Shenzhen: The Special Economic Zone
Residents of the city are fond of pointing out that a mere 30 years ago the place where the sprawling metropolis of Shenzhen now stands was little more than a fishing village. Then the visionary genius of Deng Xiaoping (Shenzhen’s official “father”) decreed the area directly north of Hong Kong’s New Territories a “Special Economic Zone” – the first grand, if somewhat convoluted, experiment with capitalism the CCP would undertake. If China were to survive, modernize and catch up with the rest of the world, so the theory went, “some people would have to become rich”. And rich some of them have become – rich enough to drive a Mercedes or a BMW in astounding numbers; rich enough to gamble away untold amounts of Renminbi on interminable Mahjongg sessions; rich enough to send their kids to colleges of international education and then onwards to some of the planet’s most prestigious and costly universities. Sandwiched between the seats of Cantonese culture, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, boasting a domestic-immigrant population of people from all over China, Shenzhen is a one-of-a-kind place. Socialist stronghold it is not!
Shenzhen is a young city – only just over 25 years old this year. And as a Special Economic Zone and wild-west border town, the business of Shenzhen is, plain and simple, business. As such, this isn’t most people’s ideal, picturesque “China” of rickshaws and rice paddies. It’s true (some may say that it’s painfully obvious) that Shenzhen doesn’t boast the history or culture of cities like Beijing or Guangzhou; but at the same time, the city’s not quite as dismal as Lonely Planet and other guidebooks make it out to be. It’s not Hong Kong, but the pace of the city and rate of development can be pretty exhilarating. And if it’s an older, simpler world you’re searching for, be aware that Shenzhen’s modernity can be a bit deceptive. It’s not 100% glamour and glitz, and if you search hard enough you will find pockets of – if not traditional, classical Chinese culture – interestingly arrested development. And being the self-proclaimed “World Garden City”, Shenzhen does boast an amazing amount of roadside greenery and plenty of lush parks built around Guangdong’s rolling hills.
Shenzhen is divided into two main parts – inside and outside of the Special Economic Zone – and six districts. Longgang and Bao’an districts make up the bulk of Shenzhen’s overall area, and are the two districts that are outside of the SEZ. Unless you’re heading to the airport in Bao’an or to some of the historical parts of Longgang, you probably won’t be spending much time in outer-SEZ Shenzhen. SCIE is located in Futian district, and you can easily spend weeks entirely within this area. Yantian, to the east of Luohu, is a largely industrial area (featuring one of the largest container ports on earth) that also claims Shenzhen’s two most popular beaches, Dameisha and Xiaomeisha. The line between Luohu and Futian is sort of blurry – a lot of big shopping centers (Jusco, Women’s World, Huaqiang Bei) straddle the two districts; areas further west, including the giant convention center and many of Shenzhen’s biggest parks are all within Futian. Nanshan is the westernmost inner-SEZ area, and is a relaxing change of pace from the more congested and commercialized Luohu and Futian. The Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) is here, with a number of “amusement” parks; and Shekou, the “Snake Mouth”, is at the southernmost tip of Nanshan, where you can eat a proper Western meal and really unwind, and ride the ferry directly to the Hong Kong airport if you need to make a quick getaway. You’re probably safer roaming around Shenzhen than you are any other sizable city, so do explore.
Remember that a little Chinese really does go a long, long way. You don’t have to be fluent to have a good time in Shenzhen; generally speaking, the locals find hackneyed foreigner Chinese very cute and endearing, and you’re just as likely to make friends with a bad “ni hao” and a toothy grin as you are with a more conversational level of the language. But do equip yourself – no matter how poor your tones are – with a few essential phrases. A pocket phrase book (with easily-point-to-able Chinese characters) is an essential companion for those with no prior Putonghua. But with a school address card in your pocket, you needn’t fear getting really lost, as a taxi ride back to familiar territory will only cost you a few dollars or pounds.
Shenzhen’s weather comes in three varieties: (1) hot and humid, (2) hot and humid and pouring down rain, and (3) delightfully pleasant. There are really only two seasons, summer and autumn – though after suffering the fantastically hot and humid rainy season, 20 degrees Celsius can feel amazingly cold.
To live in Shenzhen during the Tropic of Cancer summer months (May – October) is to know what humidity truly is. If you’ve never lived in a tropical climate before, nothing can prepare you for what it really feels like. Expect to be immediately drenched with sweat the minute you leave your apartment and to always be looking somewhat disheveled – but it’s just par for the course living here, so there’s no need to be self-conscious. During the summer months, expect three to four days of rain a week; you’ll probably experience at least one typhoon while you’re here, and some pretty impressive thunderstorms – which is to say that if you’re not dripping sweat, you’ll be dripping sweat and rain.
But when the rainy season is over, the rain really does stop nearly completely, and the humidity begins to subside. The temperature, while still being quite warm, is ideal in November and December; January and February can be very cool, and with no indoor heating, you’ll need to have some warmer clothes in your closet – in fact, it’s often colder indoors than it is outside. Expect to see students ridiculously bundled up – in the classroom – as soon as the temperature approaches “cool”. Remember that even in the winter Shenzhen is one of the hottest places in China, and if you plan on traveling north do anticipate drastically cooler temperatures. The websites http://www.sznews.com/2009/sz/shenzhen.htm and http://wikitravel.org/en/Shenzhen contain a lot of general and specific information about living in Shenzhen.