January 17, 2019

China: Glimpses of life in my neighborhood

By John Guy LaPlante  /  with  photos

     Sorry for the  delay in getting this to  you. Blame my big computer / Internet problems here.

    I write this in Fangcun, which is a small section of huge Guangzhou, population 16 million. No way can I see that whole immense city. But what I see here in my backyard, so to speak, gives me a good idea of what life is like in much of Guangzhou, even China, I believe. And I see lots of interesting things.


But first, this above is my home here. It’s the HI Riverside Youth Hostel. Hostelling International is truly international. I’ve stayed at numerous HI hostels in country after country because of their high standards and quality. Youth Hostel is a misnomer. That’s how HI started. Today its hostels welcome “youths” of all ages, even a rare octogenarian like me. What’s important in hostelling is a youthful spirit, I like to think.

Few youths here in this season. They are all in college. Many Chinese and foreign guests. This morning I met Alexandrine, a lady from France, doing some kind of study here. Yesterday Albert, about 45, from England. He told me he has been in 52 countries. Hasn’t lived in England for years—much too expensive. Told me it’s easy for him to find work here.

Anyway, I have the very nicest room, a big private with excellent bathroom, a huge bed, a couch and comfy chairs, nice lamps, even a desk. It’s all quite luxurious by hostel standards, for $45 a night—very high for a hostel.

My room is on the second floor (out of sight in this photo) but like the one just to the left of the vertical sign. I love my balcony. I look down on the boulevard, then a pretty park, and right behind it, the big, broad Pearl River, with ships going up and down. All the street activity right below is totally fascinating.

It’s an easy and interesting walk to the ferries that criss-cross the river, to the Metro, and to the busy downtown area. I’ve hit it lucky here.

~ ~ ~


This mural is at the ferry dock nearby. This mural fronts a store there. It’s a panorama of the Pearl River with Guangzhou sprawling behind it—in fact, on both shores of it.

The minute I saw it, I thought, “This is wonderful! Everybody will see what a big and modern and dynamic city Guangzhou really is!”

I find it as impressive as many of our big cities in the U.S.

I knew nothing about Guangzhou just a few weeks ago. Now I can have you appreciate it a little bit, too.

~ ~ ~


It’s warm here, sometimes hot, even now. This is the southwestern corner of China. Similar to Miami and San Diego, say. There is a busy, busy, busy street life. Hundreds of tiny shops sell everything imaginable, and the sidewalks are crowded with all kinds of tiny businesses that set up just for the day, then return for the next day and the next.

This is a cosmetician doing her thing, one of many offering the same service. Why is she wearing a mask? Not sure. I know many Chinese are germ conscious.

~ ~ ~


This bicycle parking lot tells the story. Automobiles are becoming much more popular, but millions ride bikes the way we drive cars.

The bicycles make sense. They cost little, last for years, don’t require gas and oil, are easy to pedal in this flat area, can be comfortably ridden 12 months a year, and are good exercise. True, some riders move up to bikes with tiny motors, and others to motor scooters and motorcycles. In that way, they’re just like us Americans.

By the way, this is a secured bike lot—there are thieves here, too.

I rode a bike for years. If I were a bit younger, I’d be riding a bike here for sure.

~ ~ ~


I’m on the ferry heading up the Pearl River, and having a grand time, as you can tell. That spectacular skyline behind me is Guangzhou’s left bank. The right bank is just as dramatic. And the skyline gets more spectacular as we move ahead. It’s a long parade of office buildings, hotels, government buildings, apartment houses.

Both shores are lined by splendid esplanades. People can walk, relax, get fresh air, enjoy looking at the river traffic.

I’ve taken this ride every day, in late afternoon. So enjoyable. It’s five stops…about 45 minutes…to the university, which is the end of the line for this ferry. A huge and impressive campus, by the way.

There, a 30-minute wait, and another 45 minutes back. Two yuan each way—about 35 cents. Camil took this photo. He’s my friend the Canadian photojournalist who is here for a long time, he keeps telling me. Because he likes it so much.

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Camil and I with two brand-new friends, both students at the University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The two of us were having lunch outdoors at a nice little restaurant on an island across from our hostel. They came along, and with great big, irresistible smiles.

“Hello!” they said. “Where are you from?” Well, we asked them to join us at our table and the four of us talked and talked for an hour and a half.

That’s a common ploy for Chinese students, by the way—to butter up to American tourists. The kids study English—make that American English, please—watch American movies, dream of getting to the U.S.A, and are dying to practice their English and make American friends.

It was Saturday, so no school. These two wonderful gals traveled an hour and a half by Metro to reach this island, which is famous for attracting tourists. So smart kids and in more than one way.

Sorry, as much as I’d like to remember their names, I can’t. But they all take on American names. It’s a popular thing. So I’ll call them Robin, in front, and Sara, in rear. They were endearing. And wonderfully spirited.

I asked them why they wanted to become doctors. Sara told me, “I want to help old people. I love old people. Love them, love them, love them!. That is my dream!” Of course, both of us were aware she was talking to a very, very old man.

Camil was chatting with Robin mostly. I found Sara so sweet and I had a grand time. I asked her tons of questions.

She talked about serious things. “Very difficult to get higher education,” she told me. “Costs much money. My family is very poor. But they do everything they can to help me.”

One of her comments surprised me. “You two,” she said, pointing to Camil and me, “have been so kind to us. Most tourists say to us, ‘Go away! Go away!’ Or they will not look at us. All we want to do is be nice Chinese students and be friendly.”

That made Camil and me feel pretty good. She’ll be a wonderful doctor, I’m sure.

~ ~ ~


China has a population of 1 billion, 300 million people, and it’s growing. What do do about that? Severe restrictions on family size, for one thing, but relaxing now. And mass housing like this. Small apartments, but adequate, and with good plumbing and heat.

Notice the laundry drying. That says something. Notice all the plants. It reminds me greatly of Ukraine. Thousands of buildings like this. True of the whole Soviet world.

After the huge destruction of World War II, millions of people needed good, cheap housing fast, and such buildings were the solution.

During my hitch in Peace Corps, I lived with two families in buildings like this. And I found little to complain about. No elevators in buildings up to five floors, by the way. Walk up and walk down, with groceries, baby carriage, bicycle, whatever. Not surprising that I lost weight.

No obesity here that I’ve observed. For an American, that’s a startling contrast to our situation back home. On the other hand, so many of them seem to be chain smokers—despite a huge tax on cigarettes. Camil smokes a lot and he is the one who told me about the tax.

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Early one morning I looked out my window and was surprised to see a huge 18-wheel truck piled high with bags of something or other. Four men were unloading it. By hand, mind you. It was all one man could do to toss one off the truck, and for another to pick it up.

One man would load nine of them—exactly nine—on a two-wheel hand truck, and haul it away. Each man would do the same thing. Deliver the load somewhere nearby, then come back for another. I thought it would take them most of the day to unload the truck. They got it done in an hour and a half!

I found out the bags contained some kind of vegetation. It was all going to some kind of chemical factory in the neighborhood.

Back in the U.S. one man with a fork-lift truck would have done the job. There’s still an awful lot of old-fashioned manual labor going on here. With China having such a huge pool of labor, I guess it’s cheaper to use people rather than machines.

When these men got through, they looked fit and ready to unload another big truck. But that one truckload was it for the day.

~ ~ ~

Got to tell you it’s one fascinating sight after another here. No time for boredom! I hope to send you more “glimpses” shortly.






  1. Toni Gonzalez says:

    John..I am fascinated by your experiences and enjoy every one of them…It is like traveling with you. Lots of information..and stories.
    Thank you for sharing.
    I did find China to be an absolute joy .when I visited 3 years ago.

  2. jim davis says:

    John! great picture of you! you almost look chinese. :):) jim

  3. Andrew Katsanis says:

    Greetings John, I knew I would get to China someday. I finally made it with you. I enjoyed every word. You continue to be my role model. I only wish I could be two persons so I could do what I do everyday and the other person would be with you. Sara sends her best wishes.Andrew

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