writings

What makes Shenzhen different from other cities?

- 762 words.

Its energy.

As of 2018, Shenzhen is 35 years old. It has an estimate of 10 to 15 millions habitants.

There are other fast-growing cities of this size in the world but most of them were built around ancient cities. Shenzhen was planned entirely from the ground up as a new urban area next to Hong Kong.

The people came from all over China and the world to build this city after it was declared an Special Economic Zone in 1980. Most were young and entrepreneurial, and came with the straight goal of getting out of poverty - or exploiting poverty by sourcing cheap suppliers and labor. At that time, there were still no property laws in China. Shenzhen was designed as a buffer for China ‘s experiments with capitalism.

As today, you could walk around Shenzhen for a day without seeing anybody more than 50 years old. Everyone in the city is busy running around, struggling with new businesses and ventures. The pace of the city is just breathtaking. Few years ago, a friend of mine invited her elder father to live with her in Shenzhen. Her father had to leave after a month because he could not find a way to cross the streets properly. People in shenzhen just walks too fast and the red lights were way too short. “No place for the old” could be a motto for this weird city.

Apart being this very rich global hitech hub, Shenzhen is one of the only place I have been where you can witness the birth of an entirely new culture. There are many things I dislike about it but it still absolutely fascinating.

You have to imagine this very huge and modern city where there is virtually no locals. In Beijing you have the Beijingers, in New York the Newyorkers and in Paris les Parisiens. They were there first and whatever you try, they own the place and you don ‘t.

When Shenzhen was originally planned in the 1980s, they were only a few villages. The CCP officials decided to make some deals with the villagers while defining the land property rights. The head of each village will keep the right to its village land while the city will be built around. This lead to a unique urban phenomenon called “urban villages”. The urban villages in Shenzhen are small and dense urban islands within the bigger city. Originally, they were cheap places were thousands of migrants could find affordable housing when they first arrived in the city to look for a job. Even if some local villagers still live there today, they amount for a very small fraction of the population - and an insignificant number for the city of Shenzhen. This villages are made of what people brought to it and are now seen as an important part of Shenzhen (new) urban heritage.

Like Hong Kong, Shenzhen has this unique mix of Cantonese and international business culture. Then, Shenzhen also has its own unique thing that I could call the dagong culture (means “to work” in Chinese). This is a work culture that has developed in factory dorms, where the communist work unit (danwei) from rural China first met the Taiwanese and Hongkongese contract manufacturers that wanted to assemble electronics and shoes for Western firms.

Through TV dramas and media, the dagong culture has become a powerful narrative that fueled the Shenzhen model, and the growth of China. This is usually understood from the outside as “the Chinese people are hardworking” but there is much more to it really. It has shaped cities, mobility, family relationships, and much more in China, and to a certain extent, the global economy.

Shenzhen is unique because there are very few cities in the world where you can witness such an important event - the making of a new global cultural trend. Personally, I see technologies as manifestations of our cultures. Therefore, the numerous hitech firms in Shenzhen in future sectors (drones, genomic, electric vehicles, etc) can be understood as part of this emerging cultural trend from Southern China.

The city has transformed tremendously over the last decades. The pace of change itself is slowing down but its global influence is increasing.

Today, the first generation of Shenzheners has grown up. Like the city, they are still very young (remember, 35 years old at max!).

I am really looking forward to see what crazy things they will come up with in the next decades, and how the world will continue to be influenced by this incredible human experiment that is Shenzhen.