One of my favorite parts of working in China as an industry researcher was getting to go to cities that most people – tourists in particular – avoid like the plague. These cities are not famous for their history (usually), nor their beauty (often), but they have a justified place in the hearts (and wallets) of anyone interested and involved in the China trade.
Two cities in particular stand out in my memories from my time studying the IT industry – Dongguan and Zhongshan. Neither of these cities rank very high on any tourist agenda – I have yet to see a package tour that includes either one – yet both are fascinating in their own ways and have tourist attractions geared more towards a Chinese audience. For a foreigner, this means they provide a fascinating look at how tourism works from the other side. None of the attractions here listed are industrial sites (although I find those infinitely interesting in my own nerdy sort of way). All are real tourist sites and are promoted as such by the municipal governments of both cities.
Attractions in Zhongshan:
Sun Zhongshan Residence (孙中山故居纪念馆): The father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen was born in Zhongshan in 1866. Then called Xiangshan, the town was one of China’s regions sending the most emigrants to Southeast Asia and elsewhere. After a few years of formal schooling he went to join his brother in Hawaii. His brother had grown prosperous as a merchant. The Sun family home reflects their prosperity. Like many older homes in towns and villages in Guangdong, those families with successful overseas ties often built large homes which merged Chinese and Western architectural styles. The family preserved their original homestead, however. It became the outdoor kitchen. The Sun Zhongshan home and museum makes an excellent introduction to the history of late imperial and early revolutionary China. It also provides a great look into the complicated life and times of the Father of China.
Zhongshan Commercial Street (孙文西路): In the late Qing and early Republican periods (roughly 1870-1930), the Pearl River Delta, like Shanghai, experienced a commercial and foreign trade induced economic boom. It was far from egalitarian yet the region gave rise to a cosmopolitan, externally-oriented commercial bourgeoisie. The old town center of Zhongshan has been restored to its original 1910s and 20s glory. The shops are painted in bright pastels accented with whitewashed crown molding and other embellishments. The commercial street is an excellent shopping opportunity or just a chance to browse and people-watch. While there, be sure to visit….
Xiangshan Commercial Culture Museum (香山商业文化博物馆): Celebrating the commercial prowess of the Cantonese and the emergence of the local capitalist class, this museum shows the development of modern market enterprises, trade, and industry in Xiangshan and elsewhere in China (the models of 1930s Shanghai department stores are quite interesting). The museum is mostly in Chinese but includes an interesting array of artifacts including old currency, trade documents, licenses and other bric-a-brac of turn-of-the-century commerce and the economy in the first post-revolution years.
Attractions in Dongguan:
Dongguan Humen Sea Battle Museum 海战博物馆 : To really understand modern China, you must understand the Opium War and in particular understand the Chinese perspective on this conflict. Indeed, the 1839-1841 war was, arguably, one of the most defining moments which led China on its course into revolution and modernization. The Humen Sea Battle Museum located on the banks of the Pearl River in southern Dongguan features artifacts, dioramas and other exhibits to show the course of the war and in particular the sea battles fought at the mouth of the Pearl River. Adjacent to the museum are several restored forts (炮台) which date back to the conflict. Some of the text on the exhibits sounds a little stilted but on the whole it is quite fair and balanced and provides an excellent insight into one of the defining events in modern Chinese history.
Dongguan Museum: Located on the central square, Dongguan’s museum provides a fascinating introduction to the market and political forces that have radically altered the face of China over the last 30 years. Of particular interest is the exhibit showing changes in the lives of the peasants. The 1970s display shows the wooden walls covered in newspapers – presumably as insulation and to keep out drafts. The 2000s display shows a whitewashed, air conditioned modern home. Of course this is the idealized conception for how much things have improved but it does drive home the point that a LOT has changed. Other exhibits show how opening and reform took place in Dongguan (before Shenzhen even, I might add) and how the growth of the industrial economy built a new city. The 3D diorama showing future expansion is interesting as well. Some may dismiss the museum as propaganda but in all honesty, it shows what has happened, how much has changed, and how there was a clear role for both market and political forces in driving that change which has greatly bettered the lives of millions.