Shenzhen: China’s blankest urban canvas is ground zero of its coming of age
Shenzhen didn’t exist 30 years ago; it sprung up from the soaking wetlands of the Pearl River Delta in Southern China to become a teeming metropolis of over 10 million. Never before has an urban area developed with such velocity and while 10 million now call this place home (the real figure of which is undoubtedly much higher), all would cringe at being assigned the identity ‘Shenzhener’. It is rare to find someone who would tell you they are 'from’ Shenzhen, especially within the city’s younger demographics.
In reality, Shenzhen is one of the largest, if not the largest, migrant cities ever and the ‘Shenzheners’ come from not just the surrounding provinces of Hunan, Jiangxi and Guangxi but from across China (and increasingly further afield).
- “I came to Shenzhen because it seemed like it was at the edge of the rest of the world. China’s big companies are here, you see foreigners walking around. If you want to make money you move to Shenzhen. But then you get here and the city kind of swallows you up. You realise you’re not going to be the next Jack Ma, you’re still part of this huge machine and you start to question what you wanted out of the city in the first place.”
Bea is a 23 year old now working for a tech start-up and has lived in Shenzhen for two years, having moved from provincial Guangdong.
It is a somewhat lonely city, where the young, mostly single population work long hours for little pay, struggling to keep up with the soaring rent and competitive company cultures. Scared of being branded啃老 (kenlao – children living off mum and dad), the young people that migrate here to carve out a piece of China’s developing dream usually have to contend with sharing tiny flats with numerous other hopefuls; a modern Chinese experience not exclusive to Shenzhen.
Shenzhen’s young working population are half pulled by its bright lights, half pushed by their parents back home. In Bea’s case, she had never felt fully welcome at home as the creative, slightly kooky, only-daughter in small town southern China. Moving to cities is about making money, but it is also about proving you’re capable of carving out a piece of Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ for yourself.
- “Many people say Shenzhen is a culture desert. It’s a very new city, without streets like in Jing’an, Shanghai, or Qibao old town. Young people seeking some fun would go to the theatre, bars or looking for some hobby activities (i.e. painting, dancing and kendo) to try something new. But you’ll find the choices are limited. There are not many good plays in the theatre, not many good bars, and the hobby classes are expensive. The cost of entertainment is quite high overall.”
Many expect Shenzhen to be much more like its neighbour across the border, Hong Kong, with a unique urban culture of its own, but Cary Lee, a 23-year-old Business Analyst at Tencent found the reality somewhat different.
For Bea, her hometown carries associations of ‘old China’ with its pushy parents, pollution and few prospects outside of agriculture or factory work. But she had grown up with Korean music, select Western movies (Avatar being one of her favourites) and occasionally a Japanese comic. Although outside influences weren’t the everyday, she certainly wasn’t cut off from the wider world and felt the pull of China’s increasingly international cities strongly.
In addition to being a fast-growing Tier 1 city, Shenzhen has always felt like it sits away from this ‘old China’. It was ground zero of China’s first foray into free-market capitalism, when back in the ’80s it was designated a Special Economic Zone. Deng Xiaoping eventually rolled out much of this blueprint to the rest of China, but for Shenzhen it was not just an economic model. As multinational companies set up shop in the new, freer zone and money flowed in, more international ideas and culture slowly began to follow.
- Cary Lee goes on to say, “In Shenzhen, the situation that most young people have to face is that they don’t know what to do after work. Young people who are more outgoing would gather together for a drink, watch a movie or play video games. Another type of loner would stay home watching TV series or sleep. Life after work is quite sterile. Also there are many single people. So mostly they fight for their careers to fill the void in life.”
Corporate culture is strong in Shenzhen and often it stands in for traditional or contemporary urban cultures among a young population searching for something that best puts their talents to use. However Shenzhen’s lack of culture shouldn’t lead the wider world to dismiss it as irrelevant.
The city’s story and the experience of the youth within it is a blueprint for the modern Chinese experience. In a country currently experiencing (and potentially completing) the largest rural-urban migration on the planet, it is the standard-bearer of the changing face of China; where, especially for its large population of young migrants, old Chinese values around the nature of prosperity and the Chinese dream are being challenged.
- "My parents think I’m crazy but I've changed jobs three times since I got here. I just couldn’t stand the work. I hadn’t moved from my hometown to spend every day selling iPhone cases. I was completely expendable in those roles; there were a hundred more people like me with the same gao kao [high school exam] score waiting for the job. So I just started thinking no, that’s not what I want and I kept looking, I kept talking to people who think like me, until I found it.”
Shenzhen, unsurprisingly, is a city in flux. As China experiences the realities of a slowing economy, the youthful urban population of Shenzhen are confronting the promises of the Chinese Dream and are beginning to stop and question who they are and what they really want. The city is often referred to as ‘the Silicon Valley of China’ and has incubated companies such as Huawei, Foxconn, TenCent and Xiaomi, that are now starting to challenge the previously scoffed at ‘Made in China’ axiom on an international stage. But while Shenzhen’s youth may not resemble Bay Area hipsters, they are coding and are certainly challenging the status quo.
For the young professionals that move to Shenzhen hoping not just for money but a taste of vibrant, international, urban culture, its everyday reality can be somewhat of a shock. But some are seeing this absence as an opportunity, regarding Shenzhen as a blank canvas whose story is still being written and one they could have a stake in writing. The ‘Shenzhener' experience has a lot to show us about the direction Chinese culture might be headed in as China continues to work out who it is and what it wants to be. You may not find a pagoda here, or a teahouse, but you will find China at its most raw, confused, lonely and excited.
- Article by Chris Illsey