This is Dongguan

Trip Start Sep 30, 2005
Trip End Jun 04, 2006

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The factory of Southern China. I'm not sure I know anyone who really admits to liking Dongguan, and I know many who are a little uneasy about the place. For all that this city might be governed by communist authorities gone totalitarian, the daily life of the city is more akin to capitalism gone anarchistic. The city is unashamedly about making money. Nobody hides from that fact, whether they like it or not. Personally, I'm fascinated by the place and the opportunities and freedom that exist here. There are structures in the background but prima facie it's an open playing field for anyone with the guts to try and make something happen (as long as you don't stand on the wrong toes).

For somewhere people deny that they like, almost all the people I know here, Chinese or foreign, are here because they choose to be. Perhaps it's because - even if they dislike elements of the life here - they are determined to shape their own lives and futures. It's an environment with relatively few restrictions and fewer templates meaning that aspirations of all types can be realised. Maybe that's why there are so many people here I like. You can be here and be brave enough to break the mould, question the status quo and try to do what you want to do, thereby shaping your own life.

For all but the fortunate few, or those who choose to manage their time more carefully, a common theme is that work is an almost non-stop preoccupation. Bosses think nothing of calling a meeting on a Sunday night and staff think nothing of unquestioning compliance with short notice requests to work more. Working 6 days a week is the norm in Chinese organisations. As harsh as this seems and as different as it is to the cosseted working culture of Western Europe, I can only admire the commitment, determination, dedication and dare I say it, abuse of this trait. This work culture is not just about big companies though, you see people everyday in the lanes of the Hutong, working in Dickensian conditions or running family businesses from their only room which opens onto the street. There's an ongoing animation to the city that is driven by economic survival and change.

As a visitor observing all this, there is a chasm that I can't reconcile. At today's prices I can, as a visitor, afford to eat, shop or socialise wherever I choose although this won't be the case for long such is the pace of economic growth. However, I'm often scornfully disdainful of the shining new shopping malls that offer the model for the future. They're boring and soulless by comparison with the grime, activity, odours and close packed humanity of the Hutong which are far more interesting and enjoyable to visit. I wouldn't for a minute deny the people who live there the right to more financial wealth, or space, or privacy and a better quality of life as a result of their endeavours, but if they are all successful that might perversely take away that which I enjoy. I feel guilty about appreciating the fact that some people live in this hand-to-mouth style, apparently healthy but hovering close to abject poverty. Of course, it is the extreme contrast to what I know that is really the attraction, but this is the traveller's dilemma the world over. However, in a city where there is also such incredible wealth, the situation seems perverse. I can only console myself that wealth alone is no guarantee of happiness for the people of the Hutong or anyone else.

With the money, there comes a huge immigrant population seeking streets paved with gold and the wealth gap almost inevitably leads to crime. Theft and robbery seems to be spiralling out of control, most often at the hands of the snatch and grab motorcycle gangs but also through some ingenious scamming or stealing. This crime epidemic strikes me as somewhat ironic in a police state. Everybody I meet has either suffered crime themselves or knows a close friend or relative who has suffered. In saying this I don't feel frightened or intimidated walking around, and I can't help wondering whether many Chinese have grown up in crime free environments and therefore lack some of the peripheral awareness of their surroundings and the risks that they might be exposing themselves too. In London or New York you'd call it being streetwise.

The wealthier citizens of Dongguan inhabit gated communities of beautiful villas. $500,000 will buy you a villa on the golf course where I had a great afternoon beating Alain (sorry mate!). The Hillview Golf Club is a replica of something you'd expect to find in Florida, and the courses are tough but playable enough for the mid-low handicapper although the greens on the front nine of the tournament course were occasionally terrifying. We set out with buggy, caddies and a few cold beers and Jason's guarantee that there was no danger of getting sunburn today. I can only assume that Jason was in bed when he made this prediction and hadn't seen the blazing sun. I had sun lotion dripping in my eyes by the third hole. That can be the only possible explanation for my losing two balls on the first two holes!! We both hit better than expected shots off the first tee. Unfortunately, there was a big lake 200 yards down biting into the right side of the fairway and the balls arrowed in on it remorselessly. At the second, my ball was straight down the flag, 20 feet short of the pin. Unfortunately, 20 feet short was the top of a slope down which the ball trickled, and at the bottom of the slope was a beautiful waterfall down which my ball trickled.... It got better after that and we had a good afternoon which ended up with us red and hot. I was certainly glad I'd extended my stay to play.

Having a foot massage is one of the finer pleasures of being here. Just to sit and do nothing except chat, watch the TV and drink tea whilst somebody works on your feet is highly civilised and very comfortable. I don't understand the 'qi' and the reflexology but I invariably feel better after I've had the treatment. I'm not sure how much it's supposed to hurt either, but it usually does a little bit, although it's generally in a good way. Invariably, there's also the humorous moment as an appalled/bemused masseur(se) inspects the hair on my legs and usually offers to shave/wax them. This time, I went for one of the best massages I've had, but it underlines the need to read Chinese. There's no way I'd have found this place, tucked down a side street, with a Chinese only sign, but it was great. The perfect way to digest dinner, in fact. Maybe there's a future for foot massage restaurants in London?

Equally relaxing, but somewhat different is the traditional full body massage. Dressed in something like cotton pyjamas, you're then covered in warmed towels and massaged through the material. It's generally a bit less painful than a deep tissue massage and it's easy enough to fall asleep swathed in your linen. However, this time it was a bit different. I should have realised in a Chinese hotel, but I forgot about this particular feature of the culture. Things started off normally enough, but it's soon pretty obvious that sex is for sale, maybe it's even expected by the masseuse. I know that the femoral arteries in the groin are squeezed as part of the treatment, but she was having a lot of trouble locating my arteries. The whole thing is played as a game, but it isn't really. Businessmen will regularly pay for clients and colleagues to have "treatments" in the spas. Maybe this was the upmarket version of the blue lights in the windows of the Hutong or the poky hairdressers which are fronts for brothels, but it's all the same. There's an analogy for Dongguan in here. It can be good, anything is possible, but you're still a but uneasy about parts of it.
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