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Misfits’ Guide to NANTONG

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History, Location and Geography

How old can a city be? Where Nantong is now was the site of neolithic settlements 5,000 years ago but they disappeared when the sea level rose 4,000 years ago. During the Han Dynasty (approx. 2,000 years ago) the land rose and continued to rise during the Song Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty (1000-1500), making the city into a centre for the production of salt. Fertile alluvial deposits from the Yangtze River meant the salt industry was gradually replaced by cotton growing and a textile industry. Current-day Nantong is not as close to the coast as it used to be.

The first city was founded in 912 [Year 5, Houzhou Dynasty, Five Dynasties] and was called Tongzhou, meaning gateway as in “passage to”. Because it was founded so late, it’s said it was possible to learn from the planning mistakes of other cities. One of those mistakes must have been a lack of planning because Tongzhu was a very planned and orderly city.

The square city had a defensive wall facing the cardinal points, and was surrounded by a moat dug on a natural river fed by the River Hao which joints the Yangtze slightly to the north. The River Hao is Nantong’s river. The Yangtze belongs to all of China.

The production of salt and the production of cotton are both bounties of The Yangtze which is also a 3,000+ kilometer long trade route deep into the country. Industrial production in the Yangtze Delta region (Hangzhou, Shanghai, Nanjing and Nantong) in the 19th century was comparable to that of Great Britain’s, with Nantong being China’s Manchester, supplying cloth, clothing and other textile products to the entire country.

About 1600 – the middle of the Ming Dynasty – the city was expanded southwards to protect the growing population from Japanese bandits. This entire area bounded by the moat is now known as Old Town.

Nantong’s most famous son is Zhang Jian [Jian Zhang]. His story is the story of Nantong, and also the story of modern-day China.

He set up cotton mills in 1895, fully integrating them into the supply chain of factories. He had land reclaimed to accelerate the transition from the production of salt to that of cotton, and had roads and railways built to shift goods and people. He reformed the system of education, setting up the first normal school in modern China in 1902, Nantong University the same year, and three other universities and a middle school all before 1915. He was involved in municipal construction, and opened Nantong Museum as China’s first free public museum in 1905. He founded charities. He was both an official and an entrepreneur head of a conglomerate that modernized Nantong in the space of 30 years and [according to Wikipedia] made it a template for later urban development in China. This is his house. It’s now part of the Nantong Museum complex on the northeast corner of the 1600 city extension.

The entire museum compound is a snapshot of Zhang Jian’s legacy and this period in the history of not only Nantong but modern China.

Old Town is now in the north of Nantong and still the heart of the city while to the south is Langshan (Wolf Mountain) which is more of a rocky outcrop than a mountain. The city is laid out between Old Town in the north and Wolf Mountain to the south, with airport and industrial areas to the east, and harbour and warehousing to the west.

The city is overlooked by the temple and pagoda on Wolf Mountain.

The land is flat and people from Nantong find the lack of mountains pleasing. Residential areas spread southwards from Old Town and towards Wolf Mountain, with the new commercial and retail New Town midway.

The reality of this is that both old and new residential districts can be thought of as located somewhere between Old Town and Wolf Mountain. Wolf Mountain orients people. It makes them feel at home. The first two lines of the new Metro system will follow this north-south axis established a millennia ago.


Nantong has been spared the attentions of architects, the only exception so far being Nantong Art Museum and Nantong Grand Theatre, both designed by Paul Andreu. The art museum was bright, pleasant and easy move around. Unlike Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, it wasn’t designed as a single route to get you from entrance to gift shop and restaurant as quickly as possible.

Inside was a Ma Yansong/MAD exhibition that I thought could have done with some more plans, but at least it was spread out and didn’t feel like a trade show.

The New Town Zhongshan shopping mall reminded me a bit of a Shin Takamatsu project. Who would’ve thought chocolate brown PoMo with Deco light fixtures on two tiers of parapets linked by a glazed solarium would work so well together? Or that glass elevators would suggest a clock tower? A guilty pleasure.

Old Town has an historic residential area about to transition to crafts and small-scale retail.

Less celebrated buildings are the neo-Constructivist China Telecom building, and the solid People’s Cultural Centre nearby.

Also nearby is Nantong Tower – a communications tower of a classic design, now enlivened by an LED and best seen from the revolving restaurant at the top of the Jingxuan Hotel [in the header image].

Old Town is defined not so much by standout buildings but by the moat that continues to give the city its identity and heart. It’s best appreciated from an electric paddleboat rented for an hour before dinner.

Food & Drink

Restaurants and bars that are small and do only one thing but with care and attention tell me that people are content with their lives and their place in the world. Higher rents probably prevent this from happening in the larger cities.

Tongmian [Nantong Noodles] Breakfast only. They close when the noodles for the day are all sold. Their signature dish is the dry noodles with a pork chop, served with bone soup.

Mr. Malt’s Malt Bistro is a shrine to beer, but the kitchen serves excellent roast lamb (to order), pasta, and the best chips/fries I expect I’ll ever have.

S19th St. They also sell fried chicken and fries but their signature dish is hamburgers which they make simply and and beautifully. Buy at least two.

Cream Coffee Shop It’s only coffee but it’s excellent and the seats at the front are a pleasant place face a park and are a pleasant place to be.

117 Coffee House This is in Haimien, a separate town, but too good to miss. The owner has a few hundred varieties of coffee beans of which about one hundred are available at any one time. He does his own roasting and, much like a cocktail barman, will guide you until you find the bean, degree of roasting and water temperature that works for you, interspersed with biscuits he’s made himself. And all for the one flat charge of 98 yuan (US$15) for as long as you like. Opens at 3:00pm.

Mrs. Wang’s Table

These links at the end normally refer back to the post but this week’s don’t. The only connection is that I had some reason to revisit these posts during this week while I was finalizing this one.