Explaining First-Tiers, again

An incredible amount of fuss has been made about Dongguan becoming a first-tier city. The question is, why? One writer seems to have figured out the secret.

Hamburger with money on the white backgroundIt seems fitting that the final Expatriated column for a while should be written a mere couple of weeks after its writer returned to Dongguan, albeit briefly. It had been a year since last setting foot in the ancient village-come-city, but more importantly it was the first time that I was here since it had been re-branded a “first-tier” metropolis.

Of course, there was an eagerness to see what new additions had caused such an unexpected upgrade. What sparkly bells and whistles had been used to spruce up the neighbourhood? Did Qifeng Park have a Disneyworld? Had the hookers finally returned? Would I get mugged in a ghetto trying to score a few rocks of crack? Could I buy a burger at Wendy’s before joining an impromptu anti-Trump march?

Such contortions make one wonder just what it takes to be first or second-tier. Just how many tiers are there in the first place? How bad could a ninth-tier city possibly be? Presumably dead bodies are left to rot on the street or are scavenged upon by feral dogs.

Actually, nothing happened, other than part of the city being taken hold by a bingo craze. The same people were winning the poker and pub quizzes, the hangovers were just as vicious (if not more so) and Dongguaners were still obsessed with adopting stray cats and dogs. Not much changes out here in expatria.

But it was all enough to make one briefly consider the city tier-system and what it represents. Such rankings seem peculiarly Chinese. Foreign cities are only described in this way when expats try to give their hometowns context to Chinese friends. And, yes, it is weird to hear a German guy saying he is going to visit his grandma in Leipzig, a second-tier city. Or for a Brit to explain that their boyfriend lives in Ipswich, a third-tier town in East Anglia.

Such contortions make one wonder just what it takes to be first or second-tier. Just how many tiers are there in the first place? How bad could a ninth-tier city possibly be? Presumably dead bodies are left to rot on the street or are scavenged upon by feral dogs. Or perhaps you simply can’t get a cup of coffee. No wait, in a ninth-tier city you can’t even get a decent cup of tea—in China, God forbid.

The writer of the dark China satire Party Members, Arthur Meursault, recently tackled the issue by giving a description of what he considers to be third-tier city. He nails it rather beautifully:

“A third-tier city has a KFC, but no McDonald’s. It will also have a branch of Dicos. There won’t a Starbucks, but there will be knock-offs like Moonbucks, or elaborately designed independent coffee shops that serve Blue Mountain coffee for 88 RMB and are awful. Everybody will say the city is ‘very world-famous’ for a certain dish that you’ve never heard of and on inspection resembles a smashed clam. There will be four foreigners living in the city. All four will be English teachers, and at least three of them will be alcoholics. Somewhere in the centre of town will be a ‘Tourist Heritage Site’ of a Ming Dynasty Temple that was built in 2007.”

There you have it. Just by having a McDonald’s (fist-bump) and a million Starbucks, DG is instantly put into, at least, the very respectable tier-two (4,000 English teachers and at least 3,000 of them alcoholics?). Still, what is it that sets the city apart and shoots it off into the stratosphere of the promised land called tier-one?

It’s a tough call, but I can’t help thinking it must have something to do with hamburgers. In 2009, Beijing felt like it was almost an international city, but not quite. There was a Burger King, for example, but it was at the airport.

Finally, having a few Burger Kings in the city made it feel like it was on its way into the very top rank. Perhaps DG’s smattering of Burger Kings tipped it over the edge in the rankings. Somewhere, a mid-ranking official chomped into a Whopper and had his eureka moment: “This is it. This shit is first-tier!”

In short, socio-economics all comes down to burgers, really. There probably is no other way to study a city besides its meat patties; that’s what will give you the true heart and soul of any nation. Burgernomics is real (no, really). Even the vaguely respectable magazine The Economist agrees, publishing their Big Mac Index since the 1986. Adding a bit of levity to a dismal science, the Economist believes that studying Big Mac prices gives you an understanding of the wealth and purchasing power of any given currency and therefore, any economy. Just for reference a Big Mac is 43% undervalued in China (hurrah).

Now, expats the world over often fret about whether they are in the right city, the right country, even. Should they stay or should they go? For those in this quandary, a simple burger test might help.

Simply, go to a place in town known for doing a good burger and order one. A) Is it a fair price? B) Does it taste good? If your answer to both is yes, you have no reason to leave to anywhere else.

Category Expatriated