New Year in Sunny Foshan

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.

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8 Responses to New Year in Sunny Foshan

  1. Joe Blow says:

    I used to live in Foshan. It wasn’t half bad. Huge, brand-new apartments renting for very little money. Excellent and cheap food, including Indian and Italian. The air pollution is worse than HK, due to the polluting ceramics industry. Big, modern supermarkets and even Watson’s and Giordano. And unlike Causeway Bay, you don’t have to be fluent in Putonghwa.

  2. PropertyDeveloper says:

    I’m off soon to Tainan, in the south of the Renegade City-Province, about the same travel time as Foshan. It has all the things HK lacks: congenial restaurants, real supermarkets, motorbike hire, safe-ish cycling, historic buildings, even, apparently, a fair number of signs in English.

  3. Regislea says:

    Not particularly appropriate to this specific post but relevant to many in the past – from Frederic Bastiat, French liberal theorist who lived from 1801-1850:

    “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorises it and a moral code that glorifies it.

    Welcome to the Big Lychee, Freddie!

    Nominations for who the members of the “group of men” might be on a postcard, please.

  4. Wackford says:

    Spent couple of years working near Dapeng (50km E of Shenzhen, outside SEZ) and remember running early one summer’s morning along the verge of another deserted modern highway to nowhere to cut across to a road to the beach. Approaching in the distance was an extremely noisy small engined motorcycle piled high with what turned out to be cardboard & polystyrene boxes and leaving the usual trail of thick blue smoke. A dozy early riser approached the road at a snail’s pace and proceeded to cross. Yes, they collided and ended up in a heap. Bruised and scratched they stood up and commenced a heated argument. How neither saw or heard the other is a mystery.
    These highways may look unused, but being in China they are still dangerous.

  5. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Wackford, It’s something deep in the subconscious. On one level, they must be aware of the other person, because… more often than mathematical theory would dictate (random walk etc), they manage to collide.

    It’s the same in a swimming pool: if even two or three people are doing lengths or breadths, they all tend to end up in the middle.

  6. AHW says:

    Isn’t a case of, “well if you are occupying this bit of road/pool/beach/seat on bus, then it must be the best bit, so I want some of the action, too”?

  7. That seems to be the way pedestrians in Mongkok think, as well. What entertains me is the common attitude in Hong Kong that “if I don’t look at the approaching car that is about to run me over, then it won’t be there”. Shades of Bishop Berkeley?

  8. mumphLT says:

    Foshan relied on the cement, tile & sanitaryware industry which was a great exporter. With the arse falling out of the construction industry post 2008, with ADD on Chinese tiles in place now in various countries & with Chinese tiles not being particularly good – Foshan’s ceramic industry has been decimated.
    Chinese ceramic tableware is suffering a similar fate now as labour costs (direct and indirect) go up and and the hugely wasteful industry is also impacted by falling export markets & ADD.
    They do still have a lot of pollution though. And the people ‘ve invested in handbags which will be important in the future no doubt.

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