Neighborhood Watch: Taikoo Wharf

The southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is on the fast track but its riverfront district offers a slower way of life.

WORDS Michael Standaert 
October 2018

Photography by Blake Brown

Standing at the heart of the Pearl River Delta, near the South China Sea, Guangzhou is an ancient city built on manufacturing and trade. These days, the lifestyles of its 13 million-plus residents tend to be fueled by high-tech, financial, and service industries. The city’s new economy has also bankrolled an ultramodern skyline, epitomized by the latticed, elongated hourglass of the Canton Tower and Zaha Hadid’s spacecraft-like opera house.

For the uninitiated, getting around this sprawling, somewhat chaotic city can be a challenge. This is especially true if, like me on this sweltering morning, you are navigating the teeming streets while holding a container of chang fen, a breakfast staple made of rolled rice noodles, scrambled egg, meat and sloppy mushroom sauce. To complicate matters, I ordered the double-egg version, part of which ends up on the shoe of a passing pedestrian. I wolf down the remainder of my meal and duck into the metro. Six stops later, I exit into what feels like another world. 

V. one ice cream truck

I am in Taikoo Wharf (or Taigucang Matou in Mandarin), a riverside neighborhood on the western edge of the historic Haizhu District. Here, the banks of the Pearl are lined with century-old warehouses, now transformed into a variety of bars, restaurants, cafes and shops. In the evenings, Taikoo floods with young locals and tourists looking to have fun, but in the daytime, the city’s nightlife hub is a relatively peaceful, cooler place to be. 

Today, walking along the wharf from its northern end, I am ruffled by a breeze blowing off the Pearl. Cicadas buzz in adolescent banyan trees, their hanging roots swaying in unison with the muddy river rolling by. The air is filled with the scent of pink and white frangipani blossoms. Roadside, a man in a drooping straw hat sits on a wooden folding chair guarding a parking space. 

“There are little secrets all over the city. You have to explore.”

Further along, kids and dogs scuttle down steps for a dip in the water. On the opposite bank, shipping containers are stacked on barges, four or five high, where a warehouse still serves its original purpose. A small tugboat chugs by, disturbing the air with a slow, low hum. A hundred years ago, boats brought in sugar, silk, timber and tea for storage at these buildings—along with shadier cargo. 

“Sometimes they smuggled opium in with little boats they called ‘scrambling dragons’ or ‘fast crabs,’” says local historian and writer Brian Wong, “little boats with so many paddles, maybe 30 men paddling at night very fast.” Brian has agreed to take me on a tour of the neighborhood, along with his friend Jie Si, the manager of the office that oversees the wharf’s properties. 

In the 19th century, these warehouses were part of a series of concessions, parcels of real estate governed by the British and the Japanese. More recently, the buildings were transformed into factories or storage areas. A decade or so ago, Taikoo Wharf was designated a historic district, and the old warehouses were given another makeover, this one drawing on the global appetite for industrial chic. Today, the scrambling dragons have been replaced by flashy yachts, and looming behind the proliferating bars and boutiques are rows of high-priced tower blocks. 

“Young people like to come visit here, but along the river it is quite expensive to live,” says Wong, who lived in San Francisco for a while but has since returned to Guangzhou. When asked about the major differences between here and America’s West Coast, he laughs. “Everything is cheaper in California!”

We are seated at picnic tables alongside the bars that line the waterfront, some made out of shipping containers painted red or yellow, others made of steel and glass and covered with vines. College students snap selfies while nibbling ice cream cones. A photographer directs a fashion shoot, using the warehouses as a backdrop. 

“Do you want to eat snake?” asks Jie Si, pointing to an unassuming little restaurant named Rongji. “This place here has great snake hot pot.” 

It’s a bit early in the day for reptiles, so I take a pass. Taikoo has plenty of other dining options, however, including Teddy Coffee Shop, where customers consume cakes and puddings surrounded by cuddly toys, and Mr. Rocky cowboy bar, which serves American staples like grilled steak and hand-tossed pizza and whose walls are dotted with Clint Eastwood photographs.  

Chang fen, a traditional rice noodle roll, at Reading Station café

In the end, we follow the crowd to NanYue Gong, a large family restaurant that serves authentic dim sum. Cantonese opera blares from a television near the entrance; kids run wild between the lazy Susan-topped tables. There’s no English on the menu, and the pick-and-point photos tend to be cryptic—what looks like a platter of sweet-and-sour shrimp could just as easily be chicken feet. Helpfully, the owners have put little thumbs-up icons beside the less exotic items. I have dumplings—steamed pork and water chestnut followed by shrimp—along with a few vegetable dishes that are all excellent. 

After lunch, we pop into the Taigucang Movie Box, inside a building that once housed sugar and military supplies. When the cinema opened in 2010, the word was they’d be using vintage projectors to screen classic and art-house movies, but, as one employee tells us, these lofty ambitions have since been scaled back due to sky-high rents. Today, they’re showing crowd-pleasers like Hotel Transylvania 3 and Ant-Man and the Wasp. A bit bleh, perhaps, but the building has plenty of character.  

I part with my guides and strike out on my own, heading a quarter mile or so north on Huandao Road, where I come to Dabancang, a former Japanese-run factory that now comprises eight interconnected warehouses with a huge concrete facade overlooking the river. Painted in red on the outside walls are large Chinese characters from the 1960s and ’70s, the Cultural Revolution era, urging passersby to “fight to build up the country” and “accelerate the construction of socialism!” 

In the space beyond these patriotic slogans, you’ll find businesses ranging from a Nordic-style restaurant to the cat-themed More Than Meow café. Then there’s the Dreamworks Archery Club, which combines longbows and lattes. This, I decide, is something I have to try, so I order some coffee, rent some arrows (with real tips) and, with the assistance of an infinitely patient staff member, do my impersonation of an overly caffeinated Robin Hood.  

The archery lesson passes without incident, so I head off to meet Tang Ziqiang, co-founder of Isaya Mansion, a space for private parties located on the south side of the building. Since opening a year and a half ago, the venue has hosted thousands of celebrants, ranging from tech nerds to celebrities. Tang admits, though, that success was far from assured when he and his partners set the business up. “Demand for a place like this didn’t exist,” he says, wincing slightly at the memory. “There were only hotel banquet rooms or karaoke venues.”  

A devotee of Japanese culture, Tang saw Dabancang as a way to combine Japanese and Chinese design, along with a Western industrial vibe. The second floor of the space, the main party area, has high ceilings with a variety of light fixtures hanging down. The walls are bare concrete and charcoal-colored beams arch over a series of long wooden tables. “There is nothing else like this in Guangzhou,” Tang says—though, given the rate of development around here, it probably won’t be too long. 

A cat lounges at More Than Meow café

Outside, I cut down an alley and head east along Xinmin Sixth Street, where I find several trendy new eating and drinking venues, many located in refurbished historic buildings. Inside the Peace of Mind Cafe, college students sit about gazing at laptops while taking economical sips of their coffee. Farther along the street is the book-lined Read Cafe, whose clientele today seems made up largely of local hipsters.

Deeper into the labyrinth of streets and alleyways to the northeast of the wharf, things are much less glossy. Here, the coffee shops give way to traditional teahouses, stacked with cakes of dark, fermented pu’ertea. Alongside these are various medicine shops—with their mentholated, musty aromas—herbal jelly tea shops, stalls loaded with plump local bananas, men repairing motors and old ladies gathering cardboard, all set to the drip-drip of condensation from the air conditioners above. 

Not far from here is CD Creative Park, a former motorcycle factory that has been made into a backpacker hotel. Next to a tattoo parlor and a flower shop, the building is covered on one side with vines and surrounded by historic residences that are now protected by the city. You could wander for hours in these small alleys observing a slower pace of life—and it’s this sense of tradition, says CD founder Zeng Haogang, that lured him here in the first place. 

“Young travelers want to find more interesting places to go, so I tried to find an old factory to transform,” he says. “What attracted me here was that Taikoo is nearby, it is well-known and it is related to the idea of old warehouse renovation.” 

Zeng says he has reserved rooms for about 40 young locals who are planning to start businesses in the area, which in turn is part of a collaborative local effort to revitalize the neighborhood. “There are more places coming: small shops, hotels, restaurants,” he says, “which will give this area a lot of character.” 

It is late afternoon now, and I’m making my way back through the staggered alleyways, heading towards Taikoo. I can see the elevated roadways slicing between rooftops, the grand and gleaming office towers in the distance, but it is quiet here. The streets are full of shadows broken by bands of sunshine. My nerves, meanwhile, are buzzing from the day’s drip-feed of caffeine. It’s time, I decide, for a proper drink. 

Back on Xinmin Sixth Street, behind the wharf area, I spot Dragon & Phoenix, a cocktail bar opened earlier this year by a local who lives nearby and loves to drink. The wall behind the bar is lined high with bottles of various shapes and colors. On the bottom shelf, sitting by itself on the left, is a bottle of absinthe for the daring. “One glass of that and … wheeeew, see you tomorrow,” laughs John Yu, a manager at the bar. 

I get a whiskey and a short beer instead, which I drink beneath a neon-red paper dragon snaking across the ceiling. It’s early, and the bar is quiet, but there’s still a cool, appealingly dive-y feel to the place. “This area is very local, old-style China,” Yu continues. “You come into the bar and it is a very friendly atmosphere, people just talking and relaxing. I’ve also made this my neighborhood.” 

Earlier, discussing Guangzhou’s rampant growth, Wong, the historian, had told me to keep an eye out for spots like this, places he described as “little secrets all over the city.” He also told me that finding them requires some effort. “You have to walk,” he says. “You have to explore.” Well, I’ve certainly done my share of that today, so I order another drink and toast the red dragon for luck. I repeat the gesture several times over the course of the evening, just to be on the safe side. 

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