The well-known Guangdong Hakka district of 梅县 (pronounced Moiyen in Hakka meaning “Plum County”) had an urban core carved out in the centre in 1949 after the Communists took over. The urban core is now known as 梅州市 city, the administrative centre for the prefecture of 梅州 Mei Prefecture which now includes Meixian, Meijiang 梅江and Xingning 兴宁, Wuhua 五华县, Fengshun 丰顺县, Dabu 大埔县, Jiaoling 蕉岭县, Pingyuan 平远县counties (at the Fujian border). Meizhou has a nickname: 客州 Hakka Prefecture.
This is Guangdong Province, a very well-known and probably one of the richest if not the richest province in China. But how well do you know China beyond the glitz and glamour of the cities and tourist destinations? I’m sure many Chinese people have not even heard of some of the places on the map above.
While Meizhou has become prosperous like Guangzhou, it forms a sharp contrast with the surrounding suburban areas. Once again, Comrade Shi Bingfeng shows us the reality on the ground. This is what’s representative of the vast areas outside Meizhou Prefecture outside central Meizhou City.
Songkou Ancient Town is touted as a tourist destination for overseas Chinese. There are old buildings, memorials and exhibition halls here. Curiously, wealthy migrants from Songkou don’t seem to have contributed too generously towards the preservation of the city. While the historical value is recognised, it’s strange that it’s not even a chip of ancient cities like Lijiang. Indeed, I have seen better maintained cities in Yunnan. Without the usual crowds, I think it’s still worth a visit.
You don’t have to travel far from the glitz and glamour to see poverty and dilapidation in China. This “ancient town” looks even worse than the poorest towns in Thailand. That’s what happens when things have no “market value” in China. The aunties who whisper “过来过来” to Comrade Shi remind me of the aunties at Level 3 of People’s Park Centre.
While Songkou is an ancient city, Meizhou is a modern city and the prefecture capital. Of course, it should look more respectable (above), but like most places in China, there is an underbelly that is completely removed from the glitz and glamour of the city centre. The video below is interesting and shows Comrade Shi exploring the underbelly of Meizhou city.
Hakka is spoken everywhere here. I won’t translate the Mandarin parts. The lady selling vegetables about 1 minute into the video was loudly insisting that her lotus root was not “powdery” but crunchy. The old man was selling watches, 100 yuan for 2. He claimed that someone had bought 6 pieces from him. Comrade Shi asked him the brand of the watch. The old man answered in Hakka: “how would I know? ”
I think it would be so interesting if I travel thousands of miles from home and find an alien land where there are more people who speak my dialect than back home. Comrade Shi remarked that while there are no red light districts in China, sex services are found everywhere. He also observed the proliferation of these seedy massage and hairdressing establishments in recent years. Is that a sign of prosperity or rising unemployment?
The video below shows Comrade Shi exploring Xingning city. From the dilapidated condition of the streets and buildings, the predominance of elderly folks and the virtual absence of young people, it can probably be inferred that Guangzhou has sucked the life out of neighbouring cities.
Below is a slightly more reassuring scene taken from a town in Mei County inside. As Comrade Shi pointed out, it’s only so bustling when there’s a bazaar. Dog meat is sold here. Comrade Shi went for the cupcake which is of course very familiar to those of us in Singapore. Outside the marketplace, the sleepiness and neglect of the town are apparent. It reminds me of Ipoh during my childhood days 50 years ago. Then, there’s the gambling den in broad daylight. Another nondescript, featureless town representative of “the rest” of China.
The video below was shot at the city of Qing Yuan. Comrade Shi tries their chee cheong fun with egg. It’s called 窝仔粉 over there. The woman in the background said something I couldn’t make out. The lady in yellow said “要现在打“ in Hakka. They even sell dogs here, apparently not meant to be pets. The city hall is almost futuristic compared to other parts just visited. Comrade Shi discovered that almost all government officials drove foreign cars. Nationalistic chest-thumping notwithstanding, many Chinese people quietly show their preference for foreign imports.
The video below was shot at Kai Ping town, also part of prosperous Guangdong Province. The massive bathroom supplies megamall 开平(水口)卫浴博览城 is pretty much deserted. One of the shop units inside was even offering free rental for one year if the tenant could open the shop every day without fail. It’s an incredibly attractive offer, but potential tenants would also consider opportunity costs, sitting around a shop in an area with practically zero human traffic. 旺铺出租 (booming shop for rent) laughably demonstrates the ability of some people to tell an obvious lie. Next to the megamall, is another abandoned project which is part of the bathroom supplies megamall. There is even a hotel planned for this megamall. Unfortunately, that has also been abandoned. The most depressing part has to be the image of the homeless guy sleeping by the side of the road.
Now, would you believe that this is what the megamall is supposed to look like and the properties here are still for sale? The importance of doing one’s homework and checking on the situation on the ground cannot be over-emphasised but even if the place looks resplendent today, it may be in ruins a few years later as some of Comrade Shi’s videos would show. China’s economic miracle is very much fueled by debt and tremendous leverage. Banks with enormous amount of non-performing loans would have been declared insolvent without “government support”. We have heard and seen all the proud displays of wealth and technological advancement. Progress is everything but even. In fact, it has to be uneven and the lower levels must continue to be neglected and even milked and exploited in order for the privileged to soar. This is the harsh and cruel reality on the ground of Asia’s economic miracle.