Shenzhen! When you hear the name, you probably think, ‘shopping’ and ‘cheap!’
And you’re definitely not wrong there.
This bustling city, just 40 minutes across the border from Hong Kong warrants the true definition of a ‘shopping mecca.’
You only need to step off the train and inside Luohu Commercial City to realise this is not retail therapy for the faint hearted!
The destination for most Hong Kong day-trippers — this mall is buzzing with over 700 shops and stalls, all shimmering with cheap and cheerful treasures, as far as the eye can see.
It’s a bit like Hong Kong’s famous Mongkok Markets (only on steroids)!
“Missy Missy, I give you good price” can be heard ringing out across the mall with a deafening shrill.
Let it be noted, when you want to shop up a storm, psych yourself up to do battle with the eye of the storm!
Admittedly, your first feeling might be “Help! Get me outta here!” but try to stand your purchasing ground…it’s all a bit of a game and to survive this retail whirlwind you need to bring your sense of humour (and a calculator)! Oh and be sure to ditch the handbag, this is a serious expedition and will take no less than a serious suitcase (on wheels of course).
Be ready to be bamboozled with everything from Chanel watches, glistening jewels and chic handbags to electronics, clothes and toys. Tailors are on hand by the dozen to whip up ten of your best designer frocks or suits – over lunch!
But… (yes, there’s a but)…. as much as I love nothing more than immersing myself in what can only be described as a shopping show-down, there is more to Shenzhen than retail revelry.
And my friends, I’m here to tell the tale!
A few weekends ago, I popped across the border to scratch beneath the surface of this city that’s labelled one of the fastest growing cities in the world not to mention the fastest growing city in China, had to offer…(all in the name of blog research of course — not to mention a cheeky weekend away, sans small person).
A 40 minute train-ride and HK$34 later, the scenery looked reasonably familiar, but that’s pretty much where the similarities with Hong Kong ended.
Out of the train station, the border is brimming with people – no doubt all those day-trippers from Hong Kong keen to shop ’till they drop, but it’s also packed with locals who’ve travelled across the border for things they can’t easily access in China, most noticeably – milk powder for babies.
I’ve written about this ongoing issue here in Milking Hong Kong for all it’s Worth…..and this weekend it was no different. Everywhere I looked, people were milling next to bags, boxes and even crate-loads of this precious commodity.
There were also hundreds of school kids in uniform….who’re known as ‘cross border school children’ — just some of the 20,000 who make the daily trek to class from Shenzhen, through immigration to Hong Kong. A recent report suggests that number will reach 80,000 by 2017.
Jumping in a taxi, the first thing you notice is they drive on the left hand side and traffic, well let’s just say it’s is a little more wild west than Hong Kong….(indicators are clearly for dashboard decoration only).
Make no mistake, you are now entering mainland China. For a social media addict like myself, my first surprise, Facebook and Twitter were instantly unavailable. English is almost non-existent (although I was surprised to see street signs in English as well as Chinese) and western brands take a distinct back seat.
It was 1979 when this sleepy village in the south of Southern China’s Guangdong province was named China’s first Special Economic Zone, which means it’s immune from the communist regime governing the rest of the country – and allowed to pursue private enterprise.
Shenzhen was transformed overnight from a fishing village into a vibrant economy which is today home to around 12 million people.
With its modern and impressive cityscape, it’s now one of China’s busiest container ports and home to China’s major manufacturing centre hosting the headquarters of some of the world’s biggest high tech companies like Foxconn, which employs close to one million people (half of which are in Shenzhen). Touted as the world’s assembly hall for anything that can light, sound or read ones and zeros; in the 90’s it was described as constructing “one high-rise a day and one boulevard every three days.”
These days there are massive industrial parks like the Shenzhen Hi-Tech Industrial Park (SHIP) which covers 11.5 km2. and includes industries from biotechnology and pharmaceuticals to building materials, chemical production, computer software and electronics as well as medical equipment and telecommunications equipment. Phew!!!!
Like many cities, Shenzhen is a place where two worlds collide, in fact there are possibly even more sides to this ever-changing Chinese metropolis.
20 minutes drive out of the city and not disimilar to Hong Kong, you’re amongst lush green mountains that flank picturesque white sandy beaches – so stunning they’ve no doubt helped earn the city its place on The New York Times’ list of the world’s 31 must-visit destinations.
With just a couple of days in town, we were never going to capture the whole of Shenzhen, so instead I decided to go to one of the most hip, modern places in the city and then – in stark contrast, one of the city’s most ancient spots.
Venturing out into the light of day, it was quickly apparent that this is the land where motorized bicycles rule the roads……otherwise known as ‘E-bikes’ — pedaling is clearly for fools ’round here!
With 500,000 of these battery powered scooters on the roads, the government has actually tried to ban them on certain streets, after a number of serious road accidents. They can reach speeds of 50 km’s an hour!
So in a bid to avoid becoming an E-bike statistic, we made our way (on the recommendation of a friend) to OCT Loft. Not to be confused with the famous OCT Theme park (which I’m told is also pretty cool)…it’s a contemporary art terminal and loft area.
Here is a side to Shenzhen I wasn’t expecting.
This leafy, hip, artistic scene is the epitome of Chinese urban cool.
Industrial warehouses have been converted into artists’ studios, funky bars, european style cafes, quirky shops selling old vinyl records and vintage typewriters and cutting edge galleries that reflect the modern side of Shenzhen.
Of course, one thing that doesn’t really change no matter where you go in China, the good old squat toilet. Admittedly every time I see one, I roll my eyes in exasperation. Yet to say I’m a fan and there is definitely an art to squatting… (more on this another day).
So squatting aside and a stroll around this avant-garde compound, it was on to Nantou Old Town, where, after the progressively hip OCT Loft, I felt like I’d been transported to another planet (and from the looks and stares I got, perhaps I had).
Riddled with historic landmarks, this formerly walled city has been around for 1700 years and walking through, you almost feel like you’re intruding on this age-old community.
Technically it is the birth place of Hong Kong. 170 years ago, in the middle of this bustling market town near the mouth of the Pearl River stood, the ‘yamen’ (a mandarin’s office) which was the centre of government for the Pearl River Delta. After China lost the first Opium War, its officials gathered here to sign the island of Hong Kong over to the British.
Today, huddled amongst the modern cityscape, this is a part of Shenzhen still clinging to a little bit of its ancient past.
More than 30,000 people are packed into this vibrant half a square kilometre pocket, where narrow alley-ways laced with rickety apartments – many owned by Hong Kong people and rented out to local vendors – sell everything you can imagine from children’s toys to piping hot garlic bread, plastic tubs and all things in between, at a fraction of the cost anywhere else.
Tiny hairdressing salons, dry cleaners, little restaurants with nothing more than a few plastic tables and chairs and a television on the wall make up this little village where life echoes a bygone era.
Shenzhen is famous for its ‘Windows of the World’ theme park with vivid replicas of the world’s wonders, historical heritages and famous scenic sites.
But to me, Nantou Old Town and Oct Loft represent two fascinating windows into this Chinese city that has remarkably revolutionised itself in just three decades into a modern, sophisticated urban sprawl, yet for now, holds onto the hallmarks of its unforgettable past.
As one of the oldest cultures in the world, its well worth investigating (after a spot of shopping of course)!