Dongguan's manufacturing reputation fades but sex industry thrives

Struggling Dongguan may be trying hard to reinvent its industrial image, but its Sin City reputation is proving more difficult to shake

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 4:10am

Many have been asking what the future holds for Dongguan, long known as "the world's factory" but now struggling with problems of economic restructuring.

Much will depend on the direction chosen by new Guangdong party secretary Hu Chunhua to steer the province in the coming years, but in the meantime the city is attempting an image makeover.

The development model based on manufacturing for export fared Dongguan and the Pearl River Delta well for a long time, with economic output growing at double-digit rates for years. Then, as the global financial crisis caught up in 2009, growth slumped to 5.3 per cent. Last year it was not much better at 6.1 per cent.

Dongguan townships including Zhangmutou and Shipai are close to bankruptcy, with exports to the US and Europe remaining weak and domestic demand growing too slowly to make up the shortfall.

The only way out seems to be an infrastructure construction binge - a traditional remedy for economic ills on the mainland. Sure enough, the debt-laden provincial government recently unveiled plans to spend 1.4 trillion yuan (HK$1.7 trillion) over the next three years on 202 ongoing and 258 new transport infrastructure projects - with some of the work destined for Dongguan.

Wary residents, however, fear such projects with bring more environmental degradation and loss of land.

While Dongguan grapples with revamping its economy, it is also desperately trying to give itself a facelift and shed its Sin City image - it has been variously dubbed an industrial sweatshop, the mainland's sex capital and a hotbed of crime.

A 15-second promotional video portraying Dongguan as a mixture of modern infrastructure and traditional culture was screened at least 90 times a day at high-speed railway stations in Guangzhou, Wuhan , Changsha and Beijing for more than two weeks in February.

Produced by Discovery Channel in September, the clip featured parks, lion dances, Cantonese opera, a basketball tournament and some well-known entrepreneurs. It has also been screened in 50 cinemas in Beijing and Guangzhou since February 14.

It's not clear how much the clip cost, but it has been well received by Dongguan social media users who have long resented the demonising of a city whose population has risen from 1.75 million in 1990 to more than 8.2 million today.

Not surprisingly, the video fails to show facets of the real Dongguan that the local officials would rather turn a blind eye to.

The city has produced many economic miracles in the past two or three decades, pumping out IT components, electrical appliances and toys to every corner of the world.

That "anything goes" spirit, which kicked off its golden era of manufacturing, also nurtured the booming sex industry that made today's Dongguan.

No one knows how many sex workers have gravitated to the city but its infamous "Dongguan-style service" is better known than its basketball stars or Cantonese opera performers. The sex industry is well organised, with female sex workers known euphemistically as "technicians" offering a wide range of services, costing between 580 to 880 yuan for two hours. Today, the sex trade might not be quite as booming, but the city long known as "the place a good husband doesn't visit" still attracts many customers from Hong Kong, Macau and across Guangdong.

Dongguan's seedy side at one stage went hi-tech, with a mobile phone app that rated all local sex services becoming a huge hit before it was banned.

Whatever one says about the sex trade, it generates real money, a fact reflected by the level of local police protection.

Occasional reports about Dongguan authorities cracking down on sex parlours are seldom taken seriously. The Sin City image is simply too deeply ingrained to be whitewashed by slick video clips.