Dongguan: Tomorrowland

Disneyland for adults: What kind of imagery does that conjure up? A while ago Dongguan was officially busted for its sex dens and the poor women (whether they chose to work in the sex industry or not) humiliated before the media. So does the city deserve its reputation as nothing more than a seedy halfway house between Guangzhou and Shenzhen? Do we judge London purely on Soho? Or Paris on Pigalle? Of course not and on a beautiful winter’s day I set out to see for myself.

A lot of Chinese cities, even smaller ones, are so huge they are serviced by several train stations and sometimes these miss what we westerners refer to as the city centre or CBD. This was the case with Huizhou and many of the CRH high speed train stations often lie miles from the city or town they supposedly serve which leaves us visitors scratching our heads in disbelief. From travelling between Guangzhou and Shenzhen I know there are three stations …at least!

All of this means there is still life in the humble bus and the first few trips this year have all used this mode of transport. Note also that saying the city name when buying a ticket is not enough. Like Victoria is a byword for London, so too are the coach stations in Chinese cities, you need to specify which station. Not easy in cities which have no definable ‘centre’ as we know it. In Dongguan I am informed by a fellow lecturer this is Nancheng and that’s where I aim for.

In keeping with the transport theme, Dongguan is in the process of constructing its own metro. To date only one line is running (see picture below) though eventually it will hook up with both Guangzhou and Shenzhen’s respective metro systems meaning you’ll be able to travel between three cities (four if you include Hong Kong) like a subterranean Tarzan swinging from metro to metro!

Aside my colleague, a student of mine suggested getting a train to Dongguan then utilising said metro. In hindsight she was right. I probably used up an hour searching for the city where I thought the bus station at Nancheng would be. So my trip begins a million miles from Tomorrowland. Even before disembarking, I found it was no less than a gigantic industrial estate. To locate the centre of modern Dongguan (central square) I first had to negotiate roads that were walled on one side and scrubland the other, then run the gauntlet crossing an overpass with no pedestrian walkway. Things got better after that.

The first sure fire sign of urban progress comes in the shape of your usual western fast food outlets. For this visit I am determined to do things differently so I grab a bite at a small bakery (Xi Wen Delights who make Healthy Cakes which I didn’t try but what I had sufficed). Across the road is ‘CEG’ STREET and beyond that is a pedestrian lane, heralded by a golden Pegasus and horn blowing boy. The lane is home to mainly shuttered or vacant shopfronts (I’m not sure if this was due to the Chinese New Year or lack of business). Either way, it all left me feeling rather like the statue of the guy with his head near his hand who I envisaged thinking along the same lines as Talking Heads Once in a Lifetime; ‘This is not my beautiful town, my God what have I done!’ Enough said. When I eventually reached the end of this ghostly thoroughfare a forlorn looking river combined with an equally desperate foot bridge (closed to the public) suggest a natural halt to my cruise.

Turning around into the sun I make Yuanmei Park which in turn begins the real city. The Museum of Science and Technology and neighbouring Youth and Children’s Centre shine in the sun with not one cloud to stall its shimmering assault. 23 on a February day leaves no need for California Dreaming. Further up on the northern edge of the same civic block is the equally modernist structure of the Yulan Theatre and its stationary artisans.

Like its larger Pearl River siblings Guangzhou and Shenzhen, there is no shortage of new architecture to admire and though there are many shopping malls showing up on my iPhone on this day only one would be visited; the One City opposite the Lantau Island Hong Kong restaurant in which I rest my sore and over heated feet for lunch. Something I can’t do there is charge my phone, the map eats the battery like there’s no tomorrow, so it’s over and into the aforementioned mall for a coffee at the super swanky La Crema for a walnut latte which costs more than my meal!

When the phone is near charged I depart to check out the metro, the entrance of which is a stones throw outside. Sparkling, new and clean as a palace the only line presently running connects Dongguan station in the North east to Humen in the South west. The former connects to Guangzhou East and Shenzhen (Luohu) and the latter Guangzhou South to, most probably Shenzhen North and Futian stations. When I am tapped on the shoulder and asked if in need of help I assume it’s by a station hand. It turns out to be a friendly local.

Hongfu Road is slap bang in the middle of the two terminal stations and I know which will eventually prevail but first I still have some daylight to play with so move swiftly to try and make the distant museum; quite a walk judging by my map. On the way is another metro station Qifeng Park and just around the corner from that is the City Planning Exhibition Gallery which derails my plan. Surely this would be no match for Shanghai’s magnificent urban planning museum.

If I chance it and the outcome is mediocre I would have wasted an opportunity to see Dongguan’s museum. But I’m drawn in and my gamble more than pays off. It is an absolute stunner both in terms of the building, the surrounding landscape water features and in its exhibits, truly first class and a pleasure to visit. I was delighted after a shaky start that Dongguan produced this gem in the dying moments of my first visit.

Finishing up is a brief meander which culminates in some more impressive and possibly temporary architecture in the form of the Vanke Center (spelt the American way). The adjacent mall with its attached Ferris wheel more than reminded me of Taipei’s Miramar complex (near Songshan Airport). Then it really was time to say goodbye. Something that was shaky about Dongguan is the metro, jittering all over the place on the trip up to the train station. So is Dongguan more than just a seedy hole for needy men? Yes. Worth a visit? You bet. It is very much a case of…


and on a cloudless sunny day in winter or is that spring, what could be better? Probably only the almighty Shenzhen.


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