When I tell friends at home I live in Guangzhou, it often warrants a quizzical look and a nod of feigned recognition. I can almost see the eyes of even the worldliest of friends roll back into their brain as they access their mental Rolodex of Chinese cities. I list a few references in an attempt to provide context, including its proximity to Hong Kong, Foxconn, and the regional claim to dim sum. Not until I drop its pre-modern Chinese name, Canton, does a nod of understanding suddenly appear.
As a denizen of Guangzhou, you're no stranger to the Canton Fair that triples the city's number of foreigners and, more aggravatingly, cancels normal happy hour offers throughout the city twice a year. Held since 1957, the Canton Fair is China's oldest and largest trade fair, and one of Guangzhou's longest-standing claims to world recognition. Even when China was closed off to the world in the 1960's and 1970's, the Canton Fair remained in operation as the only accessible window to China and foreign trade. In 1978, when the country began economic reforms that opened China to foreign investments and encouraged economic trade, the Canton Fair blossomed. The last session of the Canton Fair, held in October 2011, hosted 24,231 exhibitors, and welcomed 209,175 buyers from around the world. With 58,714 standard booths set up over an area of 1,160,000m2, the fair saw a turnover of approximately 37.9 billion USD.
Today, China is a powerhouse for the production and export of goods. As a manufacturing and trade giant coming into the 21st century, it is easy to forget that China was not always as open to foreign investments as it is today. In fact, it was not until the 20th century that China finally fully opened its economy to absolute free trade. Living in Guangzhou, where the Canton Fair attracts thousands of foreign trade opportunities twice every year, it's hard to imagine a time when the city – neigh, country – was not known for such.
Before providing a roundup of specifics for the 1111th session of the Canton Fair that is quickly approaching in April, I figured it would be a good time to delve deeper into our region's past and provide a brief history of China's trade and foreign relation activities. This country has retained a practice of trade and prosperous economic development despite its famed resistance to foreign influences. And through the centuries of turmoil, Canton has remained in the centre of it all.
A touch of history
Trade in China had, in fact, been established in China as early as the 7th and 8th century, with the Silk Road bringing Persians and Muslims far into the Middle Kingdom out towards China's coastal cities. Early in its existence, Canton was known throughout the empire as the “Provincial City”, despite its purposeful distance from the capital of Peking. The South China region was consistently among the likes of Persian and Arab traders, and by the 13th century long-distance trade with the Middle East was so established that self-governing Muslim communities had been established in select cities throughout the region.
By the 17th century, Muslim cultures made way for stronger European nations, who were looking at trade routes to the East for silks, spices and other goods. England and their powerful East India Company turned to China for another profitable natural and abundant resource: Tea. The year 1685 was a marked year for the two nations, as China saw the first arrival of British trade ships from the British East India Company in Southern China's Pearl River Delta.
Over time tensions from strict rules, lack of reciprocal trade, and stagnant relations among the two sides led to a breakdown of East India Company's monopoly within China's borders. In 1834, free trade finally opened within China, and over the following years, more treaties allowed the opening of more ports, invited more trade with an increased roster of nations, allowed missionaries, invited foreigners to learn Chinese in designated schools, and finally established an embassy in Beijing.
Coming into the 20th century, foreigners were allowed into ports and could interact and dress as they pleased – a first in China's history. Travel was allowed within cities, and foreigners built railways and boats connecting trade from North to South. Consular appointments by foreign governments were made in China, and communication with Chinese officials developed. The opening to free trade that began from Canton two centuries ago spread throughout the country, which required China to establish a national customs office, as well as foreign affairs ministry. Finally in 1978, economic reforms pushed China to pursue foreign investments with a vigour that we know today. An explosion in manufacturing and production, coupled with China's population boom and undying support from its government helped develop an unparalleled trade economy, where platforms such as the Canton Fair have become the largest and most popular of its kind.
What this year has in store
The 111th Canton Fair will be held at the China Import and Export Fair Complex in Pazhou, home to the Fair since 2008. The Fair is divided into three phases. Phase I will be held April 15-19, featuring electronics, appliances, vehicles, lighting, hardware and tools, and small machinery. Phase II is held from April 23-27, promoting household items, kitchenware, clocks, toys, gifts, artwork and general consumer goods. Phase III will be from May 1-5, displaying clothing, home textiles and linens, shoes, office supplies, medicines and medical supplies and food.
Though export is the predominant business at the Fair, import business is also done. Since the 101st Canton Fair, an International Pavilion has opened in an effort to encourage imports in China and expose various international enterprises to a platform where trade can be developed. The International Pavilion is open during Phases I and III. The last session of the fair saw 529 exhibitors from 49 different countries in its International Pavilion.
Entry for all participants is permitted with an Entry Badge (IC Card), only. Buyers and exhibitors can pre-register for a badge online, or at the registration offices at the Canton Fair complex. Select hotels throughout the city have also been appointed as registration points. Passports are necessary at the time of registration or pick-up. There is a processing fee of 100 RMB, but the badge is good for all future visits to the Canton Fair. If you have lost your badge, an extra charge of 200 RMB must be paid to re-issue a new one. Registration for badges peaks on the mornings of the first two days of each session of the fair, so if you plan to get your badge at this time keep in mind there may be delays in processing. An infographic for the registration process is displayed here.
Despite the expected swell in population for the Canton Fair, Guangzhou's transportation system is enabled to handle the excess. Taxis will be abundant, as always. If sitting in traffic does not suit you, metro lines provide easy access to the Fair's facilities. Various hotels through the city provide their own shuttle services, or you can look for the free shuttle buses that are offered by the Canton Fair. The pick-up locations are at various hotels throughout the city, and can found here.
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Keywords: Canton Fair International Pavilion Guangzhou exhibitions Guangzhou 2012 events Guangdong opening to trade China’s oldest trade fair
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