Then and Now: 40 years of Shenzhen, from market village to SEZ
July 19, 2018 11:00 AM   Subscribe

40 years ago, Shenzhen (Wikipedia) was a quiet market town (China Underground) of 30,000 people on the route of the Kowloon–Canton Railway. That changed (China Daily then-and-now gallery) in 1979 when Shenzhen was promoted to city-status and in 1980 designated China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ), as part of the institution of the policy of "reform and opening" (The Diplomat) in late 1979 when the SEZ was established. Its rapid growth is thanks to foreign investments (Kaizen Corporate Services ltd.) and technology. Letter from Shenzhen -- Chinese tech isn’t an imitation of its American counterpart. It’s a completely different universe. (Xiaowei R. Wang for Logic Mag.)

Shenzhen, from fishing port to China’s Silicon Valley (France24)
Of all the mega-cities in the world’s most populous country, it’s the one that best embodies the "Chinese economic miracle". With 15 million inhabitants, Shenzhen is the capital of start-ups, new technologies, innovation and design. Today, it’s the country’s top city in terms of GDP and its double-digit growth makes it the engine of China’s stunning development.

Less than 40 years ago, though, Shenzhen was just a small fishing village, isolated in the middle of a poor agricultural area, the Pearl River Delta. In 1980, President Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's reforms and openness, chose the city for the country's first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to receive foreign investment, as the People's Republic of China began to open up to the outside world.
Story of cities #39: Shenzhen – from rural village to the world's largest megalopolis (The Guardian)
When Leo Houng arrived in Shenzhen in 1974, it was an unremarkable Chinese settlement that ‘smelled of countryside’. Since then, he has witnessed the city rise up at a bewildering rate – with little regard for the families caught in its path

The great leap upward: China's Pearl River Delta, then and now
(The Guardian, Photography then and now)
The Pearl River Delta has witnessed the most rapid urban expansion in human history – a predominantly agricultural region transformed into the world’s largest continuous city. By revisiting the sites of rare archive images of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Macau from the 1940s through 1990s, our photographers have documented this staggering change
[images have sliders to shift from "then" to "now"]

Shenzhen is a large city (Google maps) -- the sub-provincial city is 2,050 km2 (790 sq mi), with the urban area measuring 1,748 km2 (675 sq mi), and for purposes of understanding the region, can be broken into four parts:

Shekou: oil town goes boom (That's Mag: Shenzhen)
Shekou is one of the oldest expat communities in all of China. Through the 90s, it eventually developed into a haven where citizens of other countries could find their national food, fresh ocean breezes, wide roads and a booming bar street – it was more of an oil town oasis than ‘real’ China. A good 20 kilometers of highway separated it from Shenzhen, while Hong Kong and Macau were just a quick ferry ride away. Though liminal and separate, Shekou flourished and expanded.

Part of that expansion came from land reclamation. This enlarged the physical area of Shekou and left the Minghua ship landlocked. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping looked out from its deck and christened the area “Sea World.” It was there on the Minghau that he also gave the famous [apocryphal] “To get rich is glorious” speech. Today, that deck houses Lowenburg, and people eat pork knuckle and drink beer in the spot where the former paramount leader stood.
Dongmen: Luohu's labyrinth
It’s difficult to imagine Dongmen as ever being sleepy, small or village-like. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty, however, that it became a happening place. Known by many different names, including East Gate (Dongmen), Old City (Laojie) and Shenzhen Market (Shenzhen Shichang), one thing is for sure: it’s always been a center of commerce and trade.

With its strategic location in Luohu, near the edge of the ‘Bamboo Curtain,’ it was always destined to boom due to its close proximity to Hong Kong. After Deng Xiaoping’s historic decision to open Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone, Dongmen and the surrounding villages experienced terrific upheaval as land was transferred, roads were built, skyscrapers went up and a massive wave of people came from all corners of the mainland.

Dongmen was renovated in the 90s and was host to one of the most important events in Shenzhen, and perhaps all of China: the first-ever Chinese McDonald’s opening, which took place in October 1990. By 1999, most of Dongmen was closed off to street traffic, giving the area the only pedestrian markets in the city. This remains a key feature of what makes Dongmen successful today.
OCT-Loft: From factories to Feis
Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) was designed to lure back Chinese talents who had moved abroad, in order to take advantage of their brainpower and build industry. Planned green spaces, bicycle paths, sculptures in the park and the centerpiece, Ecological Square, gave OCT its look and feel.

Towards the east, in Qiaocheng Dong, OCT-Loft had a more humble start. It was patterned after the loft district of Yaletown in Vancouver, B.C. The difference is that Yaletown was an urban progression of gentrification fueled by the arts, while OCT-Loft was planned from the beginning as a commercial and residential space as much as an art center. The renovated factories and warehouses are now packed with graphic design, interior design, architecture, fashion design and marketing enterprises. There are a handful of fine art galleries and a few public art exhibitions, but they seem to be an addendum to the business atmosphere.

In other parts of the world, rundown industrial areas and cheap rents attract creative types. Artists like being around other artists, their numbers grow, and a scene begins. Next, cool bars, bookstores and small artsy shops spring up. After a while, people come to soak in the aesthetic ambience and contribute to the scene. Then the landowners refurbish, gentrification begins, rents spike upward, the area becomes spendy and trendy, and high prices force the artists to move.

OCT-Loft never went through this phase, instead going from pre-1980s industrial spaces to commercialization. It never had Bohemian watering holes, street performers, or cheap hangouts and cafes. Architectural firms, upscale restaurants, high-end designer furniture and accessories shops were set up right from the beginning.
Baishizhou: From state-owned farm to OCT sibling
Baishizhou was originally formed from several habitations where people made their living fishing, raising oysters and planting. Later, in November 1959, the Shahe Returned Overseas Chinese Farm was built and many worked the land to sustain themselves.

In the 1980s, the state-owned farm and the surrounding area were divided into two, with ownership split between the Overseas Chinese Town Group and Shenzhen Shahe Industry (Group) Co., Ltd. After 1999, the Shahe Group gradually reverted the obligation of managing Baishizhou to the government, and the OCT Group stopped pumping money into its development. Due to the lack of investment, Baishizhou was left (literally) in the dust of Overseas Chinese Town’s renovation and gentrification. Underlining the disparity, the two areas are only a 10-minute walk from each other.

In many ways, Baishizhou is the ragged sibling of the lush and clean OCT. They remain intertwined with each other just as much now as they were when they started. Many of OCT’s workers live in Baishizhou, alongside other residents employed by the surrounding theme parks of Window of the World and Splendid China, as well as specialized expat workers like artists, architects and teachers.
Shanzhai: China’s Collaborative Electronics-Design Ecosystem -- In Shenzhen, there are hundreds of smart watches, not just design prototypes. Here's why. (The Atlantic)

Previously: Andrew "bunnie" Huang: taking it apart and making it better, then telling others how it's done, with some insight into the Shanzhai tech trends in Shenzhen
posted by filthy light thief (12 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Whoa, this is a FPP. *claps*
posted by a halcyon day at 1:07 PM on July 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

We lived in Shekou 2010-2012, it and Shenzhen in general changed so much in just two years. Talking to friends who are there, we wouldn't recognize it now. Still got my Snake Pit membership card somewhere.
posted by arcticseal at 1:16 PM on July 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Great post, thanks!

Is it me, or did that letter from Shenzhen end rather abruptly?

Also, some of these articles seem to come straight out of Neuromancer. It's scary.

Edit: and then I started reading The Atlantic article you linked to and it mentions Neuromancer in its first paragraph. Which is double scary.
posted by Captain Fetid at 1:42 PM on July 19, 2018

Great post. Great articles.

Also, pretty sure I read articles like this about Japan in Omni (80s) and Wired (90s). Not to say at all that the Chinese phenomenon is akin to the period of Japanese growth, but the ways of Western writings about them definitely echo.
posted by kokaku at 2:31 PM on July 19, 2018

As a (temporary? it’s been six years...) Hong Konger these links fascinate me. Thank you for posting.
posted by mdonley at 3:04 PM on July 19, 2018

We visited HK and Shenzhen this past December and the miles of fresh concrete roadway and the number of spindly cranes crowding the horizon beggars belief.
posted by notyou at 3:53 PM on July 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

the miles of fresh concrete roadway and the number of spindly cranes crowding the horizon

Welcome to China! I have not yet been to Shenzhen, so it may be moreso, but basically every urban space here is massively under construction, constantly and at scale.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:17 PM on July 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I went to Mongolia on audit with work and there were so many cranes.
posted by arcticseal at 11:57 PM on July 19, 2018

subways! I visit 2-3 times a year, seems like something new is being dug up every time I visit and a new subway line is open I like this map showing them expanding. They're clean, bright, cheap, easily navigable for english speakers - and you can take the subway/train from Hong Kong, cross a bridge and customs and get back on the subway on the other side
posted by mbo at 12:13 AM on July 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

There is a rather fun video game called Shenzhen I/O, where you roll play as an ex-pat software developer working in Shenzhen to develop circuits and software to solve semi real world problems.

The always enjoyable Scott Manley has a lets play series that is worth checking out.
posted by I Havent Killed Anybody Since 1984 at 7:19 AM on July 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

There's precedent for this in the 19th century American West. Contemporary Europeans were stunned by Chicago's growth from a town of 4400 people in 1840 to just over a million in 1890 (and 2 million in 1910, and three by 1920). Cincinnati showed signs of doing the same but stalled out when Chicago took off, and Los Angeles made a similar nothing-to-a-million jump in ten more years, 1870-1930.

The scale was off by an order of magnitude, but that's presumably the difference between late 19th century tech and late 20th century tech. Plus a pre-existing large rural population, I'm sure.
posted by Quindar Beep at 8:09 AM on July 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

What caught my attention from the Letter from Shenzhen was the following, and my spidey sense tingles when I read it. My highlights.

This is the new shanzhai. It’s open-source on hyperspeed — where creators build on each other’s work, co-opt, repurpose, and remix in a decentralized way, creating original products like a cell phone with a compass that points to Mecca (selling well in Islamic countries) and simple cell phones that have modular, replaceable parts which need little equipment to open or repair*.

Shanzhai’s past has connotations of knock-off iPhones and fake Louis Vuitton bags. New shanzhai offers a glimpse into the future: its strength is in extreme open-source, which stands in stark contrast to the increasingly proprietary nature of American technology. As startups in the Bay Area scramble to make buckets of money, being in this other Greater Bay Area makes it clear why there’s so much rhetoric about China overtaking the US. It is.

it makes me wonder how we could made radical openness work robustly within the panopticon we must work in?

*a concept floated by many of us around 10 years ago to the likes of Nokia and Samsung
posted by infini at 11:39 AM on August 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

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