A thousand Yuan in Laisee? Check. It came as a highly impressive half-inch wad of RMB10 bills, so was easily the weightiest red packet I’ve ever had.
This was just one reason to spend Chinese New Year in Foshan, and even put up with the even-more-gut-wrenchingly-putrid-than-usual CCTV Gala. The last time I visited the bustling, plucky ceramics hub of the Pearl River Delta was in 1986 or 87, and my main memory is of narrow streets crammed with bicycles (and the bus on the main road up from Macau stopping for a sleeping pig). This time, with everyone away for the holiday, the city was almost deserted, with Pyongyang-style empty boulevards linking the ugly, unconvincingly space-age skyscrapers. The air still had an astonishingly thick haze, however (one official explanation is fireworks).
Some thoughts, in no particular order…
The journey along the Guangshen Expressway up the estuary between Shenzhen and Humen includes a good 20-30-mile stretch of reclamation and construction. I counted at least four or five unopened four-lane highways running east-west from far off in the gloom, coming to an abrupt halt in weeds and dirt next to the freeway. Massive residential projects stretching off into the distance similarly abut dusty wasteland. A bit of this will be the Qianhai financial blah-blah zone hub, but it looks like someone is expecting the population of the whole Shenzhen-Dongguan area to double sometime. Hard to say what’s happening, but some of this work has a rather abandoned or at least suspended-for-quite-a-while look to it.
For all the talk of integration and Mainlandization, the gap between Hong Kong and its supposed hinterland remains vast. You can get a centrally located 1,000-square-foot apartment in Foshan for well under HK$2 million – a fifth to a tenth of what you’d pay in the Big Lychee. And, with some exceptions, groceries cost maybe half what they do here. Obviously, this is beyond commuting distance: downtown to downtown is a three-hour bus ride, including the hassle of the border crossing. But you have to wonder how long such differentials can last.
Cosmopolitanism is something Foshan can only aspire to; they still quaintly use oh-so glamorous Westerners in ads for real estate. But they make up for it with an exotic mix of regional Chinese, which means authentic cuisines you won’t find (much, at least) in Hong Kong: Xinjiang and Guizhou this weekend. The former is of course Muslim lamb/bread/etc. The latter is a sort of Sichuan-with-added-sour, and no holding back on the tomatoes. The Cantonese palate would hate it. (Of course, if you want Thai, Vietnamese, Indian or Italian, you’ll probably have to take a three-hour bus ride south.)
Unlike Shenzhen, which was built out of just a few villages, Foshan is a city with a history, and pockets of dilapidated old architecture survive – at least for now. Some examples have been ‘preserved’ beyond recognition, including a district called Lingnan Tiandi. If that rings a bell, it might be because of Xintiandi in Shanghai. In both cases, Hong Kong developer Shui On – presumably in league with well-connected local interests – has taken an old neighbourhood (think Beijing’s hutongs), renovated them along half-Disney aesthetic lines, and filled them with Starbucks and tacky souvenir/fashion outlets alongside luxury housing and quasi-Lan Kwai Fong zones. In Foshan’s case, the luxury housing comprises quite decent-looking townhouses (‘the Legendary’), all identically padlocked and unoccupied, leaving a new and spotless ghost town.
In short, you could live really well up there, but probably still won’t want to.