Dongguan Expats: Then VS Now

For most expats, it may be difficult to imagine Dongguan 20 years ago. We delve into a time before the convenience of modern transport options and the luxury of western supplies.

Do you still remember what it felt like, your very first day here in Dongguan? What about your first week? The excitement and confusion, amplified by jet lag, the myriad of decisions you had to make, the hopes and fears of those early days… Now imagine arriving here fifteen, twenty or even thirty years ago instead; like the veterans that I interviewed for this issue did, with nothing to prepare them for what they were about to encounter in this distant and strange place that was to become their home. What was it like back then, leaving their families in Europe, North or South America to move to the other side of the world?

I myself have only lived in Dongguan for two years and it would be fair to say that for me, it was love at first sight. Qifeng Park was here to greet me with its luscious jungle-like nature and its mysterious temples, wrapped up in incense smoke. WeChat, DiDi and their peers all conspired to make my life almost easier than back home. With plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from, as well as a variety of supermarkets and specialized grocery shops, I could find almost anything I needed and TaoBao would cater for the rest. Having spoken to a select few of those who made the same transition a couple of decades earlier, I’ve come to realize that it hasn’t always been this way.

Whether you’ve lived here for just a few months or a few years, you have most probably already witnessed some changes: a giant new hotel taking shape in just a matter of months; smart shared bikes replacing the rigid city bikes system; fancy recycling stations appearing outside your front door overnight… And with our city constantly evolving at such a groundbreaking speed, you can imagine the incredible changes that our long-term Dongguaners have had the opportunity to observe throughout the years.

Surely you can relate to the tremendous excitement and curiosity I felt upon meeting with these experienced expats, listening to them reminisce about their past and describe the way the city has transformed since they first arrived. They all have their unique stories to tell and a rather diverse set of impressions and opinions to share. There was one thing they seem to agree on though: the quality of life in Dongguan is steadily improving, our city today is much more welcoming to strangers and easier to live in. We are so lucky to be here, now!

Martin Kaipl
In China from 1989-12-02

Martin was just 19 years old when he arrived in China for the first time. It was 1989 when he and his boss, whom Martin was a personal assistant to at the time, landed in Hong Kong on their way to the Mainland. Getting a visa on the spot was quite easy and quick in those days, the foreigners willing to cross the border being still few and far between. His first reaction upon arriving? “This is not China!” No, the buildings and landscape of the Pearl River Delta that he crisscrossed had little in common with the pictures in his head of graceful houses with sweeping curved roofs rising in the corners, decorated with dragons and lions. The kind he’d find only years later, preserved in a few places such as Keyuan Garden.

If Martin was surprised by China, so were the local people to see him. Many had never met a foreigner before. He still remembers a lady with a baby who handed over the infant to him to hold, so that she could take a picture of them. Less amusing was when people would come close and pull at the hair on his arms and legs to check if it was real.

For the next 12 years of his life, Martin would travel to China regularly, spending two weeks in the country every six weeks. Working for a German lighting factory, his job was constantly evolving and his interest in Southern China was growing steadily as well. Eventually, in 2003, he started a new job, at yet another German lighting company, and this time he moved to Dongguan to stay.

Soon Martin discovered that there was a vast difference between visiting the city, however regularly, and actually living here. It was fun exploring and “roughing it out” for a month or so, but then the lack of basic necessities like mineral water, coffee and Western food started to take its toll. He still remembers the sense of relief at the grand opening of Metro, the store in Wanjiang that made his life so much easier. And how grateful he was for his favorite restaurant at that time, Rhine River Castle in the Dongguan Hotel, one of the few places to get a decent Western meal.

Well, most of us, recent arrivals to Dongguan, are just as grateful for the genuine German bread, pastries and food that we can count on at Martin’s Bakery. You might think it’s been here forever, but it turns out it’s quite a recent addition to the local scene. When a friend of Martin’s approached him with the idea of opening a proper German bakery, he didn’t hesitate for long. But he opted to expand the concept to include a restaurant as well and was adamant on the location: it had to be in the heart of Dongcheng. And so, it was in April 2013 that the new project was launched to the delight of all discerning expats and locals.

So, Dongguan has changed for the better during the past couple of decades, not least thanks to the effort of entrepreneurs like Martin himself. Yet he confesses that a part of him misses the city as it was when he first arrived—more of a village really—simple and friendly. He tells me that deep down he’s just a country lad who longs for that simplicity, and that he’ll probably return to his small village in Germany once it’s time to retire.

Speaking of retirement plans brings us to the interview’s final question, about the future of Dongguan. “The city is becoming a big technological hub,” says Martin, “No longer relying on cheap labor to attract investors from China and abroad.” That, combined with the increasingly strict enforcement of environmental rules and regulations, is making Dongguan more and more pleasant to live in. Life here is actually very convenient. “As long as you have enough money,” he adds.

As we wrap up the interview (and I am finishing a delicious pretzel), I notice that Martin is in high spirits. He’s off to Germany for his annual leave just the day after, he tells me, and so I wish him a happy family reunion in the countryside that he so sorely misses.

Jorge & Nathalie Schnorr
In China from 1999-02-19

Jorge arrives well-prepared for our interview, bringing along two fine additions: a collection of his old passports, irrefutably supporting his claim to being a true Dongguan veteran, and—more importantly—his charming 18-year-old daughter Nathalie, who has spent practically all her life in this city. The evidence is clear, the stamp in one of the passports reads February 19, 1999, which means it was just over 20 years ago that Jorge arrived in Dongguan, a young man on his very first trip abroad, with only a vague idea about the mysterious country that was about to become his home.

It was no doubt an overwhelming experience after the long and strenuous journey across the globe. And it did feel a bit like an exile: these were the days before the internet, to make a phone call home was expensive and limited to 60 minutes per month. Jorge recalls how at first glance everyone in China looked the same to him, with their identical black hair and black eyes. And how much he really stood out—being a tall and blond Brazilian guy of German descent meant it was impossible for him to blend in. People would point at him and call him “Gweilo” (“Ghost Foreigner” in Cantonese).

He never expected to stay here for so long, but the economic conditions in China kept getting better, unlike those in Brazil. His company, participating in Dongguan’s booming shoes industry, was growing steadily. Even though his role in product assessment did not change much over the years, the scope of his job did, so he never felt bored.

Jorge tells me about the traffic back then: it was not as heavy, but driving skills were even poorer than they are today. Can you believe there were only three traffic lights in the whole of Dongguan? These were supplemented by plenty of roundabouts, where drivers would randomly take a right or a left turn. He fondly recalls his first Japanese motorbikes, a Honda 400cc replaced later on by a Yamaha VMAX. The traffic police would not stop a foreigner back then, so speeding was not a problem. Once baby Nathalie was born though, he decided to sell his bike.

Western-style food was not easy to come by so Jorge had a chance to taste plenty of exotic local delicacies instead. Dog meat used to be very popular. The dogs would sit in cages outside a restaurant and you could choose which one you wanted to eat and how you wanted it prepared. He found snake meat really delicious and the ritual around cooking it fascinating. Meanwhile, at the grocery store he often felt like a shoplifter, bringing along a small knife so he could cut a hole in the big unlabeled sacks and check out whether he’d be buying flour, salt, sugar or something else. As soon as a foreigner stumbled upon familiar yet difficult-to-find goods, the word would spread fast and everyone would flock to the place. Until an entrepreneurial fellow countryman would think of the brilliant idea to buy out the whole stock and resell it at a higher price, that is.

Nathalie’s early childhood memories bring her back to the bar where expats would gather for drinks or sometimes a bite of Western food, known as China Groove, where she spent many evenings with her parents and their friends. It was close to the Silverland Hotel—Dongguan’s tallest building at the time. Back then Nancheng was the real hub of the city, Dongcheng as we know it did not exist. According to Jorge, New World Garden was still a cemetery surrounded by wasteland.

Both of them agree that the city has become much more comfortable, yet I can’t help sensing a little nostalgia (the famous Brazilian saudade perchance?) so I ask them what it is about the old Dongguan that they miss. “The former expat community,” Nathalie is quick to reply. She misses the way the early bunch of expats used to have more respect for the local people and their customs.

As for the future of Dongguan, both of them agree that the city will keep growing and prospering. “I’d love to come back in ten or fifteen years from now,” Nathalie continues, laughing, “I probably won’t recognize the place though.”

Gisele De Souza
In China from 2002-04-13

It was work that first brought Gisele to Dongguan in April 2002. Like most Brazilians coming over at that time, she was riding on the wave of the thriving leather and shoes business. She was young, but by no means inexperienced; this was already her second overseas posting. The first one had been a five-months-long stint in Chennai, India.

“After working in Chennai for a while, coming to Dongguan was not a shock at all, more of a pleasant surprise,” she tells me. She was happy to discover that the traffic situation in China was better, people were not as poor, you could find both toilet paper and washing powder at the local Walmart store, etc. What were her colleagues complaining about, really?

Okay, so there was the language barrier of course. Unlike in India, few people here spoke any English. Even the simplest tasks, like taking a taxi, became problematic without a basic command of Mandarin or Cantonese, let alone communicating with her professional contacts at the local factories. I’m sure it took a lot of patience and courage to persevere working in this environment, as Gisele did, switching roles and eventually, even industries.

Yet she resiliently stayed on, extending her contracts a few years at a time, until Dongguan slowly but surely started to feel like home. Even more so once she’d met her Brazilian husband here. “Language is not as much of a problem anymore either,” she tells me, now that she has her two very own experts, fluent in both oral and written Mandarin: a 12-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son.

Gisele shares with me the story, more of a family legend nowadays, of how she managed to “lose” her future mother- and sister-in-law during their first visit to Dongguan. Not used to the high-rises of China, the confused ladies couldn’t even find their way out of the building, while Gisele, waiting for them outside and slowly succumbing to panic, didn’t know what to tell her husband-to-be when he called to enquire about his mom and sister’s well-being.

“Changes in China take place so much faster here than in Brazil,” says Gisele. She’s literally seen Dongguan being built, compounds like New World Garden, Dynatown and Moon Bay popping up like mushrooms all over the place.There used to be only a handful of venues for foreigners to hang out and now there is an endless number of choices. In only a matter of years the city has got a subway line and a speed train connection. Visiting Brazil twice a year, it’s quite obvious that not much is happening there by comparison.

It’s great to see that Gisele feels very positive about the future of Dongguan. Naturally, she’s seen companies moving out some of their operations to other, lower-cost countries. Yet China still boasts so many advantages that the more serious ones will probably stay put and expand instead, she believes. The authorities are enforcing environmental rules more vigorously now as well, which naturally aids the city in becoming a better place to live in. She loves the way the city council makes sure to plant flowers and trees everywhere and how the seasonal decorations keep changing, spreading a cheerful atmosphere.

If there’s one thing she regrets, she reveals before we part, it is that she didn’t think to document better the rapid changes that this city has so blissfully witnessed. “Wouldn’t it be amazing, for example, if I’d thought to take a picture of the CNY decoration on Dongcheng Square every year since I arrived here? I’ve been through more than one cycle of the zodiac calendar already.” I too regret the loss, yet I have a feeling that listening to her stories is quite a fair substitute.

Nick Liao
In China from 2004-11-18

Back in 2004, Nick Liao didn’t really look forward to moving to Dongguan of all places. The young man had never been to China before, but had heard enough about the country’s backward ways to put him off. Why would anyone want to live in a place where people didn’t even feel the need to put doors to their bathrooms? The dirt roads and shabby buildings of Shijiezhan—where Nick spent his first time in Dongguan—didn’t do much to dispel his misgivings.

Yet somehow, he lingered on. Good old Dongguan managed to grow on him. Maybe it was his job, taking care of the foreign teachers in a newly established international school, that kept him here. His American-Taiwanese background must have been perfect for the role. Being fluent in Mandarin was a blessing at a time when few people in this city spoke any English. It was also easy for him to understand the plight of the foreign teachers, as an American he basically felt the same. Or maybe what kept him here was meeting his future wife, a young lady from Hubei who was also new to Dongguan.

Upon asking Nick to describe his early years here, the picture he paints is rather bleak. The frequent drive-by robberies that had the teachers too frightened to go out at night, the scarcity of familiar foreign foods, the lack of transportation options, the constant changing of rules and regulations. Here marked the time he bought an electric scooter only to find out a couple of months later that he wasted his money, as these were banned by the authorities.

What he really disliked most back then though was the lack of respect for privacy that he perceived as impolite. Being a rather tall guy, he stood out among Guangdong’s petite inhabitants. People would not just stare at him, but openly comment on his appearance or, even worse, talk about him as if he wasn’t there or couldn’t understand them. Even in the hospital there would always be a dozen or so other patients surrounding him and straining to hear all the symptoms he was trying to relate to the doctor. And oh, by the way, the doctor would be smoking while examining him.

Nowadays, locals are much more accustomed to seeing foreigners and their manners have improved dramatically, according to Nick. Life in this city is getting easier and easier. Transportation is convenient, you can buy anything you fancy in the shops or online, delivery services work. “A few things have changed for the worse though,” adds Nick. The ever-increasing bureaucracy and tightening regulations make it too difficult to hire or even re-hire foreign teachers these days. Perfectly capable English teachers are being disqualified just because they happen to hold the wrong type of passport.

Nick’s professional life has also evolved throughout the years: from school administrator, to private tutor and a small-business owner. His ability to seek new opportunities and adjust to the dynamic environment of Dongguan is truly admirable. His little shop, that used to sell toys, took a hit once TaoBao and other online stores became popular. Instead of closing shop, he just changed the business model and turned it into a creative workshop, a place where anyone can come and learn how to make beautiful leather carvings. In fact, all throughout the interview, Nick is patiently working on a piece of leather that slowly yields to the desired form under his fingers.

As our conversation comes to a close, I want to hear what he thinks about the future of our city. As any other young father would do, he starts talking about the future of his kids instead. So, we end up discussing the merits and draw-backs of the Chinese educational system, a topic to expand on some other time perhaps. The weak winter sun is penetrating every corner of Nick’s charming little shop as I wave goodbye and leave him lost in memories and thoughts about the future.