henzhen is enjoying the spotlight with a plethora of press attention lately, and rightly so. This sprawling metropolis just north of Hong Kong marked its 40th birthday just as I celebrated mine, with the city glowing in the recognition. Since China’s first special economic zone was settled among these sleepy fishing villages, GDP here has exploded 10,000-fold, according to official reports.
You can see that lucre in the forest of glassy towers that dominate downtown, beneath the crowning heights of the Ping’an Financial Center (currently the world’s fourth-tallest skyscraper). The port on the eastside of the city is bustling, luring Nobel laureates to establish labs here (11 and counting) and burning up the market for private education.
From a fast-and-loose hub of copycat manufacturing, Shenzhen has emerged as the heart of the Greater Bay Area, with the quickest growth and the highest per-capita GDP on the Chinese mainland thanks to behemoths like Tencent and a galaxy of lesser lights.
With mountains to the north and the Pacific to the south, Shenzhen enjoys the temperate winters (and brutal summers) you’d expect for a city just south of the Tropic of Cancer. Refreshing sea winds and a top-down “green urbanism” plan - with an all-electric bus fleet, one of which drives itself - have made Shenzhen perhaps the cleanest city in China.
But is it a travel destination?
Since we arrived three years ago, I’ve wrestled with the feeling that “it’s a nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit.” Most people work long hours as part of the city’s economic boom, with little spare time for anything but food and drink. (Dining al fresco in early winter is lovely though.)
When I sought out tourist destinations, people could usually only point to Huaqiangbei, Windows of the World or Mission Hills. But unless you’re in the market to throw money at the largest golf course in the world, you can ignore that one.
The former was a wonderland for fakes and copies, back around the turn of the century. It was electronic parts for block upon block, every little widget and gadget an entrepreneur would need to dive into the new economy. Tourists would flock to gawk or buy things in person since e-commerce in the form of Taobao wouldn’t arrive until 2003.
But now? Don’t bother looking for the funky, gritty, indie spirit of the city in Huaqiangbei: like other parts of Shenzhen (and China generally) the tides of redevelopment have washed all that distinction away. Now you’re more likely to find wholesale cosmetics, cafes and upscale malls trying to squeeze some cash out of rising real estate prices. As is often the case, there’s no room for revolutionaries in the world they made possible.
Windows of the World is even worse, in my opinion. It was only ever a gimmick: scaled-down replicas of wonders and architecture from the rest of the world. Before the internet? Sure, let people glimpse a strangely-short Eiffel Tower. But now? It’s just another old amusement park waiting for the jackhammers to swarm like termites and raise another mall from its ashes.
There are, it should come as no surprise, a plentitude of malls. Some, around Hi-Tech Park and the Futian CBD, are luxe and lively, with all you’d expect to find in such places. The food is clean and the bathrooms are sterile. But they’re not much different from what you’d find in your city.
Yet Shenzhen continues to try. It might still lack the culture of more established places, but there’s an ever-growing population that reaches. And when they do, there’s usually plenty of money to throw around.
One such cash-target is the Sea World Culture and Arts Center, three years old and overlooking the sparkling waters of the bay. As a joint venture between China Merchant’s Group (which owns much of the neighborhood) and the UK’s Victoria & Albert Museum, it’s a massive and beautifully designed property, sometimes filled with fascinating artwork. The collections might lack a central narrative at times, but there are occasionally inspired and interactive exhibits that reveal some of the potential in China’s cutting-edge artists, set against more traditional loans from the V&A.
OCT-Loft features the other noteworthy art destination of the city, with Overseas China Town’s Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT). The large converted factory space hosts a similar assortment of exhibits, thought-provoking if you’re lucky. But as with the Sea World center, its neighbors are more focused on shopping and dining, without the richer ecosystem that one would find in Beijing’s 798 art district.
But with enough money thrown around, there’s usually something interesting to be found. On a recent trip to Nantou Old City - the ruins of the walled city from which the emperor ruled this southern holding - we discovered the main thoroughfare had been completely redeveloped. Gone are the gritty food stalls, the 7-11, and the open-air meat vendor. The dusty streets had been paved over and all the storefronts were decked in old-style framing. An unexpected “Nantou Digital Pavilion” attracted a line of local tourists, with a head-scratchingly post-modern new art gallery just across the street. At the end of the lane, the ancient court of justice still stood, with a freshly painted pair of stone lions above the gate and the same mannequin magistrate casting judgement on all who passed through. But this particular day saw the “Shenzhen Fringe Festival” - no relation to that of Edinburgh - with a wonderfully hodgepodge collection of song, public speaking, and drag queens on stilts.
A little after 4pm, a group of six wig-clad divas (men and women both) came ambling down the main road atop precarious stilts, brilliant costumes dazzling. They danced with their hands and lip-synced to the upbeat Western music pouring after them, leading a curious and enthusiastic crowd as they strode slowly to that magistrate’s old office.
Weaving through that crowd, past boutiques selling jewelry and other expensive baubles, we found the large public stage - filled today with loud electric guitar, but just as likely to be filled with music of the local dialects. That pours out to a surprisingly lovely park, all new and sprinkled with statues of re-remembered Opium War heroes. But the grandest goes to Sun Yatsen, towering in granite over a scene of the Chinese people rising from servitude to fantastic revolution, some with swords in hand to cut down their unseen oppressors.
Forty years on, Shenzhen is a work in constant progress. But if you want a glimpse of China’s future, rising and striving into the unknown, this is where you want to be.