Scroll down to see Xiaba Fang (Batou) map and directory
It’s around 9 pm on a Saturday and you’ve been trudging through an eternal week in anticipation of a party that promises to leave your world blurred beyond recognition.
Sitting in the back of a taxi on the way over to Xiaba Fang—more commonly known as Batou Village—you try to block the noisy driver’s voice out with fantasies of girls, drinks and any assortment of party-centric activities that await.
As you cross the bridge, you are washed with relief. Speakerphone has to be one of the most annoying inventions ever made, you think. Pay the man and you’re out of the gates.
Passing numerous, eclectically lit bars that are all augmented by concert-volume bands and waiters standing around yelling to come in and sit down, you’re tempted, but cannot.
You’re on a mission for a specific place and none of these distractions will do.
“We searched for months and found a few places we fell in love with, but the price just wasn’t right. One night, we were meeting in Batou and said, ‘hey, let’s go look at this place.’ After ten minutes of walking around, we all felt like, yup, this is the place,” said David Kundelius, co-owner of Treehouse.
Nearly every foreign visitor’s introduction to Batou starts and likely ends with Treehouse. Situated at the rear of the village, the backpackers’ paradise is stuffed with different music, food and events than most everyone else in Dongguan. Perhaps, this is because the establishment is owned and run by a group of artists that all contribute to the vision and decoration of the place with their own unique abilities.
“I think most of the bars bring in an interior designer that takes them from renting a location to opening for business. Last year, we got a new roof up and after finishing we thought, well, now what do we do for the walls? We don’t keep a masterplan. We find what we need to do and all of us just work together to build it ourselves,” David added.
A brief history
The area of Xiaba Fang covers a fairly historic village that stretches back some hundred years or so. Most of the original properties were destroyed in a 1950s flood that decimated the village and forced the impoverished inhabitants to essentially live in a shanty town. The houses we see today are actually fairly recent builds from the 70s.
For years, the village faced an aggressive decline that reached a depressive point where the buildings were rented merely as 200 RMB per month storage spaces for junk collectors.
“Our house was once totally abandoned. Even for 300 RMB in rent, no one will rent it. We hired a professional structure organization to evaluate the property before we made any renovation. They were recommended by the government and we paid for it. After the check met the standard, only then can we turn to business. If it is a dangerous house, then you have to fix it before opening. Basically, all the people that come here and find a house, fall in love with it,” said Li Zi, Manager of 95 Wedding Studio.
Often, when I’m walking through the village, I wonder how all the local residents who aren’t partying perceive the chaos. Does it ruin their evenings or are they happy to see new life breathed into a piece of China’s history?
Passing numerous, eclectically lit bars that are augmented by concert-volume bands and waiters standing around yelling to come in and sit down, you are tempted, but you cannot. You’re on a mission for a specific place and none of these distractions will do.
“Before these businesses were here, it was just a big garbage pit. The improvement of Xiaba Fang can’t be realized without the new people. It’s sure that there is talk that some houses are not safe or that bars disturb residents’ lives, but all these issues are slowly getting fixed. For example, after 10 pm, security guards will start to patrol and ask bars to tone it down. No problem is impossible and the key is that problems are being fixed or at least trying,” Li Zi answered.
Beginning the explosion
Like many of the early residents here, Wang Kexun, owner of Lü Qi Qin Yuan and renowned guqin performer, came looking for a house on a recommendation from a friend.
At first, there was an incredible tranquility and charm, but as more and more bars came onto the scene, the environment grew louder and more frustrating.
“When I came in 2011, only Rano was in this area, whose owner was my friend. He brought me here. I came to have a quiet place to play and build guqin in my workshop. Then, unexpectedly, this place quickly became like it is now,” Wang said.
Continuing, he explained, “For a period, I really didn’t like this place, but then I thought more about it and found that the village is not so bad. For example, during the day, It’s very comfortable. The noise only happens at night and so, I go home to rest and be with my family. It’s actually very good because it prevents me from working or doing business at night. In the end, I’ve fallen back in love with this place.”
Things in the village moved quickly, in part because of the unique visuals and location, but also thanks highly affordable fees. Cut-rate rent meant all kinds of companies could open up their dream shop and then invest considerable amounts into rehabilitating, instead.
“The rent for shops out on the main street is as high as 8,000 RMB per month, but these businesses see much more traffic. Whole houses deeper inside pay around 3,000 RMB, but for places like us that have more customers during the day than night, it’s a bit tougher. People come here to have lunch and dinner, not to see live bands,” said Sunny, co-owner of Wanderlust Café & Hostel.
An incredible patchwork
A few years back we wrote about Rano, the first establishment to make a daring entrance into the community. Today, there are more than 50 surprisingly unique places—some of them beginning and failing quickly, others becoming addictive hotspots.
Naturally, many of the bars lean on the basics to get people in the door: music, drinks and food. Still, it’s the decoration and attention to detail that sets the most special places apart. One of those locales is the No. 38 Tibetan Bar.
“I like to collect things,” said No. 38 Tibetan Bar owner, Huizi, “All the stuff you see in my bar has been collected by me throughout the years. This bar’s style is a mix of Tibet and Naxi, from Yunnan. I think that the pure Tibetan style is hard to accept by the local people here because it’s really all about Tibetan Buddhism. So, I mixed a lot of things here. I don’t think there is anything similar in Dongguan.”
Most of the original properties were destroyed in a 1950s flood that decimated the village and forced the impoverished inhabitants to essentially live in a shanty town. The houses we see today are actually fairly recent builds from the 70s.
While most bars decorate extensively and then sell more or less the same products as the next place, No. 38 Tibetan Bar is different.
“Here, we stock Tibetan butter tea, Tibetan beef, alcohol and we can even cook some of their recipes, too. Though all the ingredients come from Tibetan areas, we do use Chinese cooking methods,” Huizi detailed.
The growth of the community has also certainly benefited from the support of the local government that has been effective and steady.
“Now, the municipal and district governments are joining together to complete several major infrastructural projects, spending 25 million RMB. After we finish in June, the travel bureau will start to promote the village. We are building new roads and parking lots to provide 300 more spaces to total 500,” said Zhan Jizhi, Batou’s Vice Secretary of the Communist Party.
“I like to collect things,” said No. 38 Tibetan Bar owner, Huizi, “All the stuff you see in my bar has been collected by me throughout the years.
All kinds of different places dot the village. If you’re into coffee or tea, there’s something for you. Pizza cooked in a litchi wood-burning oven? Check. Enjoy sipping cocktails while admiring the skyline from five stories up? There’s a table for two with your name on it. No matter what you’re into, there’s a good chance you can find it here.
Just one more thing: remember to tell that annoying taxi driver it’s Xiaba Fang that you want. As long as you know that, your sweet slice of paradise will always be waiting.