Guangzhou: The Southern Gateaway

Alejandro Acin, photographer and project assistant at the Historical Photographs of China, recently participated in a learning exchange programme in Guangzhou – a collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of Lancashire. The project is part of the AHRC-funded British Inter-university China Centre’s cultural engagement activities. Alejandro is one of BICC’s three Cultural Engagement fellows at Bristol and his photography commission focuses on the city of Guangzhou (China), one of the main coastal ports in China and a significant node in the country’s integrated transportation system.

Alejandro was inspired by themes that emerged from the many thousands of images of China digitised by the ‘Historical Photographs of China’ project. He aims to create a visual narrative based on the daily trading activities and the relationships between the traders, their communities and environment.


Dockers (un)loading sacks, Canton, 1911. From the Swire collection,  sw16-076. © 2008 John Swire & Sons Ltd.

“During this trip I had the opportunity to visit a city that I knew only through the old photographs copied by HPC. Guangzhou has grown rapidly in the last decade and the new Nansha Port is becoming the trading reference port for South China.

“After discussions with local government officials, I had the opportunity to visit the new Nansha Port, but only for half a day. It is the gateway to the ocean for the Guangzhou-Foshan economic area and the city cluster in the west part of the Pearl River Delta and it has the facilities to unload the world’s biggest cargo ships. There, I started to realise the magnitude of trading in this city.


Shops and their signboards, Sheung Mun Tai Street, Canton, 1870. From the Bayley collection AB-s05 © 2014 E.Tarrant

G034 frame

“During the first part of my trip, I visited some of the more important markets in the city, such as the jade market, the fashion market, the medicine market, the leather market, and the tea market. The extent of these markets is incredible; they cover whole neighbourhoods with thousands of small and big shops, or malls, selling similar items. Daily-life activities are completely embedded in a trading environment. The activity is frenetic. People are driving bikes loaded with huge bags or boxes, everybody is carrying goods, people are clapping at the front shops trying to attract the attention of passers-by – it’s like a classical orchestra formed of many instruments that all sound harmoniously.”

G056 frame



“In the plane from Amsterdam, I read an article about Guangzhou in the English language edition of a Chinese newspaper. The Mayor of Guangzhou was quoted as saying that the city is facing a very serious population problem. The city has 10.33 million registered residents, with targets and housing based on this number, but the city actually has a population of nearly 15 million, including a vast migrant population. This obviously has a tremendous impact on Guangzhou and the city is growing out towards the new Nansha Port.

“I wanted to visit this new area and juxtapose it with the ancient city I had in my mind due to my work at Historical Photographs of China. The New Town, with its financial centre, is composed of sky-scrappers and big commercial malls, international chains and Government buildings, surrounded by new residential areas. The contrast with the older city is huge, the small alleyways and harmonious chaos is now shifted onto big roads and lighted gardens with golden lions.


G098 dipt


“I was very lucky to meet Tao, a local photojournalist, who kindly accompanied me for one day. He told me that I must visit Xian Village, one of the 138 ‘urban villages’ scattered throughout Guangzhou. The municipal authorities are aiming to redevelop these areas in favour of new residential buildings and businesses. But this area was one of the few where the community organised to resist the pressure of local government to move out. This issue clearly shows the complexity of these urban conflicts, which are currently taking place in the city, however my understanding of it is very little due the socio-cultural layers of this issue.

“After this first trip to Guangzhou, my mind was full of experiences that needed to be digested. I believe this is the beginning of a series of trips to the city required to develop this body of work about the impact of trading in the city. Meanwhile, I am planning an exhibition in Bristol to showcase part of this work in progress”.

Thanks to Robert Bickers, Amy Binns, Matt Horn, Tao, Duncan, Emma and Emily for making this trip possible.

This entry was posted in Exhibition, Photographers and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.