To some, Shenzhen may be nothing more than a grey town best seen as a blur from a train or a pit stop between its neighbours Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Some say it’s trying too hard to be like the former with an endless array of glitzy shopping malls. Some say there’s no history and no soul in a ‘planned’ city (the modern metropolis is only 30-40 years old). Some say it is not the ‘real’ China though a walk through the squalid backstreets of old Shekou will quickly quash that myth. Despite all of these slanderous negatives – for me, on a sunny afternoon, even on a cooler day – there is something else here and there’s nothing better than to get lost in its kaleidoscopic leafy havens and secret squares of varying greens, yellow flaxes and foliage. In fact the only negatives I can think of are the gruesome looking cockcroaches; the same as anywhere hot and humid in Asia, and manic traffic which can turn into my path even though the pedestrian light is glowing green; also shared within greater China (as far as I know).
I first heard of Shenzhen while in Bangkok exploring possible cities to live in whilst planning my escape from the flood prone Thai capital. The words Pearl River Delta soon put me off, I didn’t want and could ill afford another adventure going wrong, so despite it being winter I first headed to Beijing (which save it’s infamous freezing temperatures and smog, I quite liked). Only official requirements caused me to venture back south; first to Shanghai, then to Shenzhen. On the eve of my visa expiring and en route to Hong Kong, I stayed in cheap accommodation tacked on the edge of the ultra cool Loft arts complex. There was greenery everywhere, there were birds chirping and there was art and architecture. There was and is a modern metro system – kept impeccably clean by (mostly) small cute women whom I call The Dinkies, the buses were and are turquoise as are the Dinkies overalls. There was and are western amenities, the people were and are warm and gracious and to my surprise it was still fairly cold, albeit nowhere near as Arctic as China’s northern capital.
Back then at the front of a new year, Shenzhen was intended as nothing more than an interlude between visas before journeying back up to Shanghai (or so I thought). Arriving once more on the mainland from HK I went straight to the train station booking hall to purchase my onward ticket only to be greeted by more negatives, this time in the nodding heads of ticket staff. What did they mean no? Surely there must be a train. Unknown to me in only my second month of jumping into the red abyss of this vast middle kingdom was that the spring festival or Chinese New Year kills all travel aspirations. It wasn’t that there were no trains to Shanghai, it’s that they were all fully booked. I was stuck here! Oblivious to the happy accident that had just occurred.
For the next month I froze in the same cheap and damp accommodation, struggling to survive dining on Y10 noodles from 7-11. Then, just like Paris 20 years earlier, the city worked its magic on me (it even has its own Eiffel Tower). Surely this place could not be where I was supposed to be in the first place, could it possibly be.. home? I began looking for work only to be thwarted. Again like Paris – and to my dismay – the city was not going to happen easily. Starved of finance I was forced to take a job out of town from where my travels took me to Taiwan, but it just didn’t feel right. So I returned to the leafy paradise in time for another holiday, the so called autumn or moon cake festival (China is never dull) which takes place at a time when Shenzhen still bakes in around 35 degrees and the humidity is enough to ensue one take several showers a day even though the swimming pools have already been drained! Unlike its abysmally overrated and crowded neighbour there is plenty of room to move – it must be the size of London with twice the population, but apart from the rush hour metro, Walmart on public holidays (or the weekend), doesn’t feel like it.
After several months here it feels like home and although I have a long way to go mastering Chinese, I revel in the simple pleasures the city affords me. Taking a walk by the bay or in the parks that are waiting on my discovery: Shi Hai, Lotus Hill, Central Park. Strolling under the green canopies of Shekou or OCT on a glorious sunlit afternoon (even in winter). Having a late afternoon coffee at the book bar or one of Shenzhen’s many cool cafés. Seeing the incredible amounts of tangerine trees and red lanterns at new year. Shopping in Holiday Plaza, Houhai, Coco Park, KK Mall and Garden Plaza which has the coolest and cleanest Samsung store I’ve ever known (perhaps the Dinkies have worked their own magic there). And speaking of electronics, prepare to be overwhelmed by the seemingly endless array of phones, cameras and tablets on sale at Luohu’s Huaqiang Road.
It may be planned (like Brasilia and Australia’s capital Canberra) but there is an undeniable soul here – it is amazing what mankind can achieve through architecture, design and positive thought. In its older parts the cities meandering alleys more than remind me of Venice, Lisbon’s Alfama and in its tiled apartment blocks, parks and squares where elder folk play Mahjong, card games and sip their hot water instead of amber tea, suburban Istanbul springs to mind. Ambling from the metro at Antuo Hill in bright sunlight the yellow bollards and patterned paving could easily be that of Spain or Portugal (the latter is not too difficult to surmise; Macau lies just 50km to the southeast).
Even on a cool overcast day, I am happy listening to the sound of shifting leaves or birdsong, sitting in its secret squares or overlooking one from the cosy ambience of Starbucks. Watching the night dancers of any community exercise guided by distorted music through old speakers. Seeing the architecture of the St Regis Hotel building, the modernist grandeur of the colossal Civic Centre and the half arched glass gateways to the subterranean worlds of the metro and hidden shopping malls at Huaqiang Road or Chegongmiao. In the coming years the metro will extend – opening up the zoo and the eastern coastal resort of Dameisha which in turn will render the current metro map of five lines barely recognisable. I was born in Wales and raised in New Zealand which makes China, truly the middle kingdom and if I am lucky, maybe it’ll prove itself as more than just a halfway home, but a true one.