It was as if I had woken into some distant future Utopian civilisation, a cityscape of strange, soaring shapes and great avenues, super-smooth transport channelling a new people towards unknown business, and language and symbols entirely alien. But this was Shenzhen, China. I spent three days in December 2011 trying to figure out if this was the future it seemed.
The West is out of breath, but China is busy lifting a billion out of poverty and turning its cities into sci-fi heterotopias. Shenzhen was first off the mark, when Deng Xiaoping made it a special economic zone in 1980, unleashing investment and the dragon of enterprise. Shenzhen then exploded from fishing villages to a metropolis of over 10 million. It’s an instant megacity, and the richest in China. The local language is Mandarin, not the Cantonese elsewhere in Guangdong Province, because pretty well everyone’s an immigrant. Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and the rest of them are followers on the path cut by Shenzhen. In a future of Chinese power and urbanised humanity, Shenzhen is already there.
Like any great city, there are two sides to Shenzhen. Behind the gleaming office towers and wide boulevards are dense neighbourhoods of multi-storey tenements where the veneer of the West has hardly penetrated. Though less than 30 years old, they are like an old Shenzhen, and as developers clear them, the old and new sometimes clash. The modern Shenzhen already falls into two distinct phases, corresponding to two competing business districts in Luohu and Futian.
Connecting them and the whole city is a vast Metro, started in 2005, bright, shiny and efficient. On the Hong Kong Metro, a British voice follows the Chinese announcements- in Shenzhen, the English voice sounds American. In China they build these systems in less time than it takes London or New York just to revise an environmental assessment.
Luohu is the heart of Shenzhen, surrounded east and north by hills and the Shenzhen river to the south and the hilly New Territories of Hong Kong beyond. Railway lines and the small Buji river cut through it, the street plan is varied and the cityscape is full of variety and vibrance. Postmodernism, the whimsical architectural style that intoxicated the West in the 70s and 80s, dominates a skyline of slick skyscrapers mainly designed in the 80s and 90s. Postmodernism mixed elements that reference the past, but in China imaginary Flash Gordon-era cities often seem the inspiration- flying saucers and spacey ariels perched atop towers, surfaces of sheer coloured glass. Luohu has lots of this. Towers of gold face each other across the Shennan Road, Shenzhen’s east-west axis. The height of retro-futurism is Shun Hing Square, a super-smooth double-turreted skyscraper that at 384m high was the world’s tallest outside the US in 1996.
Walking along Shennan Road in this part of town has that big, happening city feel. It’s an upmarket avenue with something of the feel of Fifth or Michigan, especially along the stretch marketed as Remmiman Way. Shops and restaurants line it, office workers dressed for the West fill the sidewalks, traffic is heavy. Modern English-speaking Malay and Singapore restaurants have moved in. Nearby is the designer pearl box of Louis Vuitton- those guys know there’s money in town.
But Luohu is more complex than just slick fronts and designer outlets. In the sidestreets, the English signage disappears from the Chinese businesses and grittier housing nestles below high-rise middle-class apartment blocks. Homeless sleep in the underpasses.
Shennan Road leads west, past the dark, elegant flowing form of the 442m-high KK100, Shenzhen’s newest and the world’s eighth tallest skyscraper, then the plaza in front of the Grand Theatre. Behind a poster of Deng Xiaoping lies exquisite Lizhi Park, where a stepped Chinese bridge crosses a lake. The city has spread west into Futian, beyond the breath-taking Civic Center with its sweeping wave of roof and primary colours.
The park south of it slopes up into a tranquil ‘Hanging Gardens’ above the Central Walk Shopping Mall. On either side, rows of super-sized skyscrapers, mainly cold contemporary glass towers, stand like sentinels. This is Shenzhen’s satellite business zone like Canary Wharf, but far larger and still on the march across a vast rectilinear grid.
The towers could be anywhere, save for the Chinese characters and liquor ads playing on building-wide LED screens mounted high on them. Shenzhen’s Stock Exchange, a pyramid-topped blue crystal pile a mere 34 storeys high in Luohu, will soon move out to a stern, steely 246m-high Futian tower cut by a wide rectangular platform of trading floors.
So, how do people live? There’s scant room for houses in Futian and Luohu, so everyone lives in flats or rooms. There’s a spectrum of building forms- Manhattanesque apartment blocks that rise from the sidewalk, luxury towers on podiums, state-built plattenbau blocks separated for light and air, Hong Kong-like apartment cliffs, and whole city blocks built solid to around eight storeys, cut by the narrowest of alleys. Perhaps in the last typology, the Five Lacks may still live on.
The five criteria demanded by officialdom- design, drawings, permits, construction supervision and reports- were often ignored in the 80s and 90s. Shenzhen’s population was growing over 12% annually, and masses of unauthorized, overcrowded residential buildings were knocked up quick.
Looking down from the heights of KK100 or Shun Hing, it’s easy to spot tight grids of rectangular roofs which sometimes meet from different angles, like adjacent planes of crystallisation. Down on the ground, most of these neighbourhoods proved to be not squalid at all.
In the dense warren of Nuixiang, local shops thrive in passages too narrow for cars, and the vertical cuts of side alleys are lined with the ubiquitous aircon units and metal grills that almost make airy verandas out of windows. Just north of KK100 and Hang Bao Road, the alleys are spotless and washing hangs. Not far away, though, are grimy ghettos where prostitutes hang out on corners perpetually in shadow. The Five Lacks may have applied there, but old men playing cards on doorsteps remind you that a timeless sense of Chinese community still holds. Shenzhen’s tight pockets of old communities need to be preserved. The city may have a reputation for petty crime, but it feels safer than towns in the UK or US, even if you stray from the boulevards.
These super-dense medium-rise neighbourhoods are a different world from Shenzhen’s shiny malls and skyscrapers, and like hutongs in Beijing, targets for developers. Sometimes a resident holds out against developers even as every neighbouring property is cleared. The Chinese call their property a nail house, after a famous 2007 case in western boomtown Chongqing. The developers of the KK100 tower and Mall had one after they cleared the crime-ridden ‘village’ that was there. Surprisingly, residents were offered not just a flat in new apartment blocks on-site, but a second for rental income. The cash offer the nail house occupants eventually accepted now seems short-sighted.
So, is Shenzhen the future? It certainly feels like it. But some voices warn of a Chinese property crash, and there is the issue of sustainability. Despite the Metro and the buses, Shenzhen is a city of freeways and off-road car parking. Once, Chinese cities were jammed with bicycles and Western ones with cars, but now the trend is the other way. In Shenzhen, a bicycle is rare, except under an occasional delivery or police- man.
More to the point, China is powered by coal. Shenzhen’s bright lights dazzle in a fossil fuel economy. But things are changing. This year, Guangdong province was given the toughest energy intensity targets in China. Rubbish bins invite you to separate recyclables, suggesting an civic environmental awareness. Shenzhen’s population is young, and its economy has switched from industrial to service industries. Environmental standards like Europe or Japan’s may be not far off.
China is so big and happening, it’s as if a new planet appeared overnight and absorbed everything we’d just made, from mega-malls and high-speed trains to frappucinos and fashion-shoots. Shenzhen was the pathfinder. If it can temper its brash consumerism with sustainability and celebrate its human-scale neighbourhoods, this futuristic city has a fantastic future.