China Travel Guide
at Aberdeen Harbour, Hong Kong Island
The South at a Glance
Encompassing the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, and Hainan, as well as Macau and Hong Kong, the South is China’s most familiar region, mainly because millions of immigrants from the area have moved overseas, taking their cooking and traditions with them. Yet, with the exception of Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the area rarely features on travelers’ itineraries. There is much to enjoy, however, from the ancient Ming city of Chaozhou and Wuyi Shan’s superb scenery, to the historic ports of Quanzhou, Xiamen, and Shantou along the coasts of Guangdong and Fujian, and the tropical beaches of Hainan.
The main airport hubs are at Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Hong Kong offers connections to destinations all over the world, while Guangzhou has direct flights to cities throughout China and Asia. Xiamen, Fuzhou, and Haikou also have airports with several domestic flights. Trains, some air-conditioned, link much of the region although routes can be circuitous. The extensive bus network offers varying degrees of comfort depending on the destination. There are frequent ferry services, particularly between Hong Kong, Macau, and various mainland ports.
- Where to Stay
- Where to Eat
A Portrait of the South
An enduring maritime tradition has influenced life and culture in the South. The long coastline along the South China Sea gave the ports of Fujian and Guangdong easy access to trade routes leading East and West. Trade also brought the British and Portuguese to the South, ultimately leading to the colonization of Hong Kong and Macau. Only Hainan Island remained isolated from the developments that took place across the sea on mainland China.
Guangdong and Fujian are particularly mountainous, and although the mountains are not especially high, they have isolated the provinces from the political mainstream of the center and north of the country. Consequently, the South has tended to look outwards, across the sea, and over the centuries has been far more inclined than much of China to deal with foreigners – either by design or default.
From the 7th century onwards, Arab traders introduced Islam to China through ports such as Guangzhou (Canton) and Quanzhou, and took silk, porcelain, and tea away with them. It was from these ports that China launched its overseas naval expeditions. The Ming emperors sponsored the great voyages of Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, who crossed the Indian Ocean from Fuzhou to Africa in the early 1400s. Almost a century later, Portuguese vessels ventured up the Pearl River to Guangzhou; an expedition that eventually led to the colonization of Macau in 1557. The British soon followed, but their nefarious policy of flooding the Chinese market with opium led to the two Opium Wars (1839–42, 1856–60), after which China ceded Hong Kong and the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain.
Over the centuries, waves of Southern Chinese migrated overseas, first to Southeast Asia, and later westward as far as North America, as indentured labor. Their global presence is one of reasons why visitors consider this the most familiar region in China.
from Kowloon across Victoria Harbour
The Cantonese culinary tradition is distinct and known the world over. The local cuisine, however, may encompass outlandish ingredients not used in overseas restaurants; it is said, with some justification, that the Cantonese will eat anything.
Teas from the south are exported throughout the world and Fujian produces some of China’s finest, including oolong. The area has cultivated the arts of tea brewing and tasting, and so-called “tea art halls,” where resident brew masters demonstrate techniques associated with particular varieties of tea, are still found in Fuzhou, the province’s capital.
The South’s largely subtropical climate has encouraged a gregarious lifestyle, which tends to manifest itself in an active, open-air streetlife. The local language of Cantonese is quite different from Mandarin, the national language. The sound is distinctive, even to the untrained ear. The region’s other major dialect is Fujianese (Minnan hua).
The South is home to several ethnic communities, including the Hakka and the Li. The Hakka migrated to south and central China from the north. The impressive round mansions of the Fujianese Hakka are a highlight of a trip to the interior. The Li are Hainan’s original people, who settled here almost 2,000 years ago and lived a primeval existence until the 1930s. The Central Highlands around Tongshi offer glimpses into their unique culture.
Strong overseas connections have meant that in the last 20 years, money has poured back into the South. China’s more flexible modern economy as well as large investments from Hong Kong have also enhanced the region’s affluence. Development has been rapid, propelling the growth of new cities, such as Shenzhen, helped by their status as Special Economic Zones. Inspired by Hong Kong’s sleek, contemporary architecture, construction has been frantic and the proliferation of high-rise buildings has transformed the skyline of historic cities.
There are still many hidden gems to explore among the region’s skyscrapers and new developments. Chief among these are Guangzhou’s Nan Yue Tomb, the rarely-visited Chaozhou with its still-intact Ming city wall, and one of China’s oldest mosques in Quanzhou. Some of the finest examples of colonial architecture can be seen in Macau and on the islet of Gulang Yu in Xiamen. Tropical Hainan’s main appeal lies in its beaches, but the mountainous center is worth exploring as well. Finally, there is always Hong Kong, a frenetic, cosmopolitan city that vibrates day and night with an energy that is in keeping with its status as a global financial center.
Rice has long been vital to the Chinese as both a food staple and a cash crop. So intrinsic to life is the grain that “Chi fan le ma?” (Have you eaten rice today?) is one of the most common greetings in China. Rice-growing is thought to have its origins in southern China around 10,000 BC, although the flooded-field method that allowed larger yields and required massive irrigation projects was not perfected until thousands of years later. Today, rice is grown throughout much of China and accounts for 35 percent of the world’s total.
Vast areas of China are dominated by rice cultivation, and paddy fields have transformed the landscape, especially in the subtropical regions of the south, where cascades of terraces clothe many hillsides. Low mudbanks trap the water as it trickles down the slopes, creating an attractive sequence of narrow, contour-hugging fields which are worked mainly by hand. Farmers are not completely reliant on rainfall because the water flow is carefully controlled, as is the depth, which is typically 6 in (15 cm). Ever resourceful, some farmers raise edible fish such as grass carp in the paddy waters.
produce dense flowerheads, with the
grains tightly packed inside protective husks.
The Chinese have found many uses for their pervasive staple. During the Ming dynasty, builders used water in which glutinous rice had been cooked as mortar mix to strengthen defensive walls. Rice straw, the leaves of the plant left after harvest, is pulped to produce a fine white paper, perfect for paintings and kites. Husks are used as fertilizer, packing material, or simply fed to animals. Rice is ground to produce rice flour which can be rolled and pulled to create a huge range of noodles. Numerous rice wines are sold in China, some of them quite palatable, including sweet Shaoxing, made from glutinous rice.
animals thrive in the waterlogged conditions, produce valuable manure, and require
less maintenance than tractors.
In much of rural China, rice growing is very much a hands-on activity, and traditional methods are still used, especially in hilly country. The work is labor-intensive, but the two or three harvests a year that are possible in the south make the efforts worthwhile.
Rice seedlings are grown in special protected beds. After about 40 days they are transplanted by hand to the paddies.
|Planting is tiring, back-breaking work, and in some areas is now mechanized. Teams of workers wade through the paddy fields planting the seedlings one by one.||At harvest time, the fields are drained before the rice plants are cut either by hand-held sickle or by machine.||To dry the rice, mounds of freshly harvested grain are raked out in a thin layer and left to warm in the sun.||Winnowing, tossing or pouring the rice from a basket, separates the dried rice grains from their husks – the wind carries away the chaff|
Regional Food: the South
The southern school of Chinese cooking, called by the generic name Cantonese, is centered around Guangzhou, where the Pearl River delta runs into the South China Sea. Situated at the mouth of this estuary lies Hong Kong, another culinary center of China. Fish, of course, plays a major role in this coastal economy and rice is the dominant food grain. Other food crops include tea, peanuts, sugar cane, and subtropical fruits such as bananas, pineapples, oranges, and lychees. Large-scale emigration from the south has meant that Chinese food served outside China is likely be southern Chinese cooking.
on display in the market
The epicenter of Chinese cuisine, Guangzhou owes its culinary primacy to its geography. As a port it had a well-off, cosmopolitan merchant class who could afford expensive foods. It also has a subtropical climate and a summer that lasts for almost six months, with the rest of the year divided into autumn and spring: there is no winter. As a result crops grow luxuriantly all year round and supplement the abundance of fish. Despite this fecundity, the size of the population the land has to support means that it has always struggled to provide enough food. Therefore the Cantonese also eat less expensive “delicacies” not popular in other provinces such as frogs’ legs, turtles, dogs, snakes, and nearly every kind of animal there is. Food has become almost a religion to the Cantonese and the locals claim that in Guangzhou “there is a restaurant every five steps.”
Chaozhou & Dongjiang
Chaozhou (also known as Teochew) is a richer cuisine than Cantonese. Because this cuisine specializes in shellfish and seafood, freshness is vital – hence the emphasis on buying live animals or fish, be it at a market or restaurant. They like to use stocks flavoured with fish sauce, hot sauce, or red rice vinegar. Dongjiang is a more rustic and salty cooking – soy-cured bacon and air-dried sausages are a specialty – and it also uses more poultry. This cooking is also sometimes known as Hakka, meaning “family of guests,” which refers to the immigrants from northern China who settled in the south some time after the invasion by Mongols in the thirteenth century. Later there were other large-scale migrations overseas, one of the reasons why most Chinese restaurants in the West serve only southern Chinese (Cantonese) food.
Although mainly Chinese, Hong Kong is a unique city in China: as an international port, it has been open to outside influences. So, while most of the restaurants are Cantonese, you will also find all the regional Chinese cuisines here alongside those from other Asian countries and Europe. A gastronomic supermarket, Hong Kong doesn’t really have a specialty dish although some claim that “smelly beancurd” (a pungent type of fermented tofu) fulfils that role. Hong Kong is a 24-hour city and, all day every day, all the food places, from the humble street stands to the luxury banqueting halls are filled with people eating. The story goes that you could visit a different restaurant each day for a year, and never eat the same dish twice.
On the menu
Seafood with vegetables A popular dish of prawns, squid, and scallops stir-fried with whatever vegetables are available and noodles.
“White-cut” chicken A whole chicken blanched in boiling water or stock, then left to cool in the liquid under cover for 6–8 hours. Tender and moist.
Stir-fried squid with black bean sauce In fact any seafood such as crab, lobster, or prawns may be substituted for the squid. This can also be made with chilies for a more spicy alternative.
Eight-treasure stuffed beancurd The stuffing is pork and prawn – vegetarians should stick with the Eight-treasure Buddha’s Special (see Regional Food: Central China).
Steamed chicken with dried mushrooms Chicken pieces steamed with Chinese mushrooms – simple but great.
A Selection of dim dishes
Regional Dishes and Specialties
Most people probably associate Cantonese cuisine with dim sum (meaning “dot on the heart” or “snack”), delectable, dainty bites of steamed or fried food: dumplings with prawn or pork fillings, miniature spareribs, deep-fried spring rolls, paper-wrapped prawns, chicken feet, or glossy custard-filled tarts. These snacks are to be eaten during the day for lunch with pots of tea, never as dinner. Other famous specialties are the fish and shellfish dishes, and roast meats – duck, cha shao (roast pork), and suckling pig. Key to the southern school of cuisine are its various sauces. Although such fresh food is often quickly steamed with a few simple aromatics, sauces such as oyster, hoi sin (sweet soy bean and garlic), mushroom, lemon, black bean and chu hou (soy bean, garlic and ginger) are also used to add flavor.
|Steamed seabass: steamed with scallions and ginger, and seasoned with light soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil.||Lobster with ginger & scallions: lobster braised with aromatics and served on a bed of soft noodles.||Oyster sauce beef: stir-fried beef with mushrooms and vegetables, all cut to the same size, in oyster sauce.||Roast meats: choice cuts of suckling pig, duck, pork, and chicken served cold with tasty dipping sauces.|