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Inside Shenzhen

IT SHOULD BE ABSOLUTELY GHASTLY: a neglected frontier area near Hong Kong, with a few scattered villages, fish farms, and fortified border posts, transformed in less than 20 years into a huge city of high-rises, theme parks, and shopping centers done up in white marble and pink granite. It is a city of about 4 million people and swelling fast, a city dedicated to an entirely new idea: high-speed semi-capitalist modernization inside an authoritarian Communist state.

In the 1980's, the late Deng Xiaoping decided that China should open its door to the outside world. The city of Shenzhen, and the satellite towns along the coastal road to Guangzhou, were built as a kind of monumental door, metropolises erected by government fiat. And Deng came down south and said it was good.

Of course, cities are not supposed to be like that. They are meant to grow organically, like plants, following human needs and desires. Shenzhen has no history to speak of. What you see as you cross the stinking canal at Lo Wu station, which forms the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen (or, to be precise, the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen), is a distorted copy of Hong Kong, a futuristic Communist Chinese idea of urban modernity. Outside Lo Wu station, on the Shenzhen side, you stand face-to-face with the Marlboro man and enticing pictures of urban developments with names like New Paradise Park or Gold City.

It should, as I said, be ghastly. And yet, oddly enough, it isn't. There is something exhilarating about a new city inhabited almost entirely by immigrants trying their luck, whose average age is less than 30. Though Shenzhen is in the region of Canton, you hardly hear a word of Cantonese, as you do in Hong Kong or Guangzhou itself. Instead you hear the dialects of Sichuan, Beijing, Hunan, Anhui, or the northeastern provinces. (Most of the local gangsters are said to be from Hunan.)

There is something about Shenzhen of China's old treaty ports, such as Amoy (now Xiamen) or Shanghai, which were opened by colonial powers in the 19th century. In effect, the Special Economic Zones on the south China coast are the Communist government's treaty ports, enclaves where money can be generated by trading with foreigners, or overseas Chinese, without contaminating the rest of China with subversive foreign ideas. To enter Shenzhen from other parts of China you have to cross a border, as though going to another country. You need a special permit to live in the Open Door.

PEOPLE COME SOUTH FOR ALL SORTS OF REASONS. Barely educated girls from villages in Guangxi or Sichuan come to find jobs in the factories. The unfortunate ones will work long hours, be paid almost nothing, and sometimes have their residence permits confiscated, which turns them into virtual slaves. The prettiest ones might drift into better paid, though no more salubrious, jobs in barbershops, massage parlors, hotels, karaoke bars, or nightclubs of varying degrees of sleaze. If prostitution could be described as the most primitive form of private enterprise, Shenzhen, like Shanghai in the 1920's, is a haven for such enterprise: everyone is trying to sell his or her best assets.

Many people come to learn English and to work for foreign companies in the hope of finding a way to go overseas. The Pearl River Delta is a great launching pad for Sydney or San Francisco or London. This has been so for centuries, though the typical new emigrants are no longer Cantonese peasants, but well-educated young people from all over China: graphic designers, computer programmers, information technology experts.

Not long ago you could instantly recognize "mainlanders," as opposed to Chinese from Hong Kong, Singapore, or Taiwan, by their clothes: dowdy dresses and flesh-colored stockings for the women, ill-fitting suits and flashy ties for the men. But no longer. The young in Shenzhen now wear all the latest Hong Kong fashions, deeply conscious, like the Hong Kong Chinese, of brand names. Not only that, but they all watch Hong Kong television. Officially that is not allowed, but it's hard to control because viewers can just tap in with satellite dishes. The music in the discos is mostly American or Cantonese pop ("Cantopop") from Hong Kong. Indeed, for young Chinese the proximity of Hong Kong is one of the attractions of Shenzhen, not so much because of its own Cantonese culture, but because Hong Kong is the main conduit of Western and Japanese pop culture.

One place to absorb the raucous atmosphere of Shenzhen is in the oldest part of town, behind the Mingdu Hotel. When I say old, I mean that in relative terms, of course. Few buildings date from more than 30 or 40 years ago, but the site is old; it is where the town of Shenzhen was located before it grew into a metropolis. At night, curbside restaurants open and waiters in rubber boots set out cages filled with writhing snakes, or dogs, or ducks, or geese, or rabbits, or anything that moves, all waiting patiently to be prepared for someone's meal. Fish of all kinds swim around in large tanks, and crustaceans—huge lobsters, Shanghainese hairy crabs—juicy oysters, and shellfish of various shapes and sizes are on display. Lacquered ducks and basted pigs hang from hooks, until chefs hack them with cleavers into manageable portions.

The tables fill up quickly with large groups of people, mostly young, flushed with drink, shouting at the tops of their voices. Other kinds of entertainment are on offer too: blind musicians sing folk songs, plucking two-stringed lutes; masseurs offer to handle your feet; professional ear-pickers will clean your ears with chopstick-like steel implements; and young women in short skirts amble along, with ready smiles for likely-looking customers. "Hot and noisy" is the Chinese term for having a good time, and hot and noisy it is until the early hours of the morning, when the restaurants shut and the girls in the short skirts head for the discos, or wherever it is that passes for home.

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