Guancheng is one of the few pieces of land that has preserved a little bit of the local culture in this rapidly changing city. The younger or wealthier have moved out to more prosperous districts of Dongcheng and Nancheng, yet they come back often for the same memorable tastes that lit up childhoods when times were more difficult. And because of this attachment to the pleasures of youth, these old businesses have not only survived, but continue to thrive.
These foods and their simple flavors may not be the tastiest, but their reputation and the trust that was built over the years draws people to come back again and again, believing the food is prepared in the same old-time way without harmful chemicals.
Here in Guancheng, around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a line of cars moves slowly toward the Xichuan Agricultural Trade Market on two pothole-marked, one-way streets, Daxi and Zhenghua Roads, for cheap food and daily necessities. Seniors sit in front of shops, vigorously talking to owners and neighbors. Dogs and cats on “Pet Street” lounge lazily in cages, enjoying the gentle sunshine of autumn.
In Shifu Rong’s dim sum shop, trays of Guancheng Big Steamed Buns are properly steamed and set aside for later hours; In grandma Zhang’s own house/workshop, the first batch of fried breadstick dough is ready to be cut into small pieces and deep-fried; In grandma Chen’s candy shop, her daughter and grandson just finished the package of the sugared grapefruit skin that should ship to Taiwan; In Li Guizhi’s fish ball shop, Mr. and Mrs. Li are busy serving people with their curried fish balls.
Sugared Vegetables: A family tradition re-emerges
In grandma Chen’s shop, seven family members, including the young, old and the middle-aged were finalizing the last steps of their product, packing the sugared grapefruit skin into small plastic bags. The business has passed on through the family since the beginning of the last century, now in its fourth generation. But during onerous days, when private business wasn’t allowed in the decades between the 1950 and 1970, the family tradition survived within the system. Grandma, her husband and his brothers and their wives all worked in a state owned sweets shop where they could put their skills to work.
When they resumed their business in 1980, they were among the first batch of private businesses in Dongguan that received licenses after the Cultural Revolution. Their sweets haven’t changed at all for over half a century—Grandma Chen Fang learned from her husband how to make the sugared items when they married in 1950—but they have added new items such as rock-sugared winter melon and malt-sugared grapefruit skin. They still keep most of the processes done by hand because machines can’t reach the family’s high expectations. For example, the ingredients should be cut slightly thinner at the beginning of the year and thicker at the end to adjust for changes in humidity.
Traditionally, they make sugared winter melon, sugared lotus seed, sugared carrots and sugared grapefruit skin, which are merely cooked vegetables dipped with melted sugar. “We don’t want to lose this traditional snack,” said Grandma Chen. “It’s like an old quilt which still keeps us warm. As long as it can make our ends meet we don’t want to lose this from our past generations.” In fact, their business has never been better. Now these sugared items are sold not only all over Dongguan, but also Hong Kong and Taiwan through trade companies.
Guancheng Big Steamed Bun: The pride of Shifu Rong
When Rong Zhiping, known as Shifu Rong, first started as a dim sum cook when he was 16, his job was merely carrying drinking water all the way from the Yunhe (the Dongguan Canal, at a time when it was clean). His career has lasted more than 40 years. He progressed through local restaurants; moved on as a consultant to help local business owners; passed on his cooking techniques as a teacher; and now he has opened his own dim sum shop in Guancheng.
“It was quite funny. When the shop was just opened, people who moved to Dongcheng and Nancheng came back and said they hadn’t eaten the Guancheng big steamed bun for such a long time,” beamed Rong Liyi, Shifu Rong’s daughter who learned the skills and helps in the shop. “We had no idea how they got the news so quickly,” she said.
Bigger than a grown-up’s fist, the Guancheng big steamed bun was invented by Shifu Rong when he worked in the prestigious Guancheng Restaurant. “Why there was no one signature dish in Guancheng Restaurant? I just called it ‘Guancheng big steamed bun,’” Shifu Rong bragged. Instead of filling them with minced meat, the bun is crammed full with a few pieces of hand-pulled pork, a chunk of deboned chicken leg, a quarter of a tea-boiled egg and a piece of dried mushroom, at a cost of only RMB 2.50.
Fried Breadstick: Grandma Zhang’s survival bread
Hidden in one of the narrow side alleys of Zhiting Street, grandma Zhang’s two-story, tiled-roof house was tough to find until a local aunty offered a little guidance. And when the home shop was found, a fragile elderly man shifted his attention from a television for a warm greeting with the small wave of a tremoring hand.
Starting the business in 1986, Zhang Xiaolian learned the skills from an old colleague when she worked in a state-owned factory during the 70’s. It had become the family’s sole source of income after her husband got Parkinson’s Disease, a disorder that affects the nervous system, when he was 45-years-old. “It was so hard,” she smiled bitterly, shaking her head. “I had to take him to the hospital, I needed to take care of my two sons, and I should rush back every afternoon to make the breadsticks. But I have never asked for a dime from the government. I did it all on my own. No choice.”
And that’s where we found her, busy cutting the dough in her 4-sq. meter workshop at the end of the house. Every day at about 3 o’clock, she starts to make the sweet-smelling fried bread sticks with the help of her old colleague. With the exception of the few customers who find the place and pick up the treats from her home, the handmade treats are provided to three local restaurants around Guancheng.
Fish Balls: Sibling rivalry gets fishy
Everyone in the neighborhood knows about the argument between the two brothers who own separate fish ball shops right next to each other. Many support the younger brother, yet some side with the older. No matter what disagreement they hold, their fish balls are equally delicious with real ingredients.
In 1983, the older brother, Li Guizhi started to make fish balls and sell them to nearby neighbors. But shortly after, he decided to get into the garment business and taught the younger brother Li Suzai, nicknamed “Four Eyes,” how to make fish balls and continued the business. Relying on the older brother’s recipe and the younger brother’s diligence, the business went pretty well and his name, Four Eye’s Fish Balls, has become well-known. In 2006, the older brother wanted to get back into the business, but younger brother refused. So he changed his living room to a shop selling the same products right next to his younger brother’s.
Deep-Fried Radish Cake: No story needed for my favorite
Almost everyone born during the 1980s has tried this local delicacy for just RMB 0.50 in their youth. The crispness of the crust and the amazing fragrance of the combination of five-spice powder, radish and leek make it outstanding, even now with the modern plethora of snack choices to compare it to. The treat offered by non-licensed household businesses or street venders was widely spread around the city in the 90’s. Today, Aunt Wu has picked up the old popular item and opened a stand in Zhenghua Road, selling each for RMB 2.