Factory Phoenix

Rebirth of Dongguan’s Old Buildings to Creative Nests

Over the past decade, as China’s urban revitalization rocketed alongside its economy, aged, vacant factories have been getting refurbished and converted into offices and studios for creative industries using the space to house businesses in a diverse array of fields, including advertising, architecture, crafts, design and film studios. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai catalyzed the redevelopment boom, but Dongguan, which holds the title for the world’s most famous manufacturing city, built an abundance of workshops throughout the 80s and 90s. The area’s creative types have initiated a metamorphosis that is pioneering a renewed character in the inner city.

Formed in 2002, a leading example of transformation and gentrification is Beijing’s 798 Art Zone. The functional Bauhaus influenced complex was designed by a German company in the 1950s. It has now been overtaken by hundreds of artists, designers, filmmakers and musicians. As home to clusters of outdated state-owned enterprises, Shanghai has seen hundreds of creative industrial parks since 2000, nurturing the Chinese base for production and innovation. While Dongguan seems lacking in either historic factories or a thriving innovative industry, progress appeared gradually in the old center city where worn workspaces were sought out by creative minds.

Hidden in the middle of Guancheng, an isolated and tranquil 50-year-old factory is undergoing its third transformation from its time as the Lianying Cardboard Company. Discovered by happenstance by Hong Konger Zen Yeung in 2012, he renovated the torn shell into a stylish office loft for 30 of his employees and gaining the admiration of his peers. The building with its venerable foundation has been instrumental in inspiring his team’s inventive work. Zen’s case was not the first in Dongguan. Local real estate developers recognized the potential three years ago and encountered an opportunity of preferential governmental policies. And the policies are not for Dongguan alone. In 2009, the Guangdong CPC annual meeting advocated a strategy of “regeneration in old towns, factories and neighborhoods.”

A series of administrative reforms simplifying permit applications have since been adopted throughout the province. Based on these guidelines, Dongguan’s municipal and township governments have made their own plans and policies for revitalization. One outstanding model in various locations around the city is the project that Center Enterprises Group (CEG) calls Creative Valleys. Occupied by hundreds of enterprises in creative and cultural industries, the group is constructing its fourth breeding ground for software, computer games and electronic publishing in Nancheng. All of the construction and interior design for CEG’s creative parks is created by factory transformation veteran Jimmy Li, who refurbished at the Dongguan Yunhe (canal) in 2000, what he says is Dongguan’s first factory conversion. With investment capital from Taiwan, he expanded the project and branded it Yunhe Creative Community in 2009. For the future of this trend, he has formed an opinion that it can be suitable for an upgrade for even more of Dongguan’s industries.

Secret Garden in a Jungle

Like many of the Hong Kongers searching for opportunities in the economically vigorous Chinese mainland, Zen chose to build his empire in his ancestral land in 2006. Finding his current office relied on nothing but luck and awareness of his surroundings. When he drove his car to a maintenance shop last year, he was attracted to the antique walls and tiles, the tangled root squeezed rooms and private accessibility of the neighboring building. He had made up his mind that one of the workshops in the complex would be his headquarters. The renovation lasted two months for the 700 sq. meter space including all electrical and Internet wiring. After spending about RMB one million, his exceptional office loft was conjured and divided into a second-floor office zone, media studio, kitchen/canteen and a patch of space for promotional activities. The former cardboard factory had stood for about 50 years, experiencing the blossoming and turbulent periods of Dongguan, but started to reveal its radiance after a ten year decline. The history of the government owned enterprise dates back to the beginning of the 1960s when the Communist Party’s youthful reign was eager to be economically independent. But soon it went through the country’s economic and social setback known as the Cultural Revolution, when spare time was dedicated to endless meetings and study of quotations from Chairman Mao. After the dark time finally ended, Dongguan had thrived for nearly twenty years thanks to the reform and opening-up policy at the end of 70s. However, old style systems were hard pressed to survive in the new economic torrent; bankruptcy overtook the factory in 2006. For a few years, some rooms were taken by small LED workshops, and others remained empty until the renaissance brought by Zen’s Seefly Culture Communication Co., Ltd, a company active in event planning, photography, design and media.

“Its historic foundation gives me much inspiration, and helps me design with a tactile spirit of humanity in my work.”

“The factory witnessed Dongguan’s decades of development. Now my usage is continuing its development into a new phase,” Zen said. “Its historic foundation gives me much inspiration, and helps me design with a tactile spirit of humanity in my work.”

The environment Zen created differs greatly from the skyscrapers of the CBD and brought him and his team unprecedented effects and efficiency in their work. “Working here feels like breaking from the tie of time, no working clock, no lining up to buses, no elevators. You can concentrate on your work,” Zen said. His favorite part in this place is the kitchen/canteen, where an ayi (maid) cooks their lunch. “The kitchen acts like a lubricant to the company and make us feel like one big warm family. It is a time when personal conversations other than working communication takes place.” The workshop’s impressive transformation surprised Zen’s peers, friends and the media, encouraging two other studios to establish offices across the hall. Once the contracts of these LED workshops are finished, it’s believed that more and more creative companies will come to assemble their distinctive workplaces in this heritage relic. “I realized the dream that many have. Although nothing is perfect, I made my dream here,” Zen said.

Creative Parks Taking Root

The preservation of these usable factories by individuals is stunning but limited. Fortunately, the government has noticed the need of re-using these resources to better utilize every inch of land. Starting in 2009, every city, county, town, and district should set up a coordinating office to provide administrative assistance from different departments and agencies for projects that qualify official specifications as old towns, factories and neighborhoods.

In Dongguan, eligible buildings must be in accordance with the region’s development and land utilization plan and be built before June 30, 2007. “These projects are different from the traditional real estate projects. The procedures of getting these projects are easier than other projects,” said Zheng Zhanpeng, planning manager of CEG’s Creative Valleys project.

Gaining the edge from the government, the CEG has produced three creative parks in various scales and locations aiming at companies in creative fields. The first one in Guancheng’s former Tianbao Industrial Zone, was is the first one built in 2010 and covers over 5,000 sq. meters. The major downside of this complex is the marginal location far away from downtown. The latest one located in Guantai Road with 13 five-story buildings is close to completion and has already reached 85 percent occupancy. The first floors house an exhibition showroom, library, coffee shops and canteens with red beams and graffiti standing out on the grey bodies.

“Gaining the edge from the government, the CEG has produced three creative parks in various scales and locations aiming to companies in creative areas.”

For the developer, the motivation behind these projects is to offer a suitable breeding ground to Dongguan’s left-behind creative industry, who normally can’t afford the offices in CBD, and at the same time to revitalize the out-dated resources achieving a win-win situation. According to Zheng, the government can’t simply tear down these old factories and build something else because the land’s property has been categorized for industrial use for decades. And any change on the property should be approved by the Ministry of Land and Resources through inconvenient procedures and effort. On the contrary, the process of renovating these factories into offices without destroying them is much easier. “These 20-year-old factories can’t be lined with the city’s development. They can’t be re-leased to other manufacturers producing products from the assembly lines in these locations. So we renovate them and provide a platform for those creative companies,” Zheng said.

Fertile Minds in Industrial Territory

Perhaps Zen is lucky to have found such good material out of hundreds of filthy industrial leftovers, but with a bit of creative thinking and effort, everything can turn into a piece of marvelous jade. The Yunhe Creative Community was built from a 20-year- old factory and totally redid the interior and exterior, leaving only the 50-year-old ficus tree untouched. Located on the border of Guancheng and Wanjiang along the Yunhe, decaying factories scattered in an immigrant occupied neighborhood that is full of three and four story private homes provide a relatively cheap living standard. After nine years in operation, General Manager Jimmy Li of the Scale Design upgraded 1 what he thought would be a temporary interior design office as an alternative to moving, by annexing and converting two buildings of the compound into new offices and dormitories. Today, the community harbors 35 design companies with 313 employees, a coffee house, tea house, cafeteria and wine stores. For nine years, Jimmy was on his own without any publicity. It was the Nancheng government who brought them to light last year. They consider it a prime example, and even pulled down trees for their entrance sign, impressing Jimmy with their efficiency. They even wanted to cooperate with him to enlarge the scale of this community, but stubborn villagers stood in the way. “They just think you earn a lot and deceived them. They won’t realize you contributed to the neighborhood by not only adding value, but also bringing in high-level university graduates, and therefore, improving the population structure in the area,” Jimmy sighed. “They would rather rent it out to cheap fruit stalls or convenience stores than let us do some renovation.”

“Today, the community harbors 35 design companies with 313 employees, a coffee house, tea house, cafeteria and wine stores.”

Unlike Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, whose manufacturing history started in the early 20th century, most of Dongguan’s factories are products of a period of rushed economic achievement when low-quality and counterfeit goods flooded the market. Many of them are facing structural problems that need mending. It’s hard to attract the poor but creative artists to revitalize this kind of space; hence, large scale gentrification by folk artists, like what happened years ago in New York’s Greenwich Village, is not likely to happen in Dongguan. As to the future of creative parks in Dongguan, Jimmy has his concerns. “Dongguan is not suitable soil for the cultivation of the creative industry, so the industry’s real demand for offices is not strong. This is not something the government can change for now and needs many years of accumulation.” He also pointed out that the words “cultural, creative, design” are overused to the point that they lost their original meanings and have become too common. On the other hand, Dongguan’s advantage of a robust manufacturing industry can be made full use of. “A pair of shoes could be designed in the U.S., but the R&D is from Dongguan. Why not make creative parks home for these R&D departments while their factories are located in Machong and Shatian.”