Once Upon a Time in the Tianhe District of Guangzhou there Were Farms

During the time I lived in China, the area around my university — South China Teachers University in the village of Shipai — was largely farms and small villages. Behind my apartment building were experimental farms of the agricultural college. Beyond the college was a small mountain where my ex and I sometimes ran — he ran, I bitched. I hadn’t become a great runner yet. Sometimes we encountered a guy doing Monkey King Tai Chi as he ran up the mountain. He had to have been in a very unique zone to have managed those moves while running.

In I. J. Khanewala’s recent blog post about Guangzhou’s New Town, I saw what “my” neighborhood is like now.

I wouldn’t know it. As I read his description, I Googled a map of Guangzhou and looked specifically for the “Tianhe District.” I had never heard this term. I lived in the village of Shi Pai. White Stone.

I studied the map, orienting myself (ha ha see what I did?) partly to get a sense of the images and discussion in the blog post, and partly to imagine “my” China so radically changed.

In looking at my slides, I see things as they were beginning, including the major freeway that runs around the city. People sat on the road breaking rocks and concrete by hand, waving at us as we went by on our bikes on a road that, on this map is a highway, one of the wide yellow roads. The subway runs on the bus line, bus 22. If we missed it, we took bus 11 — our two legs.

So, here is what the urban world of Tianhe District looked like in 1982/83

There are a couple photos of Shenzhen which was a “special economic zone,” designed to attract foreign investment, between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. It’s now a city. But the agriculture there was typical of Guangdong at the time.

People sometimes ask me whether I want to return to China. I don’t. I can’t. It’s not just a place on the map, it’s also a time and a way of living that is long gone. It’s paradoxical. While I don’t want to go to new China, (Xin Hua) I would not want China to remain where it was when I lived there. It was a very hard life. For most people — including my ex and I — life centered on finding food. The REAL Chinese greeting is not “Ni hao?” (“You OK?”) it’s “Chi baole ma?” or “Have you eaten?”

For me, foraging came up against a time crunch. My colleagues taught two classes a day, Jim taught three, I taught six and I was expected to do coaching after school and teach graduate students. Lucky us, though. We had a fridge!

The daily necessity of finding and preparing food was complicated, but it needn’t have been complicated. The college had two women who cooked three meals a day for us. They were good cooks, and I really liked them, but food from home is important when you are so far away. We ate lunch in our dining room and breakfast and supper in our apartment, usually. I’m glad we did that. I wanted a Chinese life, and that problem was part of a Chinese life.

Peasants were up at 3 in the morning picking vegetables, loading them in bamboo baskets, hoisting them on their shoulder poles and getting on a freight train to the nearest village market which opened at 7 am. The vegetables were better than any I’ve eaten in the United States ever. Fish was easy to find, but meat and chicken were not, although nearly every day the sounds of a pig being slaughtered blasted the walls of the college. Sometimes this was followed by one of the cooks yelling up to my apartment, “Ma Sa! Ma Sa! Jiu ro! Jiu ro!” Martha, Martha, pork, pork. I’d meet them in their kitchen and we’d part out the hunk of pork and laugh. They respected me for cooking, for being human.

My love for chile peppers was famous in my village. And when they went out of season, and I couldn’t have them any more, and I asked, I learned for the first time in my life about nature’s imperatives. Months went by without chiles and then, one day, a peasant woman in the market grinned at me and said, in Mandarin which most of them did not speak (there are countless village dialects) “Lao she! Yo la jiao!” “Teacher. I have chiles.” She held out a handful of red peppers. Everyone around her laughed. The price was exorbitant but my god, she remembered (I was kind of a sore thumb) and prepared a sentence in Mandarin. I felt like a million dollars and paid her five mao. We carried our money — everyone did — in crumpled piles in the front pockets of our pants.

I’ll end this agriculture post with a story. By June, the rain had stopped and the weather warmed up, slamming us with tropical heat, less painful than it had been when we’d first arrived from Colorado. We headed into town on our bicycles (the road is on the map, but I don’t see a name). As we passed the edge of our village where some new buildings had been put up (since torn down) we saw men from Sinkiang selling small watermelons. We stopped our bikes — me, my Chinese brother and my ex — and bought three. One of the men cut them open. We took them to the shade of some trees across the road and sat beside a field, enjoying the sweetness of a fruit from Sinkiang (western China, Moslem and Turkic), spitting seeds into the canals between the green vegetables and laughing.

The best watermelon I ever expect to eat.


To learn about my village of Shipai today, look here.

Exploring Guangzhou’s Urban Villages: Shipai, Xiancun By Tristin Zhang and Jocelyn Richards,  May 30, 2017

And here The Fall of Guangdong’s Urban Villages, Migrants’ Last Refuge By Bailey Hu,  May 29, 2017

13 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in the Tianhe District of Guangzhou there Were Farms

  1. I lived 5 years in China and I’m pretty sure I’ve been in that area where you lived. It has completely and utterly changed now. You’re extremely lucky to have seen China before all the skyscrapers were built, I would have loved to have visited China years ago just to see how life was back then. I know that lives have definitely improved but I think it’s sad to see how China lost a lot of it’s culture. Now every city pretty much looks the same and you have to travel hours out of the city to see anything remotely like what’s in your photos. I love your photos by the way!

    • What did you do in China?

      I felt the same way you’ve written here. I wanted to see China as it had been in the 1930s! I think China does that to some people — you just wish there were a time-telescope. I wanted more context. I wanted to know so much that I didn’t know. I came home and studied… I felt I hadn’t known even where I was.

      The other foreign expert in English at the time was Irish. She lived and worked at the school for three years, I think, then went to Macao for a couple of years. She was the only person I met who had pictures of Marx, Lenin, and ENGELS on her wall. She was the only passionate communist I met.

      • I taught English in Chengdu. Guangzhou is a pretty city now but there are no rice fields or water buffalos in sight! Oh wow, I couldn’t imagine an irish person in China during those years, it was a struggle for me to find Irish people when I was living there! The Chinese people are generally still very humble, but I found they are very materialistic now because of their new found wealth.

      • In Guangzhou itself, there were no water buffaloes, but in all the outlying areas (which were near the city then) there were. I loved the fields, riding my bike miles and miles home and seeing all of this, sometimes beautiful beyond expression. But I’m going to try having been inspired by a fellow blogger to scan these old slides.

      • There are areas like that outside Chengdu city and they are very beautiful, you just have to travel quite a distance to see it! Yes definitely put more up, it’s really fascinating seeing the way it used to be.

      • I had a wonderful friend who was a professor from Chengdu. Photos I’ve seen of the region are beautiful.

        I will be putting up more photos. Now that I’m into it, I’m really into it! 🙂

  2. Wow. In some small ways, it reminds me of California of the past. Agriculture one lived where great cities are now built and life was simpler.

    Are you a reader of Pearl Buck? Learned about her writing in 6th grade. Our teacher was a fan.

  3. What a difference! Thank you for putting up these photos.

    You were there in the hiatus between the cultural revolution and when Deng Xiaoping turned China around. A very precarious time. Your descriptions of foraging all the time are like the stories I heard around then from friends in eastern Europe. I think it will be a long while before anyone in China thinks of those times with nostalgia.

    • I don’t think it was as bad for us in South China as it was for people in Eastern Europe, but it was definitely inconvenient. There was plenty of food, but not always the same food and not always meat. Meat was a spice. Once in a while there was yogurt for sale in Guangzhou and the “grapevine” would let me know. Then Jim and I would ride our bikes to wherever that was. I cultured my own with powdered milk. Coffee was extremely rare, but the best coffee came from Hainan. It became known that I loved coffee and a packet of Hainan coffee was a good “Guang Xi” for me — not a bribe, exactly, because it never came from students, but a message of support and friendliness from a colleague. Lots of communication was in code like that.

Comments are closed.