A thousand miles from the prying eyes of Beijing censors, Shenzhen has grown into one of the nation's most daring art cities.

By Charley Lanyon
March 04, 2016
Credit: Virgile Simon Bertrand

Between the sky-high rents of Hong Kong and the looming threat of government censorship in Shanghai and Beijing, none of China's world-class art destinations are actually welcoming to the artists themselves. Shenzhen, which did not exist 40 years ago, but is now a capital of electronics manufacturing (and also the origin of a lot of fakes), is stepping in to fill that void. Located on the mainland just north of Hong Kong, it's both culturally and geographically outside the spotlight, and is under less scrutiny from Beijing than other major cities.

Shenzhen, a city of 10 million, has the country's youngest population, and a rare anything-goes attitude prevails there. "Many residents come from outer villages and are trying to find their place here," says Bronwen Shelwell, who developed the arts and design program at Shenzhen Polytechnic University. "This makes for an exciting dialogue."

Credit: Virgile Simon Bertrand

The center of the cultural scene is the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, or OCAT, which comprises galleries, artists' studios, and an arts library. "Digging a Hole in China," an exhibition is the Shekou Design Museum—the Victoria & Albert Museum's first partnership outside the U.K., followed soon after by the much-anticipated Museum of Contemporary Art Shenzhen.

The city's scruffier side is even more apparent beyond OCAT, at places like at Brown Sugar Jar, also referred to as Hong Tang Guan (G9 Huangguan Technology Park, 9 Tairan Rd.; 86-755-2541-6110), where rock, punk, and experimental artists perform. It's become a de facto gathering place for creatives, misfits, and antiestablishment types—and it's one of the best places to experience the city's heady energy and youthful ethos. "Beijing and Shanghai are held back by their history," says journalist Kevin Pinner, who edits a local entertainment magazine. "We are creating our own culture here. There's nothing to hold us back, relatively speaking—it's still China, after all."