Memories of the colors of China

Guangzhou by night
Guangzhou by night (Photo credit: micmac9a)

  The color that describes China best might be red. The flag of China is red with five yellow stars. But in southern China where I lived for ten years green was also dominate. Trees, grass and foliage were green all year because it didn’t freeze there.

  Imagine a country so different and so far away that it is completely unlike the world we live in here in America. China is a country of ancient customs, traditions and religions. It was much different in 1989 when I first arrived there than it is now.  

  Foreign countries have traded with China through the southern city of Canton (also called Guangzhou) for over 2000 years.  Travel northwest up the Pearl River from Hong Kong about four hours by boat or two hours by train to reach it. Green rice paddies and brown muddy water of the flooded fields are everywhere.

  Even after living there ten years, I found that it was more mysterious than the travel books describe. The sights, smells, sounds, and experiences are like nothing I ever imagined. The streets are jammed with people. It is amazing to walk down the street and see the sights:  huge red Chinese characters written on walls; bright red, green, and yellow clothes; ancient architecture; shops that sell tea, Buddhist idols, kites, colorful pottery, tropical fruits of all kinds, many green leafy vegetables as well as melons of all kinds, or toys. Each shop sells something different. Once, while walking down the street, I smelled the pungent combination of teas from a tea shop.  I went in and looked over the dozens of different kinds of teas and finally decided on a variety of green tea called “Special Gunpowder” which makes a brown tea which looks almost like muddy water.

    Some of the most interesting places in Canton, a city of ten million people, are the back alleys. Grey apartment buildings, usually eight stories or taller, are built close together with only a narrow alley between them. The alleys are rather dark because the buildings shade them from the sun and are damp from the high humidity. Walking through them near mealtime, one can hear the hiss of garlic being thrown into hot peanut oil in a wok. The smell of peanut oil, fresh ginger root and sesame oil is often the dominant scents in these narrow passageways. One can hear conversations in many different dialects that form the sing-song languages of Chinese. During the hour-long break after lunch that everyone takes, you can often hear the click-clack of mahjong tiles being shuffled together. Mahjong is played with tiles similar to dominoes but the game resembles Gin Rummy.

   Guangzhou is famous for food. Dim Sum is eaten in the morning. It is not one kind of food, but an assortment of many different low- priced delicacies such as wontons, hand-pulled noodles, tiny yellow egg custard pies, specially flavored meat balls, duck eggs salted in the shell, special cuts of sautéed meat, pastries, and many other foods. It is fun to sit in a teahouse in the morning and drink tea and eat Dim Sum. Waitresses push carts loaded with small bamboo baskets full of many kinds of delicious foods.

   Looking out the window of a tea house, one can see the beautiful sub-tropical foliage such as the wide green leaves of banana plants and the even larger elephant ear plants which can be several feet wide.   There are slender tan bamboo stalks taller than buildings, white orchids, palm trees, and a wide variety of plants sprinkled with bursts of red, pink, yellow flowers. Many of the parks have dozens of kinds of interesting trees, shrubs, plants and flowers. One of the beautiful things about Southern China is the abundance of bamboo. I have never seen more delicate leaves than the long, slender light-green bamboo leaves. Guangzhou was voted one of the top ten Garden Cities in the world. Because the temperature doesn’t go below freezing, they can grow many different kinds of plants and trees not found in other areas of the world.


  1. Awesome descriptive post. Thank you. I have always wanted to go to China or Japan. Your description of sights, sounds, lights, colors and smells is fun and allows me to imagine. Thanks again for the post.

  2. It must be lovely to live somewhere which doesn’t freeze – I used to when I lived in the Outer Hebrides west of Scotland – it was great! I keep thinking, due to our increasingly high rainfall and constantly flooded state of our landscape, we should take up growing rice in the UK – we’d need a ‘cold variety’ though to cope with our overly cold climate!

    I’d like to see China (the countryside not the cities) but it worries me how badly they treat food animals. I don’t eat meat anyway but it would still upset me seeing it.

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