Going Underground: The Dongguan Metro Has Finally Arrived

On opening day, HERE! decided to travel across the metro to find out what hidden corners of the city it might unearth…

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It was the opening day of the Dongguan Metro and we set out to travel its entirety, from north to south, while exploring the surroundings of every single station. The city finally had its own metro and this, in the parlance of our times, was a big deal, historic even.

There is a myriad of reasons why any city would want to build an underground: there is the obvious, to help people travel across the city; the economic, it’s good for GDP; the social, it connects communities and expands citywide cohesion; the competitive, Foshan doesn’t have one, after all and ego is relevant, too; the power, simply because we can.

So, which was it for Dongguan? The truth is, most likely a mixture of the lot.

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As is invariably the way for such projects, the money invested won’t be claimed back for many, many years, if ever. In fact, the entire budget for the Dongguan metro complex comes in at 19.5 billion RMB, or almost the GDP of the Maldives. However, creating a subway allows a city to flex its muscles and somehow put itself on the map.

IMG_0024sIn many ways, this city’s metro is not so much for the city as it is now, but for what it can be in the future. Despite such musings, I was less interested in the whys and wherefores of the subway being built and the reasoning behind it, but rather, more attracted to the idea that it had actually been built.

What did it mean for the city? What was it like to travel through it? What did the area surrounding each subway station have to offer?

IMG_0005sIt was with these questions in mind that we decided to traverse the entire metro network, or rather Line 2 as the city’s first line is, perhaps oddly, called. Our intention was to visit every single station and explore its surrounding environment. As the newest metro on the planet, the network was barely opened and we considered it was an undertaking that had never been done before in Dongguan.

Riding the subway on its very first day was full of surreal moments. Many were on it not because they wanted to go anywhere, but simply because it was there. The network aims to carry a little more than 100,000 passengers a day and, for the time being, it felt more like a tourist attraction than anything else. The huge lines of people waiting to get tickets were more like people queuing up to go on a roller coaster at a theme park rather than the trudge of the daily commute. People were taking infinite selfies and recording endless videos. It looked like many of these train travelers had never seen a metro before. Indeed, perhaps a few hadn’t. Our first station was to be in Shilong.

1. DONGGUAN RAILWAY STATIO

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Dongguan Railway Station is situated in Shilong, an area prosperous by Dongguan standards, due to its proximity to the Shenzhen-Hong Kong railway. It was once a key town for buying goods smuggled from Hong Kong and still has a border town feel. Before entering the metro, we scout the area to see if there is anything to do.

IMG_9577-2sWandering around there seems little of note, a few dumpling shops, an abandoned kindergarten; it starts to feel like nothing more than a place to visit to get to other places. By chance, 500 meters from the station, we suddenly see what is surely one of Dongguan’s most outré tourist attractions. A classic steam engine train, complete with two carriages standing in the middle of nowhere. Despite the fact that it must be the best part of sixty years-old, it is in good condition. It looks abandoned, but on closer inspection we see the train has been converted into a restaurant. This isn’t some cheap fake train either, but a genuine steam train, albeit refurbished for diners. An elderly baoan who has been snoozing by the train wakes, eager to explain.

The thought that keeps recurring as I travel on this 48 million RMB train is that it no longer feels like I am in Dongguan. It feels like I have left somehow, and I consider other cities where I have travelled the subway: London, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Beijing.

“This train was built in Hubei, but was used to travel to Hong Kong. Chairmen Mao even travelled on it,” he says. It’s an interesting looking place and something to check out next time, but we are on a schedule. We head back to the metro with a previous plan to grab a bite at the second station, Chashan. We enter the station and pay two RMB for our ticket, a small blue disc. It is the first of many blue disks I’ll buy today: fourteen to be precise.

2. Chashan
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The metro is cool and clean and it feels strange to be inhabiting a vast expanse of space that couldn’t previously be accessed. The thought that keeps recurring as I travel on this 48 million RMB train is that it no longer feels like I am in Dongguan. It seems like I have left somehow, and I consider other cities where I have travelled the subway: London, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Beijing. Being underground on a brand new train line does somehow lend itself to the idea of being in a tier-1 city.

DSC09605sThis feeling rapidly evaporates upon emerging from the elevator and stepping outside to Chashan. Maybe it is the exit we take, but there is absolutely nothing here. When I say this, of course, I am exaggerating. There are a few dozen banana trees and a couple of buildings in the distance.

I briefly wonder if the Chashan metro station was a complete mistake and they meant to build it somewhere else, but then I spy them: diggers (diggers became a theme of our journey). It was clear the surrounding land was set to be developed, this station was built for what planned to be outside it in a few months or years, not for the banana trees that surround it now.

We decide to continue onto the next leg of our journey and see if it offers more in the way of civilization, or anything, really.

3. Liuhua Park

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Lihua Park is a disappointment, too, with a row of standard Chinese shops on a busy road. I am becoming increasingly certain all of the destinations were a bit useless.

“There is nothing here,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s Dongguan,” replied my colleague, a native of Dongguan for over 30 years. “Guess, we could try the park,” she says.

IMG_9614-2s“There’s a park?” I ask. Then it dawns on me. It’s in the name. We head back north about 50 meters, and there it is on the west side of the street: the absolutely beautiful Liuhua Park. The trees cast some shade from rapidly rising heat and we take a walk around the park. There’s an old tower, a couple of large, natural ponds with fish, gentle hills, and, naturally, an anti-Japanese pavilion.

It’s perfectly quiet and one of the nicest parks that I have visited in the city. Without the metro, I almost certainly never would have visited this small oasis of calm in my lifetime, but now I have. The metro begins to make more sense. We head back to the station, looking forward to some blasts of A/C.

4. Xiaqiao

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The next leg is a little strange, as a couple of people take my picture while I am on the train. A few of them even ask to pose with me. I haven’t had anyone want to take my picture simply because I am a foreigner in a very long time. Perhaps it is the excitement of the metro, I’m not sure.

A few minutes later and we are stepping back out into the steaming heat and I can see nothing but roadwork. We trudge down the busy, relentless traffic. There seems little worth doing here and as the sun continues to blaze down, we are becoming exhausted. We are about to turn back, when we see a huge makeshift building the size of an aircraft hangar or ten. In two-foot-high letters, it reads Dongguan Fruit and Vegetable Transaction Market (though a few letters are missing).

IMG_9657-2sWe head inside and are confronted by the largest array of fruit (though, oddly, not vegetables) I have ever seen. There are trucks filled to the brim with watermelons that are almost the size of beach balls, as well as grapes, oranges, blueberries, avocados, pears, peaches and lemons. In the main hall, it looks like a wholesale market. It’s the sort of place you go to buy fruit by the crate, not the pound. Fortunately, it is the beginning of lychee season and we buy a jin for 16 kwai, subsequently sitting down at a table outside to eat them. Their cool, fragrant flesh is welcoming.

We get comfortable and decide to order a much deserved lunch. It was a simple meal: three bowls of rice, a large plate of green beans with pork belly and a plate of cucumber and chicken, all washed down with a cold Chinese beer. We start to feel good about the journey and head back underground.

5. Tianbao

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Stepping outside to Tianbao, things feel very familiar, maybe too familiar. I quickly realize why when I look up and see my old apartment. I’m slightly defeated. Despite being just 10 minutes’ walk to the center of Dongcheng, there is nothing in the immediate vicinity. Hell, even McDonald’s didn’t deliver to my apartment in Tianbao. Thinking about it, that’s probably why I left.

Without the metro, I almost certainly never would have visited this small oasis of calm in my lifetime, but now I have. The metro begins to make more sense.

Nevertheless, we stick to the plan and cast off on a wander. A few minutes later, we come across a youth hostel. Curious, we pop in. I can’t imagine why Dongguan would bother having a youth hostel. It’s not a casual stop-off point for backpackers on the way to Yangshou. In other words, the banana pancake trail, it isn’t.

IMG_9705-2sStill, the hostel is brand-spanking new. There’s table football, a pool table, and a balcony for BBQs. Dorms start at a reasonable 60 RMB. We still can’t work out why the hostel is in Dongguan, but we grab a quick game of table football all the same. After leaving, we decide to walk a little further and within a couple of minutes, we are outside Dongguan University of Technology, Guancheng campus. That must be it.

Tianbao is the stop for students and, presumably, confused backpackers. Heading back to the metro, a company with a large red banner is posing at the station for photographs. It seems everyone wants to mark the day.

We head to pay for another set of blue disks and move on to our next destination, but there is a yellow plastic cone in front of the ticket machine and a sign that says, under maintenance. Nobody can say Dongguan is failing to offer an authentic metro experience.

6. Dongcheng

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The next step is even more familiar than the last. We are in the heart of Dongcheng, the expat nerve center, so to speak. Within five minutes’ walk are all my local spots: the pub where I drink, the Walmart where I shop, the place I occasionally go for a spot of archery, as well as both the Israeli and the Turkish restaurants where I often have my dinner. It’s even got my IMAX cinema. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and today it is true. The place that I’m most familiar with is the locale where I spend the least amount of time.

DSC01726After a quick cigarette, it is back into the Dongguan Metro. Before I can get down, three girls in their late teens accost me, “Can you tell us about your feelings on the metro?” they ask. They work for a Dongguan website and I’m caught slightly off-guard and not sure what to say despite already having spent half the day, thinking quite specifically about my thoughts on the Dongguan Metro, even going so far as to make notes on the topic. I stutter some nonsense about it being an exciting day, but it is too early to make any conclusions. They all giggle at my response. Thanking them (I have no idea why), I head on for the next leg.

7. Qifeng Park

DSC_0316Ah, Qifeng Park, Dongguan’s spiritual center. I consider the temple where people go for luck on the evening of Chinese New Year, that iconic red lantern—in a spot that has been considered auspicious and lucky for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, and now I’m standing on the steps of its newly-minted metro station, staring up at that lantern. Is this luck, I’m not sure?

What I actually want to do is nip around the corner to the Pullman Hotel and grab a foot massage, but time is moving swiftly and we haven’t even made it halfway. We need to move on. Inside the station, I decide to check out one of the many Paradise bakeries that I’ve been seeing all day. Though a tiny stand, it bafflingly has five staff, all eager to help. I buy a muffin and carton of ice tea and head to the escalator.

 

8. Hong Fu Lu

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At this one, we pop up right outside the Dongguan Exhibition Center, a building that has been rumored to be be knocked down for years. We are, for the time being at least, in Dongguan’s central business district, or CBD. A little up the road and we have Dongguan’s Central Square. A little further still is the Yulan Theater. I look around for the weird red statue that is supposed to represent Dongguan, but I can’t see it.

DSCF7848Thinking about symbols, I glance up at the symbol for the metro and can’t for the life of me tell what it is. I feel it looks like the lowercase E. My photographer, who is standing on the other side, suggests it’s the number nine. As logos go, it is unimpressive and I wonder how much it had cost to design. Perhaps it’s a grower, not a shower. I’m later informed that it is actually the letter G, for guan, and its swooshing effect is supposed to represent the busyness of the city. So, there you go.

9. Xiping

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Back on the train, there is a video showing dos and don’ts of appropriate metro behavior (do give up seats for old ladies; don’t lie across seats and sleep). In fact, of all the dos and don’ts I see throughout the day, the one that stands out is a rule that passengers are not to use the subway to transfer livestock, which all things considered, seems a reasonable request (and one that appeared to be adhered to, as well).

“This is where the new CBD is being built. It will be the headquarters of the metro, too. Where they will build the command center”

Before today, the only time I had been to visit Xiping was to check out a little craft beer bar. It crosses my mind, but today it is closed for renovations, so that idea is firmly pushed out the window. For now, at least, there is little to report.

IMG_9749-2sThere’s a large tree-lined avenue where cars are whizzing by and it seems like a dangerous stretch of road to dump a metro station. The only thing of note is a gargantuan building site covered in diggers. My colleague, who knows everything about Dongguan, by the way, fills me in on the details.

“This is where the new CBD is being built. It will be the headquarters of the metro, too. Where they will build the command center” she says. Well, if they are going to drop the best part of 20 billion RMB, it figures to build a decent command center. It looks like Xiping is also finally on the map.

“This station over ground will also be the over ground intersection for people who want to take the train to Huizhou,” she says. “Though there is not much happening in Xiping right now, things will certainly change in the future.”

10. Hadi

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Getting out at Hadi, we are instantly in a dustbowl. There is a vast expanse of land that has more diggers on it, waiting to be developed, on my left. On my right, there’s a store, Dongguan Inway Chemical Co., Ltd. and row of shops for various airlines: Air Asia, Bayunport, China Southern and Air China. There is a building that says Dongguan Airport, all of which would make anyone new to the area believe that Dongguan has its own airport. It doesn’t, of course.

In fact, this building actually bills itself as an airport check-in for passengers flying from Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Except that is misleading, too; for it’s actually an airport bus service. Still, with the metro out of the way, surely it is only a matter of time before DG gets its own airport. The afternoon is growing late and we are all exhausted. We sit staring at the “airport,” eating ice cream and drinking Sunkist and Gatorade before readying ourselves to go underground for what is effectively the final third of our trip.

11. Chenwu

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In many ways, Chenwu is the most remarkable of the places we have visited. Looking around, we see nothing but smashed concrete, crumbling factories, and second-hand car dealerships. This place is utter decay exemplified. If the subway’s aim was to revitalize blighted areas, they had found one hell of a contender in Chenwu. There are junkyards, tire shops, rusty lorries, and topless men dozing on their electric trikes. The place is completely industrial. We look around for 10 minutes before heading back underground to continue our somewhat surreal journey.

12. Liaoxia

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The three minutes’ journey from Chenwu to Liaoxia signified the biggest shift in gears we’ve seen. Where a few minutes previously, I felt like I had been in a fading open-air factory, Liaoxia is perhaps one of the most developed areas in the whole of Dongguan. A huge Wanda Plaza stands immediately outside the station with all the usual suspects inside: Fila, Uniqlo, Nike and Pizza Hut. Nearby, there is a giant Sheraton hotel and another huge building was being built in the area, where Hilton is said to have the lease. Kangle commercial street is just around the corner and it is thriving.

In Chenwu, people looked like farmers. Here, it was resolutely middle class and people looked younger, healthier, richer—there was even a Mercedes dealership.

This place is like Dongcheng on crack, only without the foreigners. In Chenwu, people looked like farmers. Here, it was resolutely middle class and people looked younger, healthier, richer—there was even a Mercedes dealership. It seemed unlikely, but perhaps, in time, the metro would make Chenwu a little more like Liaoxia, only just a few kilometers away.

13. Shanmei

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If the journey often felt a little more like a rollercoaster than a subway (at least in socio-economic terms), it continues in Shanmei. If Liaoxia was tinsel town, then Shanmei is a ghost-town. East of the station, there is a huge estate of faded residential buildings surrounded by scaffolding. It is difficult to tell if they were being built or pulled down. My photographer told me that they had been there for years, now just waiting to be demolished—thousands of empty properties left to rot in the sun.

IMG_9878-2sA stone’s throw from these buildings, a tanned China-man is moving earth around in a large green digger that said Kobelco. He shifts a little bit of earth in the digger and then stops, looking confused, like he is not sure what to do next. To the west of the metro is a large, abandoned bus station that once served as Houjie’s main transport hub, but had long since moved. You can see the empty face of where its clock had once been. The ebb and flow of development clearly has its winners and losers. Shanmei seemed like the land that time forgot and you can only imagine the surprise at being told they were getting their own metro station.

14. Exhibition Center

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The next stop is Exhibition Center, or the Guangdong Modern International Center, to give the building its full name. It is a little confusing as I had always assumed Dongguan’s main exhibition center was the one in the CBD in Nancheng, but it appears not. Most of the province’s huge exhibitions actually happen here.

Among the wide avenues littered with outside furniture stores, the exhibition center loomed large. It’s a huge building that hosts some of the biggest trade fairs throughout the nation. A large poster nearby tells of a Buddhist relics exhibition that would be held soon. The trade shows offered here are numerous: the China International Animation Copyright Fair, the International Famous Furniture Fair, the China Processing Trade Products Fair, the Taiwan Competitive Products Expo and the Maritime Silk Road International Exhibition Fair. Still, it somehow seemed unlikely that I would ever visit the building again.

15. Humen Railway Station

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Things take a drastic change as we leave for our final destination and the train slowly begins to rise from below. Instead of being underground, we move over ground and the train becomes a mono-rail of sorts. You can see Humen at street level, and then higher and higher, with the train finally arriving in a high tech cocoon that looks like something out of Blade Runner.

Things take a drastic change as we leave for our final destination and the train slowly begins to rise from below. You can see Humen at street level, and then higher and higher, with the train finally arriving in a high tech cocoon that looks like something out of Blade Runner.

The entire area feels like a transport hub of sorts. There is a bus station and hundreds of taxis outside. The metro here also serves as a transfer station to Humen railway station, which offers trains to Changsha, Guilin, Wuhan, Xian and Beijing, among other places. For those that want to learn about one of the most significant events in Dongguan’s history, the Opium Wars Museum is nearby, too.

It is now well after five and we look around at the hustle and bustle of Humen as one of the trains left the stations to head back north. Our photographer rushes to grab a photo as it speeds off.

Dongguan feels like a city that is stuck in time, but concurrently very much on the move. The metro, as well as the constant signs of development we’ve seen throughout the day are a hint of the city’s future to come. It was time to go home. We walk out onto the main road and hail a taxi.

Photos by Trout Liang

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