Before Progress: A Self Guided Tour Through Old Town

0715_heritage1Dongguan was established in 757 A.D.—according to official record—though few objects or artifacts can be found from that time. It was then based in a county named Bao’an and Guancheng was assigned as the capital. Unfortunately, no buildings older than 400 years have be preserved from that era due to wars and domestic movements.

But if you look carefully throughout Guancheng, some relatively old houses with a historic sort of beauty are hidden in the torn clusters of tiled houses. Thanks to a new Guancheng Heritage Trail, they can now be discovered with less effort. The trail was created, unexpectedly, by half a dozen students and their instructor at the architecture department at Dongguan University of Technology, as their independent academic project.

In the introduction to the project, they wrote: “Since 2004, the government has been conducting on a large scale an old town transformation campaign in the one time center of Dongguan culture. But ten years has passed and the dilemma remains. Can this kind of pure demolition and construction really revitalize the old city? We are deeply skeptical.”

Throughout the whole country these old walls were torn down in the 1950s when leaders prioritized city development and transportation over historic stewardship.

For one year and a quarter, they went to every inch of Guancheng drawing a complete map of its heritage sites, from which they chose the 25 most valuable and created a self-guided tour. “We wanted to do some earnest investigation about the city and publicize the results for the public,” said instructor Yifeng Yuan.

Starting at the Dongmen (East Gate) Square, each of location is marked by a plaque with a photo, brief introduction and two QR codes. Scan them with a mobile device and you’ll learn about the architectural importance and history of the location, or the project itself. None are overtly spectacular, but it’s a nice way to separate some of the finer details from areas that can be architecturally bland. To support the project and open the city to English speakers, HERE! team members are translating the text so readers will be able to take the tour by the end of the summer. To have a taste, five significant sites have been picked from the Guancheng Heritage Trail for a closer look.

Are These the Remains of the Old City Walls?

The remains of the suspected old city wall are located in Xiashui Alley. Now it’s been made into a retaining wall.

The remains of the suspected old city wall are located in Xiashui Alley. Now it’s been made into a retaining wall.

First of all, a typical ancient city, town or village was usually outfitted with four gates and a strong wall for military defense. Dongguan was no exception.

Throughout the whole country these old walls were torn down in the 1950s when leaders prioritized city development and transportation over historic stewardship. Otherwise, Guancheng would, to this day, be surrounded by stones and giant doors like Xi’an City in Shaanxi Province. Instead we have street names to preserve its memory.

The trail begins at the Dongmen Square, just outside of the northeast gate of People’s Park. Walk along the Dongzheng (Straight to the East Gate) Road and turn left at the Xiashui Alley. Stroll along the curved street, leaving the honking and hawking behind and passing by some red-brick houses. There, a retaining wall appears on the left. Comparing it to a map from 100 years ago, it is exactly where the old wall was. Locals say leftovers from the wall were used to build this retaining wall.

At that time, the outside bricks from the wall would be taken to build something else, leaving the dirt inside. Technically, this could be the pile of dirt that was left after the outside bricks were removed, and was rebuilt into a retaining wall because new houses were erected on it.

Dongguan’s Only Palace

Former Mingsheng Middle School Library, a public building which is considered too high-end for Guancheng.

Former Mingsheng Middle School Library, a public building which is considered too high-end for Guancheng.

In a smaller place like Dongguan, very few large-scale or grand buildings ever existed, fewer were preserved. In Guancheng, the only palatial public building was found hidden in a small alley on Xinfeng Road. It’s in decent condition, too. No. 7 on the heritage site list was built in 1935 as the library for Mingsheng Middle School, a building that surprised most of the architects consulted because it was considered too “high-end” for a small place like Guancheng. Moreover, it was taken by a private middle school instead of imperial facilities.

Looking a lot like Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, this architecture style is thought to be the combination of eastern and western designs and based on assets from the Qing Dynasty such as the Forbidden City. Four large two-story pillars separate the building into three sections. Details such as the bright-blue dougong (brackets), green glazed tiles and simple animal-like ornaments on the roof are visible, but not too exaggerated.

The background of the founder of this school, Li Yangjing, may explain why such a high-profile building was dedicated as a school library. Guancheng native Li was the lieutenant general and the mayor of Guangzhou during the Republic of China period. He devoted a lot to the city’s education and charity, founding Mingsheng Middle School, primary schools, kindergartens and a public swimming pool. Under his broad vision, the Mingsheng Middle School was reportedly one of the top schools in Dongguan with the best facilities and faculty.

The Secret Bridge of the Dao Stream

The arching hill of the North Gate at People’s Park keeps the shape of the demolished  Desheng Bridge from 800 years ago, and the Dao Stream that flowed across Guancheng.

The arching hill of the North Gate at People’s Park keeps the shape of the demolished Desheng Bridge from 800 years ago, and the Dao Stream that flowed across Guancheng.

Walking through the North Gate of People’s Park, you will find a noticeable arching hill after entering the gate. This was the location of the Desheng Bridge. Just 20 years ago, a small steam cut across the center of Guancheng all the way to the Dongjiang River. It existed as early as the Song Dynasty (960-1279) as a moat around the walled city, but soon became an inner stream as the city grew bigger. The river was buried and its three bridges were gradually torn down in the 1990s, creating new concrete roads and neighborhoods. This is the only place where evidence of a bridge-like shape can be seen. Our DGUT architect and his students can’t be sure if the bridge is still lying under the surface. If it is, it will be a valuable cultural heritage from 800 years ago.

The Origins of Basketball Fever

The vacant “Ten-thousand People Lit Basketball Court” showed Dongguan people’s passion for basketball back in the 1980s.

The vacant “Ten-thousand People Lit Basketball Court” showed Dongguan people’s passion for basketball back in the 1980s.

The city development here is so fast that many facilities, though still in usable condition, have become obsolete and replaced by bigger and nicer structures. Calling itself the “Basketball City,” with plenty of CBA championships to prove it, the city’s basketball roots go back to this worn basketball court in People’s Park. Built at the end of the 1970s, a time when everything was in the most urgent need to recover from the Culture Revolution, the biggest and most advanced basketball facility in Guancheng was built. From the name “Ten-thousand People Lit Basketball Court,” you see it was created to fit plenty of spectators, and, most importantly, it had lights.

Over the last decade, it was overshadowed by all the newly built indoor basketball courts throughout the city and most recently by the massive and modern Dongguan Basketball Center. Trees and weeds have overgrown the stairs; the faded blue court and two rusty goals tell of its forgotten glory in the 80s and 90s. According to old Dongguan Middle School students from the time, the court was completed with the help of their hands.

The Decaying Tan Mansion

The Tan Mansion is one of the best examples of  the concept of West meets China in the city. A rather Westernized door and a pure Chinese body.

The Tan Mansion is one of the best examples of the concept of West meets China in the city. A rather Westernized door and a pure Chinese body.

Walking through the winding alleys beside the boisterous Beizheng Road, a stunning old mansion jumps into sight. There is just enough space in front of the building to appreciate its unique beauty. Built in the 1920s, the Tan Mansion belongs to the concept of West meets China, but leans more to the Chinese side.

During WWII, the house was invaded by Japanese troops and used as a brothel and it has been through continuous domestic movements since the 1950s, yet it has survived because Tan descendants have kept up residence. This is difficult today, because much of the house is dilapidated. Two-fifths is left vacant and the whole house is decaying due to lack of funds.

This precious heritage is ineligible for any government protection lists, and by proxy, government funds, due to a backfiring, property rights loophole. The story is confusing, and screams of red pockets, but because the funds to build the house were brought in by revenues made outside of China—the owner, Tan Runzhi, made money in Vietnam and shipped in major construction materials—the land rights still belong to the family, but no public funds can be used to preserve the site.

Several Western elements on the front door may fool the eyes. The gothically pointed arches on both sides, Greek-pillared door, Renaissance-style triangle cornice on the second floor with colorful windows below, and a Baroque pediment on top with two folds set it apart from area architecture. But it’s still considered to have some Chinese style because the layout of the house, with traditional bricks, large amounts of stained glass with glazed tiles and the application of wells and skylights in the center. Skylights appear in almost every traditional building with versatile functions. They benefit ventilation and lighting, collect rain water to form a small private garden and are believed to be a way to communicate between heaven and earth.

Last summer, the students redrew the house’s blueprint and prepared renovation plans. They hope that one day enough funds will be collected to renovate what they think is the only heritage in such magnificent design in Guancheng.

Outside of the Old City

Compared to the “well-dressed” sotto porticos, this one on Zhongxing Rd decently preserved the details such as the  roof-top pediment and elegant balcony.

Compared to the “well-dressed” sotto porticos, this one on Zhongxing Rd decently preserved the details such as the roof-top pediment and elegant balcony.

The West Gate (Xichenglou) is the only gate left. In fact, it’s only the old location, the real gate was demolished almost in entirety, leaving only a wooden door. Bricks and glazed tiles were taken from a Buddhist temple, the Zifu Temple on Wanshou Road in Guancheng, to rebuild the gate in 1959. And to make it look like Tiananmen in Beijing, two portals were added to the sides of the original door.

Beyond the old borders of the West Gate and its walls, is traditionally recognized as outside of the old city. That area covers Zhenhua Road, Guangming Road and Keyuan Garden. This is the zone of the sotto portico, a popular style of West-East architecture built in the beginning of 20th century in the Pearl River Delta.

At that time, a free market sprouted and private businesses grew rapidly. Being in the vicinity of waterways that led to Guangzhou, the Zhenhua Road area surpassed the central city in terms of cash flow. Merchants from all walks of life filled the small alleys, which were named after the businesses—Shoe Alley, Oil Paper Street, Jute-Selling Street, Joss Paper Street—were all prosperous spots.

Instead of looking at those “well-dressed” sotto porticos on the two main roads Zhenhua Road and Daxi Road, it’s recommended to go a little deeper into the alleys to see the original versions. A renovation project at the beginning of the 1990s tried to revitalize Guancheng with a walking street. However, the whitewash that covered the houses, concealed inlayed signs and ornamental detail. It also kept the walls from breathing, which led to the heavy growth of mold. On Zhongxing Road, you can see the real deal.