The thing about Guangzhou in spring is it’s wet. The city, particularly around green Tianhe, is drenched. The trees appear to be sweating. Their long branches and hanging roots drip and drop with water. The concrete floors, tiles, and soils all looked soaked. The air smells damp. Humidity dominates this domain.
People who walk, aim for shelter as fine misty rains drip and drape over you. They swallow all who pass. The grey clouds that shroud towers move swiftly bringing hot, soggy downpours and misty conditions. Rain isn’t always around, but almost all clothes give an effect of walking in a swimming pool. Wet. Wet. Wet. And hot. Tropical heat cooks and dehydrates you. Your lungs are a prisoner to damp.
The walk from Guangzhou East railway station towards the Canton Tower and the British Consulate office felt like an upright swim through a cloud. Little dryness was left to the respiratory tract. Even less fresh air. The putrid stink of soggy sodden drains arose over nature’s handful of flowers.
Following a successful appointment, having arrived early and been sent back to the dank air outside only to return later, I emerged back into muggy breezes. The thesaurus would support my use of oppressive terms for stifling terminology. The steamy weather certainly did. With the necessary documents to hand, I steamed back to Guangzhou East railway station and fumbled my way through train ticket booking. The clammy phone in my hand, a tool to close the deal.
The air-conditioning on the 15:49 C7045 train merited the first class seat. It was the only available seat. The last chair from irriguous Guangzhou, bound for Dongguan’s Changping. At Changping, close clammy air circled and crept beneath my shirts buttoned front. The mucky dusty air was exchanged for a private taxi to meet Gerry for dinner.
The latest in a long line of Kings Bars and Restaurants, at the Virgin Hotel 4th floor, made for frosty respite to the lack of chill outdoors.
Coffee foam shimmers on top as art is one thing, but swirly creamy pieces as masterpieces are another. Her Coffee have long been decorating coffees in dragons, hearts, swirls of passion and all manner of gorgeousness. One when enters Her Coffee, there’s an air of freshly grounded coffee. An instinctive pull to the counter in order to select a fine coffee gives you chance to observe three pieces of unique Suzhou artwork. Behind you on a brick-style war sit three cute animals peering at you. A waving cat signals for good luck sat on a marble-style worktop. East and west have met here perfectly. I have a massive discrimination for bad coffee. I’m sure that I have written that line many a time. So, here it appears once again. Drifting from Her Coffee with a takeaway smoothie, fruit tea or latte is forgivable but the cappuccino is the star attraction, so why not?
At last a warm mug arrives and instantly appeal to one’s sensitive palate. Opened in the hardest year on record, Her Coffee has defied the odds and gone from strength to strength. Tina Peng opened it, inspired by her own visits to local coffee shops. “I sat there thinking, I can do this”, Tina beamed with enthusiasm, “and soon enough I was looking a place to call my own.” Her Coffee is ideally situated for an escape from the hustle and bustle, sat between Changping’s centre and the edge of Huangjiang. “And then we needed a name,” Tina smiled, “and the Chinese word for drink sounds like her, and I’m definitely a her, so that’s how it began.” Coffee culture has many corners across our city of Dongguan and few blow their own trumpet loud enough. Her Coffee has something of a blended fusion of comfort and familiarity.
Known within the local and expat community for consistently good coffee, Her Coffee also offers meals, snacks, sorbets and a selection of fine beers. Outside there is a patio area beneath palm trees and next to a lawn. A fountain display is within short eyeshot. Inside it is snug, with plush sofas, chairs and a variety of seating plans. There’s warmth and ambience with a lively family team running the business. Manager Tina Peng has been experimenting with the menu from the first day of opening, “With some market research and after listening to our customers we enhanced the salad range. We’re always looking to better ourselves.” Whilst green and black logos of mainstream coffee shops and many brands that have modelled themselves upon their success litter Dongguan like discarded coffee cups, this place stands out as different.
There’s space upstairs to watch a movie, share sporting events, throw a party or relax with those nearest and dearest to you. Tina’s ethos is about making the coffee shop much more than a place for a hot brewed beverage. She explained, “We have fruit teas, from the freshest ingredients, and the finest quality. We believe our coffee shop is your coffee shop and your place to come to enjoy. We return your respect and trust by delivering a value for money experience. We want you to come as a stranger and leave as a friend. We even have an English corner, to help build confidence in spoken English. Everything is possible over coffee.” Tucked on the edge of Changping, behind the American Embassy that is McDonald’s and straddled by a future Spar supermarket, Her Coffee is worth a warm cup of coffee (or tea). The chance of hearing good music is never a bad thing.
“I feel so extraordinary; Something’s got a hold on me; I get this feeling I’m in motion; A sudden sense of liberty.” – New Order’s song True Faith.
I’m patriotic towards the U.K. in a way. I sing praise and fly the flag for great people, wonderful history and fantastic places. I know that the story of the U.K.’s history has often been brutal, cruel and deserves little love. Even within the 21st century the U.K., as it moves away from a colonial and European past, and becomes less connected, yet more dependent on overseas trading and manufacture is and always will be a wonderful country. It’s my home. I was born in Manchester, England. I don’t call myself English. I’m British, when I choose to be. I’m Mancunian always. I have Celtic blood in me from my Irish and Welsh great grandparents. My roots are clear and free. But this tree doesn’t cling to the past and history. This tree wants to expand and be watered by different skies. For me tradition and culture are important but understanding and freedom to choose your own pathway are far more intrinsic to living. This tree is currently sat on its arse in Changping, Dongguan. Today’s and yesterday’s rugby and football have been washed out by Dragon Boat rains. I have some free time.
Today, I want to show a gallery and write a little about the culture of Dongguan and China. I’ve been here for the vast majority of the 2308 days now (11th February 2014). I believe many great days have passed and many more will follow. That’s why I am right here, right now. I arrived and didn’t feel too much way of culture shock. Around me a reasonably established cultured expat community threaded amongst the fabric of the local workforces and people of Guangdong.
“Because we need each other; We believe in one another; And I know we’re going to uncover; What’s sleepin’ in our soul” – Acquiesce by Oasis.
Since, I arrived I have seen Dongguan grow and grow. It is now classed as a Megacity. It seemingly will never stop growing. There are skyscrapers and apartment blocks skimming the sky in every single district of Dongguan. Whereas in 2014, I’d notice dozens of these mammoth constructions and many more sprouting buildings, now I am seeing hundreds and hundreds of established communities and hubs here, there and everywhere. I used to consider Nancheng and Dongcheng as the central axis of Dongguan. Now the townships of Chang’an (home of Oppo), Changping and the ever-growing former fields of Songshan Lake (home of Huawei), and the sprawls of Liaobu town could easily be seen as central areas. The arrival of the Huizhou to now West Dongguan Railway Station (soon to be Guangzhou East) or 莞惠城际轨道交通 /莞惠线 Guanhui intercity railway has added to rapid growth. As it joins the short-named Pearl River Delta Metropolitan Region Intercity Railway System (珠江三角洲地区城际轨道交通). That’s more than 65 railway stations in close proximity to Dongguan. Like all of the Pearl River Delta, this city is growing fast – and going places.
When not hopping on 200 km/h (124 mph) railway systems, I have ample opportunity to meet great people. Dongguan‘s community is largely migrant with people coming from all over China and the world beyond. International jet-setters with lives here, include Serbians, Kiwis, and even Scousers. They can be found in some of the office places, factories, bars and restaurants throughout the city. Playing football with Brazilians or Russians, or cycling with Dongbei people is possible or a spot of chess at Murray’s Irish Pub with Ukranian opposition. Anything goes here. Drinking homebrew at Liberty Brewing Company (曼哈顿餐吧) in Dongcheng after playing tag rugby with Tongans, South Africans, Germans and Malaysians makes me realise how lucky I am. This is a city that is tidying up and beautifying itself at an alarming rate.
Throughout the 6.5 years of life in and around Dongguan, I’ve slipped up and down ginnels, seeking out the new and old. There have been trips to pizza joints in obscure areas, Dragon Boat races watched, Cosplay events attended and English competitions observed. Dongguan, like Manchester, has a heartbeat that shows anything is possible and if it isn’t here, you make it. You can make something new, or your bring something to the party. You can sit and complain about people taking your photo or saying, “wàiguórén” (foreigner/外国人) or you can show the people around you, your worth.
This week I was asked by the Dongguan Foreign Bureau to teach them. Sadly, I cannot fit their demands into my day. I’ve bene lucky to narrate advertisements, wear watches for model shoots, test-drive new bicycles and play with new robotics before they reached their target audience or global factory floors. Daily life has been far from mundane here with oddities and pleasures as varied as can be. What’s around the next corner? Well, visas are quicker and easier to get, despite more rules and demands. It seems far quicker than when I first arrived. Sometimes, I doubt that I have done everything right, yet it seems clear and simple. Just a checklist. This week I received my medical report back. Now, I need just a few other items for the 2020/21 visa… That’s progress.
Bridges have been made and links that could prove lifelong. The west and east have collided in bizarre ways often forming a touch of the unique. There has been colour, rainbows and diversity amongst the traditional and the common. There have been flashes of light and inspiration. There have been days when solitude has been sought and there will be more, no doubt, but one thing I find, and have found throughout my time here, people are just that. Just simple down to earth, regular people going about their days, looking for peace and good opportunities to survive or better themselves. There are more cars and less bicycles, which shows that some people’s bank accounts and credit-ratings have improved. Quality of life needs balance, and with that the subway/underground system of Dongguan is projected to change from one line to seven lines.
Words can say how thankful I am for my time here. I am enjoying life in different ways to others, and being who I want to be, when I want to be. I’m selfish or I’m sharing. I’m open or I am closed. I read or I watch. I write or I dictate. There are times to slip unseen, and times to lead an audience. It is good for the mind to be bored or alone. I truly believe that’s where creativity lies. It sits there waiting to be tapped and delivered to paper, computers or other outputs. I can wander from craft beer breweries to model car clubs to fusion and western food restaurants with ease and all of the time remain connected to modern and old China.
There is plenty of ugly in Dongguan, just like the rest of the world. To quote the 18th century French phrase, “ne saurait faire d’omelette sans casser des œufs“: You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Humans must learn from the stains and damage we have caused to our planet globally, whether disease or pollution. We can’t give in. Our cultures, our pride and our people need to fight on and find solutions. Just as #BlackLivesMatter, all lives matter – whether human or worm or bug or panda. Life must find a way. Dongguan is radically changing its energy consumptions, factory practices and the way its environment is being respected. This is good for all. Maybe, I should really put my words into action and finish studying towards the HSK (汉语水平考试Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) course for the Chinese Proficiency Test.
Dongguan has gone from a place with a handful of limited cinemas, to those with the IMAX, vibrating seats, private screens and many of the latest releases from the west. KTV bars make way for baseball batting cages, ten-pin bowling, archery cafes and all the latest crazes. The great thing is that with Wechat (born 2011), Alipay etc, you can leave your wallet behind and pay swiftly with ease using these simple electronic methods. Gone are the days of using equations and haggling to get a taxi a short distance. Piles of services are available via your phone, including electrical bills, water bills and Didi (driver and carshare service) is one such saving grace.
During these COVID-19 pandemic times, your phone provides your health code, advice in travel, guidance on health services and help. Dongguan’s local services for healthcare, private insurance and banking are on your fingertips, rather than a a few hours out of work. Life can be as fast or as slow as you wish. In 2010, Dongguan was named a National Model City for Environmental Protection and greenways, green belts and other greenery followed. There are hundreds of parks now, over 1200… it is easier than ever to stay healthy.
There is culture around us, old temples, modern pagodas, relics of time and shells of history. Dongguan’s landmarks are a tad tough to visit now. The Cwa humid subtropical climate here is far above the reported average annual temperature of 22.7 °C (72.9 °F). The rainfall is typical of the land below the Tropic of Cancer now. It is raining cats, dogs and occasionally elephants. Wellingtons and umbrellas are common sights these days, rather than the Dongguan Yulan Theatre, GuanYinShan (Budda mountain), Hǎizhàn bówùguǎn (海战博物馆 Opium War Museum) or Jin’aozhou Pagoda. Even a trip to my local coffee shop, Her Coffee, is like a swim in a river. It is blooming wet lately. As a Mancunian, I feel at home.
I’m here for education – to both teach and to learn. This city has hundreds of educational institutions, even Cumbria’s St. Bees are opening a school here. I’ve heard there are around 550 primary schools, 480 kindergartens and several universities now. To bump into a teacher amongst the 21,000 plus teachers is not unusual. Although it seems every second teacher works for one of the many Eaton House schools here. I’ve heard Tungwah Wenzel International School (TWIS) in Songshan Lake is one school to really watch. Like its neighbouring Huawei school, it is massive with around 1,000,000 square metres of surface area. I’ve seen the modern sports gyms, performance space and technology labs. It uses the latest gadgets and networking. It really is 21st century over there at Songshan Lake. Although Huawei have a German-style train-tram zipping around, piping back to older days. Dongguan University of Technology(DGUT; 东莞理工学院) is one of universities in the area meaning that you can educate beyond your teenage years here. It really is a place to learn. Watch out Oxford and Cambridge! Maybe that’s why Trump is always bad-mouthing China’s growth?
From eating chicken anus, to two weeks of quarantine in XiHu Hotel, Dongguan has given me more time to turn the contents of my head to words. Now that I am ready to publish a novel, I need a publisher, but how to do this during a pandemic? I haven’t a clue, but I know one thing, the challenge will be tough and worth it. Nobody ever climbed a mountain to sit at the top and look down without seeing another mountain, right? At the end of the day, the sun sets only to rise again. Dongguan faced lockdown impeccably and other challenges, just as the world did and does. Chin up, keep going and let’s crack on.
Last night, I ate Korean barbecue with great people to celebrate a treble-birthday, followed by proof that I am terrible at ten-pin bowling and awoke today feeling optimistic. The world is often reported to be going through a pandemic-sized recession. As the world sailed a wave in 2008 and Dongguan grew from that recession, I will everyone to go on. Manufacture a bucket of optimism. Just like the strings of New Dawn Fades by Joy Division, there is darkness but remember these famous lines: It was me, waiting for me; Hoping for something more; Me, seeing me this time; Hoping for something else. In 2008, low-tech industry switched to the high-tech. Boomtime arrived. Chances are that one in five phones around the globe were made in Dongguan. Is your phone Vivo, Oppo, Honor or Huawei? It was probably made down the road from me. So, Dongguan is closer than you think.
Manchester isn’t any place I will visiting in person for some time, so it has to come to me via playbacks of Oasis gigs at Maine Road and the written word. Over the next few months, I plan to read the following Mancunian-connected books: