Wilder than the Wild West and tackier than Vegas, the Pearl River Delta is capitalism's new frontier—with more speculators per square inch than Wall Street. If you're Chinese and under 30, you're already here. Or you're trying to get in. Our report from inside Deng Xiaoping's Special Economic Zone
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.
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.
Rich people without culture like artifice, Mr. Zhou had said. He was only partly right. Rich people with culture like artifice, too. The theme parks, though influenced by American models, are enjoyed in the same spirit as the traditional miniature Chinese landscape gardens, which inspired English landscape gardens of the 18th century with their follies, their Chinese bridges, their artificial ruins. There are four famous Qing dynasty gardens scattered around the Pearl River Delta. In one of them, the Qinghui garden in the town of Shunde, my eye was caught by a beautiful green bamboo tree climbing the wall of the main house, with a bird's nest at the top. The whole thing was crafted artfully out of clay.
THE IDEA OF BUILDING CITIES FROM SCRATCH IS NOT NEW IN CHINA. Great cities have been razed and built again and again throughout Chinese history. A new dynasty would often decide where its capital should be, and the city would be built. Nothing organic about that. This dynamic artificiality, which persists to this day, caught the attention of at least one famous European architect, Rem Koolhaas. Together with his students at Harvard he has prepared a book on the Pearl River Delta, to be published this year. But however intriguing the delta may be, no Western architect has volunteered to live there. I wanted to meet some of the people who had actually designed this new urban jungle.
To say that Liu Ming, one of the architects of Premier Realty Consultants in Guangzhou, is ambivalent about the state of architecture in China would be an understatement. She tells me how most projects work. The government, local or central, is the main client. Speed is of the essence. Most bureaucrats want things to look modern and imposing, at the lowest possible cost. There are, however, not nearly enough architects to undertake the transformation of southern China. What usually happens is that clients are shown photographs of buildings in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Singapore, and they pick the ones they like. "Naturally," says Ms. Liu, "these buildings are often utterly unsuited to the location. And the result is that every place in China is beginning to look the same." Still, she says, with a look that expressed hope more than conviction, "sometimes they listen to expert advice."
Shunde, an old town about halfway between Guangzhou and Zhuhai, is the perfect place to see the transformation of the Pearl River Delta in action. I drive down from Guangzhou with Mr. Peng, a young architect from Premier Realty Consultants. His firm is involved in the building of a brand new town, a new Shunde, next to the original one.
Old Shunde has a remarkable history. It was once the center of Cantonese culture, known for its gardens and cuisine. During World War II, when the Japanese choked off food supplies, two-thirds of the population fled to Southeast Asia or the United States. As Mr. Peng is telling me this, I keep wondering whether we have reached Shunde yet. I see endless rows of houses, factories, and bars decorated with fairy lights. "No, these are just outskirts," he says. Much of the delta seems to consist of "outskirts." But finally we arrive in old Shunde, which turns out not to be as old as I thought.
The narrow shopping streets look as though they were built about 10 years ago. The city hall is a large new building with the usual façade of blue glass windows. After visiting the Qing dynasty garden, we come to the very center of town. The dust has barely settled. Everything is brand-new. But the style of architecture is not. Curiously, the shop houses, with their Neoclassical colonnades, are modeled on colonial Hong Kong's. In the middle is a little square with an elevator behind glass that seems to be going nowhere and various fast-food places. It's called Pizza Plaza.
Old Shunde seems pleasant enough, and I wonder why there is a desire for a new Shunde. "They think they need something bigger," says Mr. Peng, sounding less than convinced himself. "You see, these towns are very rich." We drive to the new town. At first all I can see are empty suburban houses, a large hotel on a lake, in palatial Chinese style, and a small village. "Look there," says Mr. Peng. And there, rising from the rice paddies, is the city hall, modeled on Capitol Hill, in a town that barely even exists. Most of the new town is yet to be built, and so far nobody wants to move to it. To coax people, Mr. Peng says, the government will build a library, a theater, a convention center, perhaps even an airport. What about the village?I ask. Well, the villagers cannot be physically removed from their houses, but their farmland will disappear. So what will they do?"Work in the supermarkets," answers Mr. Peng.
WHAT YOU SEE IN TOWNS LIKE SHUNDE is the disturbing and exciting process of instant modernization. There is something unhinged about the high-speed development of China's great open door. You wonder how this gold rush can be justified in what is still nominally a Communist state. Of course it cannot be justified by socialist dogma. The government's answer has been to turn to history.
Of that, the Pearl River Delta has plenty. This is where the Chinese Revolution of 1911 began. The first prime minister of the Chinese republic, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, was born in the delta, not far from Zhuhai. You can visit the house he lived in. There is a theme park nearby, with huge golden Buddhas and Indian-style temples. But most important, the Pearl River Delta is where the first Opium War was fought, right under the new suspension bridge in the city of Humen. Two museums commemorate the event and instruct the next generation.
The official story they convey is patriotic and vaguely Marxist. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, the Chinese have been told that it is their duty to wipe out the shame of the 1840's, when foreign aggressors tried to force open the Chinese door. But this message really gathered force when Maoism began to fade in China and Deng Xiaoping opened the Pearl River Delta to foreign trade and industry. The Opium War Museum in Humen was built only in 1990. It is as though the policy of capitalist enterprise in a Communist state can be justified only by an appeal to aggressive anti-Western patriotism. The more Western ways penetrate the southern coast, the more people have to be reminded of past humiliations.
What the Westerners wanted, of course, was an open door into China. The Chinese government now wants this too, but behind carefully guarded borders.
NEAR THE END OF MY STAY IN THE DELTA, I am standing on the 17th-floor balcony of one of those gigantic housing estates in Shenzhen that look like concrete beehives. It was built eight years ago for relatively wealthy people. In Shenzhen, only the poor live near the ground. But the building already has a shabby, weather-worn look—and obscene graffiti in the elevators. I am with my friend Yang Yong, an artist from Sichuan. His photographs of young women in Shenzhen—journalists, housewives, students, even prostitutes—are somewhat derivative of the work of such Western artists as Nan Goldin, or the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. But they have a freshness, an innocence almost, that somehow matches the city's youthful optimism.
It's hot. The skyline shimmers in the brownish haze. On the far side of the housing development is the football stadium, which is rarely used for sports but comes alive at night with its cluster of ground-floor bars and discos. Farther away are the green hills of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, out-of-bounds to Yang, and most people living here. Between the stadium and those hills gleam the downtown skyscrapers, and all around us a sea of concrete beehives, with restaurants, supermarkets, barbershops, and massage parlors.
Yang is a small, plump man in his early twenties, with bushy eyebrows and quick, inquisitive eyes. "All this," he says, making a sweeping gesture with his right arm, "didn't exist until about ten years ago. It was just countryside." These are almost exactly the same words used by Mr. Zhou, the publisher, as he surveyed the city from an even greater height. Yang likes Shenzhen. Indeed, he loves Shenzhen "because everything is new." He could have gone to Beijing, the center of contemporary art in China, but "politics are too complicated." Shanghai was also a possibility, but there is too much nostalgia there. Shenzhen is different. It's in China, yet half outside it, and that is the main point. For to come to Shenzhen is to take a step halfway to freedom.
There are regular flights from New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to Shenzhen and Guangzhou. You can also fly to Hong Kong, and then take an hour-long train ride to Shenzhen, a two-hour train ride to Guangzhou, or an 80-minute ferry to Zhuhai. Travel to China requires a visa, which can be obtained in the United States or in Hong Kong. The turnaround time for a visa in Hong Kong can be less than a day if you're willing to pay a $75 surcharge.
Where to Stay
Shangri-La Hotel East Side, Railway Station, Jianshe Rd., Shenzhen; 800/942-5050 or 86-755/233-0888, fax 86-755/233-9878; doubles from $212. A large, modern hotel just beyond the Lo Wu border.
Sunshine Hotel 1 Jia Bin Rd., Shenzhen; 86-755/223-3888, fax 86-755/222-6719; doubles from $202. A standard-issue luxury hotel with a 16th-floor bar.
White Swan Hotel 1 Southern St., Shamian Island, Guangzhou; 86-20/8188-6968, fax 86-20/8186-1188; doubles from $160. Centrally located business hotel.
Yindo Hotel Yue Hai Rd., Zhuhai; 86-756/888-3388, fax 86-756/888-3311; doubles from $104. Zhuhai's fanciest, with an overload of white marble in the lobby.
Huxin Garden Restaurant No. 2 Huxia Bldg., Shenzhen; 86-755/223-3209; dinner for two $12. Recommended dishes: shredded pork with spicy bean sauce, spicy Sichuan-style tofu, fish-flavored pork shreds, sweet-and-sour fish.
Peach Blossom Restaurant Garden Hotel, 368 Huanshi Dong Lu, Guangzhou; 86-20/8333-8989, ext. 3315; dinner for two $18. Popular for dim sum and traditional Cantonese dishes.
Lijiang Seafood Restaurant 20 Xizheng Rd., Xican, Guangzhou; 86-20/8650-8789; dinner for two $24. A virtual zoo, with dinner still scurrying in cages and swimming in tanks when you arrive. Known for its yellowfish soup and long-neck clams.
Food Street Yindo Hotel, Yue Hai Rd., Zhuhai; 86-756/888-3388; dinner for two $8. A wide range of regional Chinese dishes.
Windows of the World Overseas Chinese Town, Shenzhen; 86-755/660-8000; admission $15. The wonders of the world, with rides and restaurants.
He Xiangning Art Gallery Overseas Chinese Town, Shenzhen; 86-755/660-5348, fax 86-755/660-5299.
Guangdong Museum of Art 38 Yan Yu Rd., Er Sha Island, Guangzhou; 86-20/8737-4468.