Living in Hong Kong, I’m of course aware that the Pearl River Delta region – lately dubbed the Greater Bay Area (without a bay) – has become a megapolis, described by the Visual Capitalist website as “the largest contiguous urban region in the world”. Yet there’s still something astonishing, almost overwhelming, about actually heading to Foshan, a city in the heart of the region.
On a map, the city centre is around 30 kilometres from Shunde, terminal of a ferry route from Hong Kong. In many parts of the world, this might mean you head there through countryside, pass suburbs, and enter the dense city. But not here. Instead, the journey leads by clusters of high-rise apartment blocks – many newly built and unoccupied, surviving villages with modern houses up to seven storeys high, highways, railways, power lines strung from imposing pylons that line roads, then veer off to march across the landscape.
At times, the route leads over bridges spanning river channels. There are reminders of the delta’s role as a giant factory for the world, such as occasional power plants spewing steamy fumes, a sprawling two-storey mall dedicated to selling steel goods for manufacturing. Otherwise, one part of the landscape looks much like any other. It’s like travelling a boundless ocean of development.
Even Foshan itself has an oddly amorphous, haphazard quality. There are thoroughfares lined with shops, a smattering of malls and hotels, but at no point do I think, This is it, downtown Foshan at last!
Happily, there are distinctive and rewarding places to visit and enjoy, akin to islands in the sea of soulless concrete sprawl.
Surely the place to head when in Foshan is in the midst of the main city: Lingnan Tiandi, which roughly translates as “Cantonese World”. In October 2008, Shui On began a redevelopment project here, in a neighbourhood that includes 22 historic sites, some dating from the Qing dynasty. As the company’s website notes, “Foshan Lingnan Tiandi preserves Foshan’s tradition as the hometown of Cantonese Opera, pottery art, martial arts and authentic Chinese cuisine, and blends these with fashionable elements and modern facilities to build a quality city-core integrated development.”
While there are residences, Lingnan Tiandi includes a pedestrian-only district that’s popular with residents and tourists alike. Here, you can roam narrow streets and alleys past restored two-and three-storey buildings with sturdy brick walls, some featuring tiled roofs and “ear-shaped” gables.
This must have been an upscale district early last century, when Foshan prospered as a centre of trade, and longstanding hub for manufacturing silk textiles, ceramics, metal items and more. There are buildings that may have been merchants’ mansions, with rectangular profiles perhaps reflecting western influence. Archways and corridors lead into courtyards overlooked by balconies with carved stone balustrades. A sign indicates that one of these courtyards is within Jian’s Villa; another is in the Longtang Poetry Society.
But this place is not about keeping the past frozen in time. Shops and restaurants abound. There are traditional Chinese handicrafts on offer, along with local and international cuisine. A small museum is dedicated to lion dances, with lovingly made, colourful lions and drums. Nearby is a Hello Kitty Cafe.
Lingnan Tiandi is also fun in the evenings, with people strolling by market stalls, admiring fountains lit by coloured lights, and enjoying al fresco drinking and dining.
But you don’t have to remain in urban areas. Foshan also has a place where visitors can, “breathe in the fresh air endowed with the spirits of the nature and better their spiritual status during the vacation and relaxation.” That’s according to the website of Xiqiao Mountain Tourism, which is dedicated to Xiqiao Shan – a compact hilly region, roughly 4.5 kilometres across at its widest, at the city’s southwestern fringe.
This is the site of an extinct volcano, which last erupted over 40 million years ago, and has since been eroded to form a mini range of hills (the website states there are 72 peaks) interspersed with valleys where streams tumble over waterfalls and cascades. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, Confucian philosophers settled here, and Xiqiao Shan later attracted poets and scholars. Unsurprisingly, then, Xiqiao Shan has become a popular tourism site, but it’s not some run-of-the-mill A-grade destination, instead receiving an official rating as an AAAAA-Level Tourism Area.
There’s a network of narrow roads and trails in the area, which is both national forest park and national geological park. As well as exploring on foot, you can ride one of the “eco-sightseeing vehicles” from a park gate, which may be an especially wise choice on a hot day, to avoid some uphill walking. These are rather like outsize golf buggies, holding up to 17 passengers and powered by liquified natural gas, with gasoline used on steeper slopes. They make several stops near sightseeing places, notably the Culture Center of Nanhai Guanyin.
The centres’s star attraction is a huge statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion, atop Daxian Peak, which at 290 metres above sea level is the highest hill of Xiqiao Shan. She’s seated on a pedestal like an immense lotus flower, gazing benignly into the distance. While the statue recalls the Big Buddha on Lantau, at 61.9 metres tall it’s a Huge Bodhisattva (advanced trainee in Buddhism) compared to its 34-metre Lantau cousin.
Below the statue are terraced gardens featuring traditional style corridors and pavilions, where saffron-robed monks find tranquillity, and a chance to check smartphone messages.
From near the centre, footpaths lead through hillside gardens abounding with azaleas, peach and osmanthus trees, and camellias. While most splendid in spring, when there are a myriad red, pink and purple blooms, these paths are pleasant to walk year-round. Other sites to explore include a valley with Nine Dragons Cave – a small cliff with holes big enough to clamber into.
Or, you could walk part way down Xiqiao Shan through Green Valley, where the path runs alongside a stream that forms a couple of small but picturesque waterfalls.
South of the city is another park with hills and an imposing statue: Bruce Lee Paradise. According to The Economic Times[India], this was originally established as a nature park, in 1998. The kung fu legend’s paternal grandparents had lived nearby, and in 2005 the local government re-christened the park Bruce Lee Paradise, before funding the statue and facilities including a museum dedicated to Bruce Lee, and launching the new park in November 2010.
Surely there were ideas of attracting hordes of visitors. Yet the park seems proof that if you build it, they won’t necessarily come, and already has a somewhat rundown feel. The 18.8 metre high statue dominates the park near the entrance – portraying Lee in ready for combat mode. The museum is in a renovated old building, and exhibits are mostly cabinets with Bruce Lee DVDs, books, pamphlets and so forth.
Beyond the statue, there’s a string of small lakes between wooded hills that are no more than tens of metres high. There are cycles and pedal carts for hire, to trundle along narrow roads and check out the former nature park. A simple farm for visitors has ducks and chickens. Almost inevitably, in China, there are pedal boats for hire on one lake.
An inlet can reportedly host hundreds or thousands of egrets and herons, but perhaps even these visitors are fickle, with only a smattering of night herons present when I checked.
After the park, it’s perhaps time to again cross the ocean of development, before returning to Hong Kong.
Chu Kong Shipping operates ferries between the China Ferry Terminal in Kowloon and Shunde (website https://www.cksp.com.hk/en/ticket), from where it’s perhaps best to take a taxi to Foshan. Other ways to Foshan include high speed rail to Guangzhou South station, then transfer to a metro line or bus.
Xiqiao Shan is served by several buses from Foshan (Bus No. 212, Bus No. 219, Bus No. 225, Bus No. 226, Bus No. 227A, Bus No. 249, Bus No. 251 or Bus No. 256. – says a website), and is around 20 kilometres southwest of the city centre. Bruce Lee Paradise is some 35 kilometres south of the city centre, and perhaps best reached by taking a taxi.
If you finish a visit at Bruce Lee Paradise, you can catch a bus to Shunde Qu, around 1.5 kilometres to the east. Here, at the Yihe Holiday Hotel, there’s a chance to book ferry tickets to Hong Kong [there’s a shuttle bus to the pier], or tickets for buses to Kowloon Tong.
[Written for the South China Morning Post]