely rural area into a sprawling manufacturing megacity in just three decades. Ancient cities like provincial capital Guangzhou along with Huizhou, Foshan and Zhongshan expanded rapidly while new players like Shenzhen, Dongguan and Zhuhai emerged from the paddy fields as metropolitan entities in their own right. Today, metro systems borrow their way beneath the major towns, high-speed rail traverses the delta, while expressways crisscross the manufacturing lands moving made-in-China produce to coastal ports and ultimately, the world. It’s all very brash, very modern and business-orientated. Yet this conglomeration of nine big cities (and several smaller towns) is an ancient and diverse region, rich in history and culture. Beyond the rumble of industry, beneath the rubble of construction there are some real treasures to seek out.

Here’s our pick of pearls from the world’s fastest growing megacity:

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This small city on the eastern periphery of the Delta affords a real break from the rush and clamour of it all, especially around the West Lake. It might not be as famous as the similarly branded body of water in Hangzhou but it is still beautiful, peppered with islands that are connected by classically designed bridges. The iconic Sizhou Pagoda overlooks the lake, creating a China-perfect postcard. The Northern Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo spent time around here during a period of exile in the Deep South a thousand years ago. Su wrote gushing prose about the all things Huizhou including the regional lychee crop, Huizhou’s fair maidens and even the Hakka rice wine still produced to this day. He is commemorated on the West Lake with a memorial hall dedicated to his legacy as well as a park and the bridge, which are both named after him.     


This city feels like something of a Guangzhou suburb these days as it is connected to the capital city by metro. However, it is an ancient city in its own right dating back to the seventh century and boasting a rich tradition of ceramics, opera and most notably, martial arts. Yip Man, Bruce Lee and Wong Feihung all hail from Foshan (or can at least trace their heritage back to the area). The Zumiao Temple Complex in the centre of town is a good place to get a taste of the action. This masterpiece of southern architecture, adorned by stunning glazed roof tile house the Hunag Feihong Memorial Hall and hosts regular kung-fu performances.

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This might be the place most synonymous with factory sprawl, but in Humen Township there’s some interest facing the Bocca Tigris, a narrowing in the river that once guarded the entrance to Guangzhou. Canton as it was once known was the only city where Europeans could officially do trade with China and thus Humen was a strategic position, hence the Qing Barracks. The Weiyuan Battery is a crescent shaped stone brick barracks where rusty, made-in-Foshan, nineteenth century canons still point towards the river. It’s free to get in and wander around, imagining how imperial Manchu soldiers garrisoned here would have spent their days watching junks and European tall ships navigate the deep, seething waters beyond. Adjacent is the Sea Battles Museum that tells the historic resistance of Chinese forces against Western imperialism. The site is significant as it was here that disgruntled Qing Official Lin Zexu symbolically dumped thousands of barrels of British imported opium into the Pearl River in 1839. The act provoked the first Opium War, the annexation of Hong Kong, the opening up of several treaty ports and the beginning of what the Chinese term “a hundred years of humiliation”.


This pleasant and relaxed city of the western delta was originally called Xiangshan but was renamed in honour of Sun Yat-sen, who was born in nearby Cuiheng in 1866. Despite a life largely lived overseas, one tarnished by many failures, Sun Yat-sen is today regarded as the father of modern China as, so the narrative goes, he devoted himself to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the foundation of the Republic in China of China. As you might expect, he remains a hero in the South, a patriot whose motto “Boai” roughly meaning compassion still inspires the Chinese. There are Zhongshan parks and statues of Sun throughout the Delta but it’s his hometown that really honours his legacy with the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in the city centre and the Museum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which is located in Cuiheng Village, where the agitator and philosopher was born. 

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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