MECO360: Guangzhou Delta Haiku

Lucas Ihlein | 9 May 2016

I’m writing this contribution to the MECO360 shortly after returning from the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou. I’ve been working on a cultural exchange project sponsored by 4A Centre for Contemporary Art (Sydney) and Observation Society (Guangzhou).

Sydney and Guangzhou are sister cities. Did you know that? Well, 2016 is the 30th anniversary of this siblinghood, and to celebrate I was invited to go and and embody the relationship by hanging out with Guangzhou/Hong Kong artist Trevor Yeung.

We spent several days together. For me, there was a process of geographical adjustment, as the view from my window radically shifted – from this (where I live in Bulli, north of Wollongong):

Tall gum trees on old
Asbestos dump near the sea
Hide the horizon

view from bulli window

…to this (in the Guangzhou district of Haizhu):

Vertical City:
Forty-sixth floor horizon,
Bright blue roofs below.

guangzhou view from hotel room

After I posted this photo of Guangzhou on my blog, I noticed a dark line surrounded by trees curving through the city. A creek!

In the following days, Trevor and I – together with our trusty local guide Hanting – went on some meandering walks around Guangzhou’s waterways. We walked as a way of getting to know Guangzhou, and each other. Sometimes when we tried to follow the creek we were blocked by busy roads or construction.

Street water flows;
Overflow pipe drains;
River meets rubble.

small river linking pearl river

Blockages like this forced us to make detours into the small back streets adjacent to the creek, where we discovered odd couplings.

Stone elephant’s leg
Tethered to folding bike —
Bike tethered to elephant.

elephant bike tether

The waterways are habitat and transport and sustenance and midden to humans and animals and plants.

Tadpoles in dead boat.
Mosquitoes bite her ankles.
Sofa in the drink.

guangzhou waterways

Wherever you are in Guangzhou – which comprises a network of cities that have all grown so large they have joined up into one of the world’s biggest “mega-cities” – you’re never far from water.

In Guangzhou I began to be aware of the complex water flows that comprise the Pearl River Delta upon which this place is built. I didn’t realise it until much later, but as we wandered around, my eyes and my camera were seeking out delta-like patterns everywhere.

Seen from space: Branching
and dividing. Seen from earth:
Branching and dividing.

pearl river delta satellite
tree roots

By definition, the land within a delta is very low lying – whatever is above the waterline is formed by the deposition of silt as the river makes its way to the sea. So this makes the Pearl River Delta region – and the 25 million people that live there – especially vulnerable to the sea level rising from climate change.

Well, I looked it up, and this is what I found. Of all the cities in the entire world, Guangzhou is listed at number one. Guangzhou is THE single city most likely to suffer damage due to sea level rises:

In terms of the overall cost of damage, the cities at the greatest risk are: 1) Guangzhou, 2) Miami, 3) New York, 4) New Orleans, 5) Mumbai, 6) Nagoya, 7) Tampa, 8) Boston, 9) Shenzen, and 10) Osaka. The top four cities alone account for 43% of the forecast total global losses.

So it looks like future of Guangzhou is going to be increasingly watery. How will it evolve? What kinds of decisions will the city make to survive over the next couple of hundred years? What does survival even mean?

Habitat, transport,
Sustenance, trash disposal:
Everyday life.

What do people who live here think about all this?

I’ll be continuing to explore this phenomenon as I work towards a joint exhibition with Trevor Yeung at Observation Society in June 2016, and later at Gallery 4A in July.