Our hotel is in Changping and the plant is ten miles east in Qiaotou (pronunced chow tau). The hotel and plant are nice, but in between is a real adventure of crazy traffic, rampant poverty, and questionable food.
More Pictures of Changping
Guangzhou is the regional mega-city and has had a huge population for hundreds of years. It's been friendly to foreigners and their easy money since the Dutch stopped by in 1550, and was one of China's early special economic zones after their capitalist reforms of the 1980's. We're in southern China, just north of Hong Kong but sharing none of it's charisma.
No trip to China is complete without a visit to Changping. Not to be facetious, but this is the China that tourists don't want to see - full of insane traffic, bizarre vehicles, poverty, and a wall of humanity stretching beyond the horizon in every direction. This is where our jobs are going, where a dollar an hour is a good wage, and nobody owns a car yet the roads are choked with them. Those who wonder why I'm so quick to send our jobs overseas need to visit this slum - they need these meaningless jobs way more than we do.
I'm here to relieve Jim, Joe, and Tran, who are plenty tired of Chinese food and Chinese traffic, and are counting down their final few days. The story below is a typical week for us, living the Changping adventure.
This is the industrial fringe of Guangzhou, the Changping retail district with a bank and a mall across the street, and a colossal number of mom & pop stores in every direction. Our hotel is the best business class hotel in Dongguan county - the Hui Hua Hotel (wee wah) in downtown Changping. It's a pretty nice place, a typical business class hotel with restaurants, gift shops, a business center, a fitness center, and a pool on the fifth floor roof. I'm on the 18th of 30 floors, overlooking some rather dumpy tenements to the north and west.
Most of the workers in the hotel speak reasonable english, but it's surprising the words they don't know. The cashier had no idea what an American Express Traveler Check was. I asked the hostess of the hotel's Chinese Restaurant if this was the Chinese Restaurant and she didn't know what I was saying. But the toughest was describing a band-aid to someone who had never seen one and didn't speak english. I eventually got her to go to the first aid cabinet and I pointed it out. "Ah yes, ban-ay". I took three so I wouldn't have to do that again.
I like to hang out the window first thing in the morning to check out the weather and smog. There are several new apartments going up to the north with bamboo scaffolding climbing their sides. Construction workers are sleeping on the roof. These are migrant workers from the outer provinces, here to make some quick money but without a place to stay.
Breakfast at the hotel buffet is a good way to start the day, though it's woefully unexciting. It's the same old fare each day, with potatoes only on Thursday. There seems to be people from Cleveland anywhere I go. My first day at the hotel I was wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey and I wasn't in the buffet five minutes before someone tells me "it's nice to see a Cleveland fan on occasion". He was from Canton Ohio. After grabbing a coffee, omelet and handful of noodles, I headed downstairs to wait for the driver from the plant pick us up, and the adventure begins. The half hour ride from Changping to Qiaotou is a wild slice of humanity.
New construction is everywhere, mixed with the older slums - shiny new factories and dirty grease pit garages, new residential highrises and dirt floor sheds. New apartments are built by hand no matter how tall. Workers push wheelbarrels on the roof while daredevils leap from rung to rung on a giant web of bamboo scaffolding leaning against 20 floors of fresh concrete. Everything out here is cement, nothing is made of wood, which would rot overnight.
Individual homes are nowhere to be seen. Instead, everyone lives either in a highrise, a factory dormitory, or the back room of the family business. The newer ones seem nice enough, but the big majority are worn out, dirt floor sheds that have seen decades of neglect. These older neighborhoods are a sad collections of subsistence peddlers who support each other, though none make a livable wage.
Trash is everywhere. One park we pass each morning looks like there was a rock concert the night before. And not just litter, but construction debris and bags of refuse that seem to have fallen off a truck. Garbage collectors haul the stuff away but it seems no different the next day.
Beatup old vehicles of every imaginable type fight for space on potholed roads. Not just jerryrigged cars, but motorcycle taxis, 3-wheel pickup trucks, bicycles carrying cargo, and scooters carrying mom dad and the baby, all squeezing onto backstreets and highway alike. Old timers push giant loads on ancient bicycles with crooked wheels. Don't ask me where they're going, but with no pension they'll be pushing until they die. And unlike the U.S. where vehicles need a license to drive on the highway, anything is allowed on these roads as long as they can get out of the way when something bigger comes along.
The vehicles are crazy enough, but it's nothing like the traffic insanity where there's total disregard for traffic laws. Driving on the wrong side, splitting lanes, running red lights, blocking traffic, and incessant lane changing - anything is legal as long as you lay on the horn to announce it. Trucks and buses have the right away regardless of the law, while motorcycles zoom through traffic to fill the tiny spaces from every direction imaginable.
After complaining about traffic one particular morning, Vincent was telling me it's a different set of rules out here and I can't compare this to the U.S. At that particular time we were stopped at a light, when all of the sudden a city bus comes up from behind on the wrong side of the road and blows straight through the red light and into oncoming traffic. Traffic had to swerve around the bus, who then had to drive between oncoming lanes until he could cross back over. How about that Vincent, is that legal out here??? He'd be jailed for doing that in the U.S.
Motorcycles are the most common way to get around. They're more affordable than cars, and they can go anywhere. So that's what they do. Right way, wrong way, diagonal, sidewalk, red lights - motorcycles go anywhere with reckless disregard of sanity. They all have a death wish, plowing right through cross traffic or pedestrians on the sidewalk with equal apathy. And they're even good for the whole family. Last week one guy had his wife and baby on back when he blew right through the red light in front of a truck. They'd be jailed for doing that in the U.S.
The plant is a clean and organized place. Workers seem content with wages and conditions that are better than usual, but no where near those in the U.S. Behind the plant is a dormitory for the workers. Nearly everyone here lives in the dorm, some with their kids or parents. The gated compound keeps out strangers but they're free to come and go as they please.
This is a cable assembly factory where they build simple stuff like computer cables. My line builds more complicated micro-cables that require microscopes and specialized equipment. Jim, Joe and Tran setup the production line and now I'm there to keep it running. Most of the day is routine product repairs and training, then it's off to lunch with some of the locals.
We are in Qiaotou, a bland industrial town with wide streets and tired looking buildings. Every other shop seems to be either a construction supplier or restaurant. 3-wheel motorcycles and bicycles move supplies in an endless web of chaos like a gigantic beehive. The locals eat at the factory, but the fussy Americans want real food for lunch, so we all pile into a van and head to one of the nearby restaurants.
Let me be the first to go on the record: the Chinese restaurants in the U.S. are way better than the ones in China. It's generally pretty tasty, but they just cut up everything, bones gristle fat and all. Chicken and fish are never de-boned.
I started telling the guys, "I don't care what I eat, just so it's spicy chicken with no bones." That was after I got a plate of spicy chicken that was all neck pieces. This would never fly in the U.S. where Americans expect to shovel away slabs of meat without effort. I don't know if I've ever seen a piece of chicken bigger than a pencil eraser. I've had Alan ask the waitress several times if they have any chicken without bones and the answer is always NO. And I've never seen white meat either. The Chinese don't like it, but what do they do with it? It's on the chicken, it has to be going somewhere.
But other than the horrible cuts of meat, it's generally pretty tasty. Another difference is the huge selection of options, it's common for a menu to have 50 or 100 items listed - a vast selection of meats, vegetables, and spices. I even tried frog at one point, it really does taste like chicken. But this is a real problem for a lone traveler (like me). These restaurants assume groups of five to ten, where everyone gets something different then it's all placed in the middle of the table and everyone grabs parts of everyone else's. It's a fun way to sample a wide variety of food, but for a single person it just doesn't work. Every time I've tried it I ended up with enough for four.
Another oddity is that some restaurants do the dishes in dirty water, so when we get our hot tea we don't drink it, we use it to wash the utensils. But I don't care, nearly everyone has gotten sick here, but not me, I grew up swimming in the most polluted lake in the country (Erie), so now I'm immune to everything. I was even drinking from the faucet today - those germs can go to hell.
Two days after I originally wrote that, I had diarrhea. It was no big deal, but thank god for McDonalds. No matter how bad the food is anywhere in the world, you can always get something edible from McD's. I even have the local guys asking to go to McDonalds now.
The work day is mostly boring, but going home after work is no big treat either. There's pretty much nothing fun to do in Changping, except go out to eat. This is different from lunch - once we're back at the hotel, we're on our own. Rather than eating at the hotel, we head down the slummy street to find a decent restaurant.
Changping is an ok looking market town with several business class hotels and decent shopping. But a walk down the street is depressing. The sidewalks are crowded with shoppers and retailers, while subsistence vendors sit on corners selling their own little collection of trinkets or fruits. Hookers patrol the streets looking for single guys (preferably rich americans), and one grabbed my arm until I told her "Boo" (no). Bums follow you down the street begging for money, ignoring "boo" until the cops chase them off. Several badly disabled destitutes sit on the sidewalk, missing an arm or leg, with their bowl in front of them. They at least can't chase you down the sidewalk, but just sit there in a trance for what seems to be days without moving.
Corner vendors are everywhere in China. Everyone trying to sell you the same thing you've already seen at a thousand other vendors. These markets have been running for thousands of years in China, and apparently everyone is out to sell something or other. Where are they getting it all, there must be a thousand people in this town selling the same bracelets.
And it has all the same noisy chaotic traffic as the drive to work. Except now that we are pedestrians we get to experience firsthand the thrill of walking in the busy street because cars are parked on the sidewalk, and crossing streets that have no stop signs while cars zoom all around without looking. Cars weave across all angles of the road and the noisy incessant honking seems to never end while we sweat in the hot steamy grime at the end of the day.
So we finally pick a restaurant. This is even scarier than the traffic. You have no idea what you'll get until you get the food. Beef could be meat, organs, tendons, or just about anything. Chicken could be head, feet or skin, but will never be white meat. Most menus are in Chinese, but even with pictures it's a real crapshoot. Sometimes the hostess is a help, but usually not. "What part of the cow did THAT come from?" and they don't have a clue. This is where Tran is a big help. She can't read Chinese, but has a real talent for identifying the items in the pictures and consistently comes up with interesting choices.
Jim and Joe have been here for more than a month and I prefer going to places that they've already approved. We stopped in at a fancy place at the hotel next door, and it was a load of fun. The entryway had a whole wall of fish tanks where we can pick out our favorite for the grill, but we usually pass on that and just order off the menu. When the waitress asked what I wanted to drink, I asked for a beer list, but she didn't know what that was and sent for another waitress. Ok, beer menu, drink menu, menu... they didn't know what any of the was and sent another waitress, then another, then another, until someone finally brought the drink menu. I ordered a Guinness. Then the same thing happened with sugar. After about 15 minutes and five waitresses they finally brought a small saucer of white powder, then Tran says "taste it first". So I did and it didn't taste like sugar so I didn't use it. (Turns out it really was sugar.)
Before I got there they had gone to a restaurant called Yum Yum Thai. Apparently the food was good and spicy, enough to make Jim's eyes water. So all week Tran was edging him on, "Tonight we go to Yum Yum Thai, I want to see Jeem cry". So Thursday that's what we did. The food was great: a huge variety, super spicy and hardly any bones. This might have been the best Thai food I'd ever had, spicy but not painful. I was purposely avoiding the little red peppers but the others were eating them.
Tran was eating everything and lots of it. She's from Vietnam and eats those red peppers like candy. She's tall and thin, looking like she's starving herself but in fact was eating more than Jim Joe or me at nearly every meal. And this one is no different, Tran did most of the ordering and most of the eating. We went through a couple of beers and put away a a giant assortment of spicy meats, spicy vegetables, and peppers stuffed with peppers. In the end, no one was crying but I felt like I was under a heat lamp.
After Jim and Joe left I went to the street market with Tran. This works out for both of us - it's safer for her and the hookers leave me alone. And it's a lot of fun. It's about a quarter mile walk from the hotel on a street that's blocked off on the ends for foot traffic only. But like everywhere else around here motorcycles ignore the rules and drive up and down the pedestrian only walkway, honking at the people cluttering the street. It's an interesting mix of vendors and store fronts, but like the malls, it is all clothes and jewelry, mostly jade and silver. I wanted some sort of Chinese trinkets that I couldn't get in the U.S. but there was nothing interesting.
The streets to and from the street market are lined with small vendors selling their own little collection of junk. Most of these seem to be the woefully poor sitting on the sidewalk with their trinkets and fruits layed out on a blanket. It's all the same stuff over and over, which they seem to have gotten from wholesalers. But the vendors in the street market are basically just the nearby retailers who have put up tables in the street. To get everyone's attention, some of them are blasting a recorded message on bullhorns, while others just hound you with their aggressive pitch. If you look at anything on the table they'll shake it at you and tell you "is very beautiful, is the best jade, only ten yuan, ten yuan!" - over and over for each piece that they think you are looking at. I'd rather pay full price than listen to that. If you ever go to China, the first words you need to learn are, "boo yeow" (don't want).
Anyhow, Tran is from Vietnam but everyone keeps trying to talk to her in Chinese and she keeps telling them "I'm not Chinese!", over and over. (This was happening everywhere.) She told that to one guy about twenty times, but he didn't care and just kept talking to her. I know enough that I can dicker the price in Chinese, so I'd help out Tran if the vendor had something interesting. She was looking at one piece of jewelry and the guy held up two then five fingers and said "ee shr woo". I told Tran "ee shr woo" means fifteen, not twenty five. So she said "no wonder he can't sell anything, he can't count." Another was asking for "ee shr bah" (18) but Tran only wanted to pay 10, so I was telling him "ee shr", but he wouldn't budge and kept insisting "ee shr bah". So we started to walk away and then he changed his story to "ee shr woo, ee shr woo". Too late pal, Tran already changed her mind.
The hotel has a huge massage center that takes up half the basement. A dozen rooms with anywhere from two to ten recliners are ready for groups of any size. These are a lot of fun, but they're not as therapeutic as they're cracked up to be. So after the Yum Yum Thai the five of pile in, and throw ourselves into the recliner for the foot massage.
What they call a foot massage is actually neck, shoulders, arms, legs and feet, and takes an hour and a half. The massagarinos fill a foot basin with hot water and pour in epsom salts. My girl shows me a bottle of something and I ask what it is, so Tran says "it chinese medicine tell her you want some". But before I can say anything, it's in the water. We stick our feet in the stew and let the salts soften our leathery bags. I'm pretty certain the purpose of the epsom bath isn't to soften, it's to clean so the girls don't have to massage stinky feet.
We sit on the ottoman while our feet are soaking away, and the girls start massaging our head and neck, working down to our backs and arms. They find the sore spots and dig in their thumbs to flatten out the bumps. My back is loaded with bumps and she smashes them out like she's making mashed potatoes. It's mighty painful but it must be doing some good so I tell it's ok.
After quite a while of this, we spin around into the recliner and prop our wet feet on the ottoman. After a quick drying they whip out the baby oil and start into the foot massage. Tran insists on the medicinal oil, but it's too late for me and I end up with baby oil on the left foot and some brown paste on the right. After massaging in the oil, they dive into their bump hammering with a vengeance. She's having a field day on my knot infested bags of leather, leaning into a horrific beating as if I'm being punished for something. The pain is unbearable but I can't say anything after just telling her to press harder on my back. So I lean back in my chair, put on my best happy face and take it like a man.
Apparently my bumps aren't getting flatter because she's taking extra long on my feet, but in the end they feel pretty good. This then progresses into a leg message that feels a lot more soothing and we all nearly fall asleep. This particular group of girls is the happiest bunch I've seen in all of China. They're laughing and joking in Chinese, and when Tran's girl makes an attempt at English the rest laugh their heads off - the same reaction I get when I speak Chinese. You'd think an hour is plenty for a massage, but in the end it really doesn't seem long enough.
Guangzhou (guan zhou) - the regional mega-city, also called Canton.
Guangdong (guan dong) - the province we are in.
Dongguan (don guan - the county we are in.
Changping (chang ping) - the city the hotel is in.
Qiaotou (chow tow) - the city the plant is in.
Dongguan China 2007
A typical week of hanging around in run-down Changping.