Shenzhen: an extraordinary past, but an ordinary present.

Davey Meelker & Sanne van Oosten

When learning about China’s recent history Shenzhen is an important city. It was the first city in China to be opened up to the outside world by Deng Xiaoping in 1980, marking the beginning of the end of Maoist communism. After being declared to be a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) it grew from a few thousand inhabitants to the mega city of more than 10 million it is today.

Even though not many tourists include Shenzhen in their itinerary of China, we were excited to visit the youngest mega-city of the world. Deng Xiaoping’s test to see what would happen when a city would liberalize economically turned out to be one of the biggest success stories of China in the last decades. Shenzhen soon became one of the wealthiest and most modern cities in China. The city’s transformation was shocking. Today you can’t find a building older than 30 years, and no inhabitant is really from Shenzhen, they’re all migrants. We were excited to go this special place. However, we didn’t get the answers we were hoping to get.

When walking through the streets of Shenzhen we enjoyed seeing the wealth of skyscrapers and impressive architecture. We visited the immense Shenzhen Museum and navigated our way through the subway system. But to really grasp the extraordinariness of the city we felt we should ask a local/immigrant what it is like to live in such a young city. Via couchsurfing.org we came in contact with Liang and were invited to have dinner with his family at his home. Liang is a typical Shenzhener: a young immigrant working at a computer chip company. We asked him what it is like to live in a city without history, a city of only 32 years old. He shrugged, “normal I guess.” We kept on asking, but Liang had nothing interesting to add to our strange question. And why should he? I wouldn’t have an idea how to answer what it is like to live in a city with history. I probably would also say something along the lines of “normal I guess.”

And normal is really all it is. Even though most current Chinese mega cities have a much longer history than Shenzhen, not much of that history is apparent in the daily lives of the people. Beijing still has a few old neighbourhoods, hutons, but most of these places have been torn down and replaced by modern high-rise buildings. The shiny modernity of Shenzhen is not much different from the shiny modernity of Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Chongqing, Chengdu and Wuhan. All of these cities are swiftly replacing their old with their new and making all of urban China into a shiny modern place.

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