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Enter the Kung-Foodies

Kick off a visit to this southern Chinese city by paying homage to iconic martial artists and historic temples, before eating your fill in a UNESCO-listed center of gastronomy

By Yajing Zhang Updated May.1

The main hall of Foshan Ancestral Temple, now Foshan Zumiao Museum, December 5, 2021(Photo by VCG)

Foshan means Buddha Mountain. However, confoundingly, it doesn’t really have any significant Buddhist sites. Or really any mountains. It is said that the city got its name when three bronze sculptures of Buddha were discovered in 628 CE. Blessed by these auspicious discoveries, the city’s good luck and strategic position in Guangdong Province’s Pearl River Delta has brought it richness in wealth and culture. Foshan is regarded as the birthplace of Cantonese opera and famous martial artists, including the teacher of kung-fu star Bruce Lee. It connects Guangzhou, the capital of the province to the north, with Hong Kong and Macao to its south. Besides being one of China’s richest cities, Foshan can also boast of being one of the happiest, according to a survey from two years ago.  

One way that living in, or visiting, Foshan might make you happy is its walkability with restaurants, parks and temples usually a short stroll away along narrow streets lined with refreshing gardenias. 

Worship the Gods 
As is the typical fate of many Chinese cities which have exploded in size in recent decades, many of Foshan’s traditional buildings have been demolished, a lucky few have been rebuilt, and an even luckier fraction have been protected. When you stroll in downtown Foshan, you can come across one of this fortunate minority – Pei De Li ancient residential compound, an over 100-year-old community with many two-story brick houses, still occupied by locals. It is said the delicate southern China style complex was built by a silk merchant, who wanted his children to study hard and become moral exemplars. Its whitewashed walls have been darkened by the mold propagated by the region’s hot, humid weather. Bunches of wires dangle across stone alleyways painted with colorful, but fading propaganda murals. If you look up, you may spot a few pieces of preserved pork tied to racks beside drying clothes. If you look down, you can find two small ceramic censers on the wall beside every home’s front door. It is said these are for praying specifically to the god of the soil and the ground.  

One ancient landmark that is hard to miss is Foshan Ancestral Temple. This red and black Taoist temple complex was originally built nearly 1,000 years ago for worshiping Beidi, the leader of all gods in Foshan. Now, it feels something like a gallery, where you can find memorials for Confucius and martial arts masters. The main hall exhibits many valuable works of art including huge bronze mirrors, bronze bells and ceremonial weapons.  

The architecture itself is a work of art. Countless delicate figures from local dramas are densely carved on its plaster and brick walls, on the green-grey rove edged with flying rafters, or on its thick, precious-wood beams. Another of its distinctive features is its six-meter high Wan Fu stage, meaning “abundant fortune.” It is the best-preserved and most magnificent ancient stage in southern China. The gilded-wood stage has hosted innumerable premiers and is seen as a fundamental venue for the development of Cantonese opera.  

It is also a community gathering spot where locals gather to celebrate Chinese traditional holidays, and hold cultural activities like community drinking rituals and a ceremony to start preschool children off on their journey from illiteracy to literacy. Usually these come with lion dances, Cantonese opera and martial arts performances by young and old. Such performances are also open to the public. If you want to experience dynamic drumming, singing and roaring, go to the Ancestral Temple at 10am, 2:15pm or 3:30pm on any day of the week.  

Two martial art masters, Huang Feihong (1847-1925) and Ip Man (1893-1972), have their memorial halls in the Ancestral Temple. These two kung-fu legends were born in Foshan and were active in the late 1800s and 1900s, influencing numerous disciples with their own style, including Bruce Lee in Ip Man’s case.  

This chaotic time of revolution, civil war, invasion, and warlord battles cultivated their virtues, and they’ve both become famous as patriotic icons who protected the common people from mistreatment. Foshan’s martial art history stretches back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In this thriving port, tough fighters were in need to protect valuable assets and the lives of local power players. The local casting industry bred strong workers with the heft for fighting. In the two halls, you can find exhibitions of novels, films, plays and even comics about the masters, and you can also find the only real photo of Huang Feihong in China. 

City of Gastronomy 
Away from downtown, there is a whole district famous for its unique cuisine – Shunde. It takes about 30 minutes by car to get there from the city center. This region is one of the cradles of Cantonese cuisine but hasits own cooking philosophy. An old saying recommends you “eat in Guangzhou but from a Shunde kitchen.” Foodies treat this place as a must-visit destination, and it has won global recognition as the sixth place in the world to be named one of UNESCO’s Cities of Gastronomy. Shunde cuisine follows the bounty of the local environment and pays special attention to retaining the ingredients’ original flavor, fragrance and taste through diverse and complicated cooking methods. Its delicacies are characterized by six keywords – “light, fresh, crispy, tender, smooth and genuine.”  

Thanks to its great location in the river delta, locals have over the centuries created a unique agricultural ecosystem integrated with fish farming, sericulture, poultry and sugar production. This rich life has provided people with fresh ingredients, free time and inspiration for developing and studying fine cooking recipes and techniques.  

Any restaurant you step into will not let you down, no matter how humble-looking. Although there are hundreds of dishes, there are a few must-eats worth pointing out. Sauna fish, in which sliced freshwater carp is steamed with a herby soup, offering tender flesh and fragrant soup; chicken in four seasonings, which is simply cooked in water, Chinese cooking wine, sugar and soy sauce, offering diners crispy skin and tender meat and double-skin milk which is made with milk, egg whites and sugar, prepared to a creamy, delightful consistency.  

As an old Cantonese saying goes “eat wisely, live positively.” Foshan can offer you some of China’s best, from food to traditional arts and economic development. If you want a nourishing experience from the tip of your tongue to the center of your spirit, Foshan might be the place for you.

An alleyway in the historic Pei De Li residential compound, Foshan (Photo by Yajing Zhang)