Not Just a Bed: DG’s Most Interesting Munsu, China’s Answer to Airbnb

Once upon a time, B&Bs offered only a bed to sleep in. A practical solution for business travelers. However, with the steady increase in travelers seeking more than a place to rest their heads, the sturdy wall of standard accommodation was finally broken through.

Tourism has never been Dongguan’s strongest industry; people came to Dongguan for business, not for leisure. This explains the prosperity of practical standard hotels. However nowadays, the fact is that as people gain more disposable income in hand, they turn to seek pleasure in the form of leisure, and in particular, they long for short-term getaways from their confined artificial forest so that they can dive into natural landscape. Since this advancement, Chinese B&Bs–so-called minsu–has sprouted all over the country, thanks to a thriving countryside tourism.

Tremendous spending power is driving investment in rural tourism surrounding China’s large cities. Platforms like Airbnb and a dozen Chinese Airbnb copies greatly fuel the development of the minsu industry. It somehow preserved a large number of old and idle houses in rural areas, which were elaborately modified to cater local-experience-seeking tourists.

Originating from Japan where the same characters “民宿” are pronounced minshuku, the term minsu in China loosely stands for any lodgings run by a company or individual, ranging from boutique hotels to homestay and offering opportunities to experience local lifestyles. Since 2009, when the first minsu chain opened in Lijiang of Southwestern China, the minsu industry has gained explosive growth. Take Xiamen for example; the number of minsu raised from 13 in 2006 to 1,800 in 2015.

Dongguan’s advantageous location between Guangzhou, Shenzhen and conveniently accessed from Hong Kong and Macau–plus the massive rural resources–make it a potential weekend getaway destination. Investors and the government believe that, relying on this location, Dongguan stands a chance to attract many affluent dwellers from nearby first-tier cities, looking for a weekend getaway with their families and friends. The two latest minsu, located in Chashan’s Nanshe Village and Machong’s Xinji Village, have opened their doors and continue to grow. We’ve also picked a couple of Dongguan’s most unique minsu, so next time when you are sick of all-the-same rooms, consider these options.

Nanshe Village Minsu: The Oldest Rural History
Bragged with 800 years of history, Nanshe nestles over 30 family shrines perfectly lined up along the village’s pond. The original Xie family moved to Nanshe due to warfare around 1275, according to records. After the Ming and Qing Dynasty (1368-1912), the family flourished and spread around 96,000 sq. meters, nurturing nine high-end imperial officials in history. When descendants achieved wealth and fame, they returned to their ancestral village and built a new temple to worship their direct ancestors. This being the reason why there are so many family temples with the same surname.

The oldest temples are fully repaired and protected, even from the catastrophic Cultural Revolution, thanks to villagers’ protection awareness to their ancestors’ relics. Every project of restoration is financially supported. In 2006, it was listed as a major heritage site under state protection.

We grew up with these old houses, we have sentiments to them. Even when they are broken, we don’t want to just tear them down, we would want to reuse them in any way.

Although individual demolition is not allowed under the protection law, the village government somehow lacked the competence and energy to manage the site. Xie Jinqiu, a local villager of Nanshe, believes that he’s the most suitable person to promote his hometown. “We grew up with these old houses, we have sentiments to them. Even when they are broken, we don’t want to just tear them down, we would want to reuse them in any way,” said Xie. Due to the love for his hometown and old buildings, Xie approached the leaders about setting up a company to run the site in 2012. They agreed.

Xie’s company brought revenue and job opportunities to the villagers. Tickets to the ancient part of the village are 30 RMB/person and a bonus is shared with the villagers. A small amount of culture-related shops are introduced inside the village. Even the convenient stores outside the gate are opened by locals, proudly selling normal priced drinking water.

Minsu is the first project in the company’s agenda. Renovated non-heritage old houses, Xie has provided over 15 rooms scattering the outskirt of the village and the crisscross alleys and streets. The rooms maintain the original layout while more outside sitting areas and south China village-style ponds have been added. They are well-connected and walking among them, you can easily get lost or feel like you are time traveling back 100 years. They are designed to attract middle-class travelers from nearby cities. The off-the-beaten-path environment and historic vibe are the biggest selling points here.

“Our wise ancestors have left such a large wealth to us, I don’t want to turn it into a commercial street, I will try my best to keep its primitive look,” said Xie. The company plans to locate tourist facilities for shopping, art and entertainment outside of the old village center.

According to their five-year plan, they should have built 200 rooms by the end of 2017. But it seems to be a bit unrealistic so far. Xie blames the Dongguan tourist environment. The thriving accommodation business shows that Dongguan doesn’t lack visitors, though they are business visitors mostly. But why not turn them into tourists?

“We have a lot of things to offer, we just don’t always think they are worth speaking out about. As long as we advertise it widely and say it out loud, we can be a tourist city,” said Xie.

Hidden France

Hidden France is our recommended minsu within Nanshe Village. The house contains three bedrooms with an individual western toilet and bathtub. The first floor is a spacious living room/meeting area, plus front and back Chinese-style gardens with water lilies, running water and a stone bridge. The notion of sitting at the balcony overlooking the tiled rooftops on a lazy sunny afternoon seems relaxed and tranquil.

Yin Xiang Gu Yuan
Price: 300-500 RMB/room
Facilities: Bathtub, A/C, heating, Wi-Fi
What to do/see: 5-minute-walk to Nanshe Ancient Village (ticket included), 10-minute-drive to Dongguan Ecological Park (cycling, flying a kite, fishing, picking fruits).
Note: This kind of minsu usually doesn’t have 24-hour standby receptionist. Therefore, assistance
check-in is limited.

The White Space Minsu: A Combination of Old and New
The White Space project in Xinji Village of Machong town is trying to prove that minsu doesn’t necessarily need an 800-year-old historic site to attract tourists. If they don’t have content, they will create the content. With this concept in mind, the project was launched with an international minsu design competition in 2016. Over 20 designers and architects from China and abroad created a special design plan for each house. Therefore, each minsu of The White House is a piece of unique and elaborate art work.

According to the building’s layout, texture, environment and feelings, designers planned a particular theme to match particular elements. Music, handcraft, experimental theatre and Japanese cartoon Doraemon and family, are just some of the bold ideas picked from the competition.

Minsu is just a shell; we can put a lot of things inside. We would rather call it a community.

For example, half of a five-story house is being demolished to realize a Shenzhen-based Belgian designer’s idea. He gave it a family theme and half of the house is dedicated to a kids’ playground with slides, climbing games and trampolines so they can play and sleep, sleep and play, non-stop.

Located in Machong’s Xinji Village, The White House has gained incredible support from the Machong government. In fact, it was the government’s idea to bring minsu to the village and they found Liang Yin and his partners.

This is not an impulsive idea from Machong leaders. Since 2015, the government has been making an effort to promote tourism, bringing prestige, national cultural and sports events such as dragon boat races and Strawberry Music Festival, one of China’s most successful music festivals.

The basic infrastructure has also been greatly improved with widely connected greenways (bicycle paths) and boat sightseeing water channels, ecological parks and lakes, orchards and farms. Many polluting factories are now closed and efforts have been made in cleaning the rivers and streams.

To standardize the minsu business, the government even established Dongguan’s first minsu management regulation solely implemented in Machong. It was released in June and stipulates important issues such as fire safety and license application.

With the government’s cooperation, The White Space has launched 13 buildings, with another 30 or so houses under construction. The torn and abandoned Mo clan family shrine was remodeled to a stylish and elegant showroom, now displaying the results of the minsu design competition.

Liang and his partners understand that the short history of Xinji Village is not powerful enough to attract visitors to this countryside. “We don’t only gain profit from minsu,” commented Liang. “Minsu is just a shell; we can put a lot of things inside. We would rather call it a community.”

Soon they will introduce cultural and non-mainstream brands, artist workshops, photography forums to occupy shops, restaurants, bars and public spaces to create a cultural and artistic community.

Although minsu is known for being rarely accessible by public transport, as the Pearl River Delta one-hour life zone is coming closer with the completion of intercity railway networks, Dongguan’s minsu will certainly draw urban inhabitants in to try something new and fresh.

You Xian

Named after Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s most well-known animated films from 1986, this minsu is comprised of five individual houses, renovated and connected together to form a dwelling with five bedrooms, a kitchen, showrooms and rooftop spaces. The first floor keeps its original red-brick walls and typical 1980s mosaic floor tiles, displaying local distinctive design brands. The rooftop garden linked by five high and low roofs form a unique stage overlooking the village, all painted in white. It’s an ideal venue for a summer musical party for 50 people.

As The White Space’s latest release, You Xian is a music-themed minsu inspired by rhythmic beauty of paper folding, which is thoroughly reflected in its design. The front of the five-story house is decorated with a huge folding paper making of wooden stripes from top to ground. Each floor opens an irregular square window for landscape. The first floor contains a meeting area equipped with a bar and outdoor area; the second and third floors are two suites; whilst the fourth and fifth floor have been designed to create a restaurant including seating in the rooftop garden. Looking from the other side of the river, You Xian certainly stands out from other plain-looking village houses.

Price: 788-1300 RMB/room
Facilities: Bathtub, A/C, Wi-Fi
What to do/see: Five-minute-walk to Mo Clan Temple, 15-min-drive to Huayang Lake Wetland Park, take selfies and enjoy bird watching in the ‘flower sea’.

Capsule Hotel: A Trendy Choice
Originating from Japan, space capsule hotels have been popular for a couple of years in China thanks to an affordable price tag. At less than 60 RMB, it mainly attracts young and single tourists, backpackers and even business travelers. It’s straight-forward, easy and convenient. Many of them are located in the city center and airports, making them an optimal choice for travelers caught in layovers.

For some people, it’s hard to imagine traveling without a separate toilet, a soft king-sized bed, a fancy restaurant and dedicated servants. But for some, this is exactly what they need: only the basics and all the necessities. A hotel is primarily for sleeping after all. Lying in such a small and confined space with excellent sound-proof walls, what can you do other than sleep?

Dongguan’s first capsule hotel was unveiled in 2016 in Guancheng to “meet young people’s consumption demands”, according to person-in-charge, Zhang Jianwen. Inside the 2-square-meter space, it’s equipped with mirror, lights, an electricity outlet and ventilation system – basically all you need for a solid eight-hours sleep.

Also offering other regular rooms in the same apartment building, Zhang pointed out that the capsules are slightly more popular than other rooms, offering a unique and interconnected experience to millennials.

It’s Dongguan’s only capsule hotel experience. With six pods in two layers, one room can accommodate six people, making an ideal choice for budget travelers. Compared to the youth hostel, privacy is well protected inside the concealed space, making this especially suitable for single travelers.

Space capsule
Price: 58 RMB/bed
Facilities: A/C, Wi-Fi, kitchen, elevator, Western toilet
What to do/see: Keyuan Garden, Batou (Xiaba Fang) Village, Loft 8 Creative Park, Jin’ao pagoda.

Brown Sugar Washe: A Studio Minsu
Sitting at one of Brown Sugar Washe’s exclusive backyards and drinking tea in the warm sunshine, you won’t believe it’s only a 20-minute drive from the city center, so close but so far from the boisterous urban life. Moss-lined floor and mottled walls, there is a strong moldy and dusty smell of an old building and even on a crispy sunlit winter day, you can see the owners trying to keep the primitive look as best as they can. Peeking from one of the second floor guest rooms, no buildings over six stories are within sight. “The biggest feature of this house is that you won’t see a single new building from any angle,” said Neo Niu, manager of Washe and Brown Sugar Jar (BSJ), Dongguan’s first live house.

You can make crafts, play music, cook a meal, drink tea, do yoga, read a book and meditate. It has a series of functions providing much more than just a bed.

Impressed by the building’s “beautiful structure”, Neo divided it into several functional sections including handcraft studio, tea house, kitchen, office, outdoor lounge and bedrooms. Washe also hosts BSJ’s staff when they come over to Dongguan for shows. BSJ has been focusing on music industry, while Washe tends to be its experiment or a hobby, rather than a business. It mainly attracts guests from Pearl River Delta, but sometimes groups of Dongguan locals will take the whole house and enjoy a party here.

“Washe focuses on experience. You can make crafts, play music, cook a meal, drink tea, do yoga, read a book and meditate. It has a series of functions providing much more than just a bed,” said Neo. “Any hotel rooms at the same price with Washe, according to photos, will look better. Only if you stay one night here, your judgement will be corrected. Standard hotel rooms won’t provide you a sunny backyard and allow you to cook whatever you want.”

Originally, these two local houses were in decay with weeds growing as tall as a human being. Nearly two years ago, a bunch of musicians, handcraft artists and drawers from Brown Sugar Jar rented it and renovated it into their studio-style B&B. Adding loads of artistic decorations and paintings, objects and plants, however, they retained the red-brick floor and spotted walls. The yards are the soul of the house. You can do so much with them. Jam music in spring, party in summer, have a BBQ in autumn, drink tea in winter; they are truly versatile.

Brown Sugar Washe
Brown Sugar Tiled House
Price: 180 RMB/room, 600 RMB for four rooms
Facilities: A/C, shared Western toilet, Wi-Fi
What to do/see: Jin’ao Pagoda, Jin’ao Theme Park, cycling/walking along the river.

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