Guangzhou's qilou structures started as a pragmatic solution to dodge bad weather but have ended up becoming an architectural fingerprint that makes locals proud, Raymond Zhou finds.
I didn't realize the beauty of Guangzhou's qilou until a recent rainy day when I was caught in a rainstorm in Beijing and had to find temporary shelter at the entrance of a residential hotel. It has a covered patio that serves as a doorway. Usually, it is the place where people pause for a second before proceeding into the premise or onto the street. That day, a bunch of pedestrians huddled there, not knowing how long we would need to stay put to stay dry.
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Seeing no sign of the rain abating, the concierge asked us to leave, saying this is a private property and we were blocking the way of their patrons. So, without umbrellas or raincoats, we had to step into the precipitation. If this were Beijing Road in Guangzhou, I thought to myself, nobody would have driven me away.
When I first lived in Guangdong's provincial capital as a graduate student in the 1980s, Beijing Road was the retail center that drew huge crowds every day.
As is typical of the local weather, rainstorms would lash the city without warning, except perhaps a crash of thunder minutes before the downpour. Pedestrians would vanish into the buildings that flank the street, but they could still do their window-shopping and go from one end of the street to the other.
Literally, qilou is a straddling building. You can see it as the ground floor opening for public access, or a sidewalk which is topped with higher floors.
Not the whole ground floor, mind you, just the width of a small store or that of a walkway. I never figured out whether that is public or private property, but whoever the owner is, he or she does not mind you lingering.
Qilou feels like a roofed corridor. You are shielded from the elements, yet you retain the sense you're part of the hustle and bustle of the street.
As shops place some of their merchandise outside the door and onto the qilou, you also feel you are walking along aisles of a store, of course not as neatly stacked as in a supermarket, but no less diverse in assortment. There are also small vendors who set up shop exclusively inside the qilou, offering knickknacks and knockoffs for impulse purchase.
Qilou is supported with thick columns, onto which are posted the ubiquitous flyers and leaflets.
Nowadays, these have become the target for cleanup, and the columns are restored the majesty of their old days. If you bother to step out of the qilou and look at the whole building, you'll find it usually has a somewhat Western style.
That is because the architectural form was a product of urbanization in the early 20th century.