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Inside Shenzhen

BORN IN SICHUAN, AND EDUCATED IN CHINESE LITERATURE IN SHANGHAI, Mr. Zhou also came south to be near Hong Kong. It was a way to be in closer touch with the Western world. In that sense he is no different from other chancers in the Special Economic Zones. But Mr. Zhou, a neatly dressed fortyish man with a mustache, is the only publisher in Shenzhen. He makes his money from popular novels, many of them based on movies. That allows him to ride around in a chauffeur-driven car. But his ambition is to publish literary books by Western authors. There is hardly a market for these. And now that people all have home video players, the market for novelizations is beginning to slow down as well. But Mr. Zhou believes there is a future in Shenzhen, even for culture.

He and I are sitting on the top floor of the Sunshine Hotel, in a bar decorated with pictures of Cuban cigars. A Filipino band softly plays "Guantanamera." A cup of coffee, brought by a uniformed waiter with a Hunanese accent, costs $10. Mr. Zhou looks out the window at the car lights making yellow and red streaks across a wide boulevard flanked by gigantic neon-lit discos and buildings with Neoclassical, neo-Rococo, and golden glass façades. He gestures to the world below us. When he arrived 14 years ago, he says, none of this existed. There wasn't even a single cinema. Where the boulevard is now, there were rice paddies and fish farms. Fourteen years were enough to bury almost anything green under concrete and tarmac.

Then he tells me about the trees in the middle of Shenzhen. Later, I go to look at them. They are large, handsome trees. And yet they did not grow there, for they are made entirely of clay. Mr. Zhou gives a sardonic chuckle. He says poor people with no culture live in natural surroundings and take them for granted. Rich people with no culture, on the other hand, love artifice: plastic flowers and clay trees. But once rich people acquire some culture, he says, they start yearning for natural things again.

TWENTY YEARS FROM NOW THE HUNDRED-ODD MILES BETWEEN SHENZHEN AND GUANGZHOU (CANTON) WILL BE A GIANT METROPOLIS OF ABOUT 30 MILLION PEOPLE. The route from Shenzhen to Guangzhou is lined with an urban mess of factory towns and massive construction sites. One image that flashes by the window of my train is of a highway that stops in midair in front of a partly destroyed hill, a kind of rusty stump the color of dried blood. There is just enough landscape left to see what the area must have looked like a little more than a decade ago, but there has been no effort to preserve any of it: the duck ponds, fish pens, emerald-green rice fields, and wooded hills are all destined to go. Instead there is the arranged, indeed fake, nature of theme parks and golf courses. One town, Zhuhai, has been almost entirely constructed around a golf course. Zhuhai is a golf city.

Mr. Zhou says theme parks are suited to the Chinese, because few people have the money or the opportunity to travel abroad. So the next best thing is to visit Windows of the World in Overseas Chinese Town, about a half-hour drive along the coast from downtown Shenzhen, and have yourself and your loved ones photographed beside small-scale replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, or Capitol Hill. It's an extraordinary and bewildering place, with its pretty Japanese cherry blossoms made of cotton, and tribal people from Yunnan posing as Africans, and stately Viennese waltzes being played in front of Angkor Wat.

From this microcosm of the world you can walk straight into a microcosm of China, called Splendid China, and take a ride in a kind of golf cart around the Forbidden City, along the Great Wall, and from there, past the great Buddha of Leshan to the Dalai Lama's former palace in Lhasa. Even as the past is being obliterated everywhere in China, it is being reconstructed here in miniature form. In the background, away from the sea, are the clifflike apartment blocks of Overseas Chinese Town, in various shades of pink.

A short walk from Splendid China takes you to Folk Culture Villages, a park that features village dwellings of China's minorities—the Miao, the Yao, the Thai, the Tibetans. You enter this folkish theme park through a miniature landscape of the kind of fantastic, jagged mountains you see in Chinese painting. It is the Stone Forest of Yunnan. Tucked amid the mountain peaks is one of the few true jewels of modern architecture in Shenzhen, the He Xiangning Art Gallery. Its proportions are modest, and the blend of Modernist and Chinese features works to perfection. Built in 1997, it is only the second 20th-century art museum in China. Like the rest of the city, it, too, was built by fiat, to bring "culture." He Xiangning was a famous classical Chinese painter with close connections to Communist Party leaders, including Mao Tse-tung. Her ink drawings of traditional landscapes, which begin in the 1920's, form the bulk of the collection, but there are special exhibitions of modern Chinese artists, many of them contemporaries now living abroad. Outside the gallery, across the highway on a strip of lawn, is a superb display of modern sculptures.

I wonder how this sophisticated showcase of culture is received in the rough and tumble of Shenzhen. The curator, an elegant woman from Beijing named Le Zheng Wei, explains that it will take time for people to appreciate art. Plenty of people come to the theme parks, she says, but very few venture into the museum. "You see," she says, "they don't quite understand what art is about." Her deputy, Mr. Xue, also from Beijing, agrees. It will be about 10 years, he thinks, before people in Shenzhen start visiting a modern art gallery.

We take a walk around the sculpture garden. A few road builders look up from their work and grin at us. There is nobody else there. The most striking object is a boulder, painted silver, floating in a pond next to a similar stone. The silver one was made by Zhan Wei. It's a meditation on artificiality in nature, Mr. Xue explains. Inside the gallery I look again at the landscapes, the misty mountains, the rushing rivers, the tiny people in ancient Chinese clothes. Like all Chinese landscapes in art, these are visions of nature, not naturalistic depictions. Through the window, next to one of He Xiangning's landscapes, I can see part of the Stone Forest in front of the Folk Culture Villages. I later touch the rock in the pond. It is made of concrete.


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