DREAMS AND MOBILES MADE HERE
The sky has become the limit in Shenzhen, China’s hi-tech hub
THERE’S A LIVELY ARTS SCENE, CHINA’S LARGEST BOOKSTORE, BARS, STREET FOOD, GASTROPUBS AND RESTAURANTS
Until the late 1970s, the quiet fishing village of Bao’an County, north of Hong Kong, was home to 30,000 people. Today, it’s a city with an estimated population of 12 million and the highest real estate prices in mainland China. Australians visit Shenzhen to play golf (one resort has a dozen 18-hole courses) and it continues to attract day trippers from Hong Kong looking for fake handbags. But neither of these is the best reason to visit.
For anyone with the slightest interest in seeing what the Chinese economic miracle looks like, this is the place to see. It’s the Silicon Valley of China, a powerhouse of high-tech ingenuity and the place your mobile phone was almost certainly made.
Arriving at its international airport, named Bao’an in a nod to its origins, passengers are met by a dramatic, futuristic building wrapped in an undulating honeycomb design.
It’s said the city has another three airports on the drawing board. For now, a multi-lane toll road lined with palms and flowering oleanders takes visitors on the 32km journey to the CBD. There’s a metro train option but the bus or car gives further clues to the identity of a “garden city” of conspicuous success with myriad Maseratis, Rolls Royces and Porsches pounding the highway.
Shenzhen began its journey from village to the modern face of China when it was designated the country’s first special economic zone in 1980.
Unlike its Hong Kong neighbour, flashing neon signs are not its style but telecom and internet giants like Huawei and Tencent are based here, often behind leading edge architecture.
A seven-storey, modern building with sweeping staircases houses an industrial museum that catalogues the city’s innovations, albeit achieved over less than four decades.
With a daring wave design roof, the administrative hub, Civic Centre, sits amid wide open spaces in the Futian business district. Nearby, insurance company Ping An is now housed in the world’s fourth tallest building. Recently opened, the glass and stone tapered skyscraper rises 599m.
Also in Futian, Lotus Hill sits in a 166ha park. On the weekend, it’s a magnet for kite flyers but take the challenging path to the top, passing fruit trees, palms and honey sellers for a bird’s-eye view of the city and to stand beneath a 6m- high statue of Deng Xiaoping, the man who made this city’s miracle makeover possible. The consequences of his government’s decision to select Shenzhen for its venture into capitalism is laid out for all to see.
Shenzhen’s openness to start-ups attracts creative minds from around the world and it’s estimated one million foreigners live and work in the city. With this comes a lively arts scene, China’s largest bookstore, bars, breweries, street food, gastropubs and restaurants serving food styles from French to Filipino. And with Chinese from throughout the country here, every style of regional cooking is on sale. In the Futian district, excellent Cantonese dim sum and congee are easy to find.
Arriving by train from Hong Kong, there are two stops. Choose Lo Wu station to combine shopping in the giant Luohu centre at the border, and a lunch of fiery Sichuan hotpot, sold at many outlets in Luohu district. Copy watches and handbags are numerous in the centre but so too are silks, tailors and clothing stores. I bought high quality, original designed blue and white china at ridiculously cheap prices.
Authorities would prefer visitors to think “Designed in China” not “Made in China” these days and tech heads should take the metro to Huaqiangbei where there are malls with thousands of electronics stalls. This is hi-tech Shenzhen at a micro level with stallholders becoming masters of creativity between their day jobs. It’s said the short-lived hoverboard began life here.
But there is a dark side and it’s well documented. Millions of Chinese women flocked to Shenzhen when migration rules were relaxed, at one stage outnumbering men by seven to one. They came to work in the factories and live in adjoining dormitories making products, particularly mobile phones. The male to female ratio is now more balanced but discussion continues about working conditions.
There’s a Sea World but Shenzhen specialises in a less conventional style of theme park, the replica village. On a 30ha site, Splendid China recreates the sights of the country from the Great Wall to the Three Gorges Dam. In miniature. On a rather larger site and more life size, Window of the World has recreations of many famous tourist attractions. Visitors encounter a 108m Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian Pyramids and the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat and our own Sydney Opera House. It’s all slightly kooky and there’s more. At Folk Culture Villages, China’s ethnic minorities are celebrated through replicas of their housing and lifestyles.
Back to the modern day and there’s no better place to see China at play than Mission Hills Resort. In addition to its 12 full-sized golf courses, there are 40plus tennis courts and a 22ha sports and eco park with almost every sport imaginable. The adjoining MH Mall has a range of good shops and there’s an excellent spa. But don’t rock up and expect to get a golf game without booking in advance. This burgeoning city likes to play between re-creating the world as we know it.