Why the Chinese Metropolis of Shenzhen Is the City of the Future
A generation ago, Shenzhen was just a quiet fishing village of some 30,000 across the border from Hong Kong. Then, in 1979, the Chinese government turned it into an experiment to grow capitalism in a test tube, designating it as the country's first Special Economic Zone. Today, the city's population is more than 11 million, driven by an influx of laborers from the countryside who make everything from real iPhones to fake Chanel bags. Shenzhen — and the surrounding Pearl River Delta — has become known as the world's factory floor.
So a first-time visitor might be surprised to find not gray factories but sleek museums, sprawling technology marketplaces, and chic breweries and bars. Shenzhen is now China's wealthiest city, with real estate prices that last year surpassed those in Beijing and Shanghai. These developments herald Shenzhen's next phase as a laboratory for the future of the city, thanks to a strange interplay between top-down, government-led planning and bottom-up, DIY urban innovation.
"Shenzhen has changed so much that I don't even know how to describe it," says Venus Lau, the artistic director of the city's leading contemporary art space, OCAT (Overseas Chinese Town Contemporary Art Terminal), in Nanshan District. At 36, she's roughly the same age as modern Shenzhen. Born in Hong Kong, she recalls disorienting childhood visits to Shenzhen during which she'd see high-rises looming over traditional villages, mountains being leveled for development. Her museum is the latest addition to OCT-Loft, a palm-shaded arts-and-lifestyle district in a former industrial area where bookstores and artisanal coffee have replaced heavy machinery. OCAT's shows often address Shenzhen's rapid pace of change. The current one, "Real Mass Entrepreneurship," by the New Zealand artist Simon Denny, explores the city's status as "the Silicon Valley of hardware" with installations inspired by the surreal market district of Huaqiangbei.
To see why Shenzhen is called that, wander the endless wholesale kiosks of Huaqiangbei's malls, where tech entrepreneurs, hackers, and makers gather. You will find every electronic component and gadget imaginable, laid out like so many spices in a bazaar. This is ground zero for the production of shanzhai — "pirated" goods that are often less knockoffs than remixes, like an Apple Watch that runs on Android, has a removable battery, and is a quarter of the price. Naturally, the West frowns on shanzhai, but experts like David Li, a Taiwanese technologist and cofounder of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, argue that these bootlegs drive innovation. Hoverboards, he points out, evolved in the wilds of shanzhai production to become a global hit.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is using Shenzhen as a showcase for its move from "Made in China" to "Designed in China" — a program to rebrand the country as a place that can invent, not just copy and mass-produce. Design Society, a mixed-use cultural hub set to open in October as part of an 18-acre seaside development, is a collaboration between the state-owned China Merchants Shekou Holdings and London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Designed by Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, it will host touring exhibitions from the V&A's collection and projects from various design disciplines. Across town, construction is complete on the Museum of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition (MOCAPE), designed by the Austrian firm Coop Himmelblau, which will house two independent institutions — one devoted to art, the other to urbanism — within a single unified space.
The government also supports the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, which will launch its seventh edition this December. As is its custom, the event will take place in an undervalued urban space — this time, Nantou Old Town, one of the several hundred chengzhongcun that are among Shenzhen's most distinctive features. Literally "villages in the city," these dense neighborhoods are what remains of the original fishing and farming communities that used to dot the countryside. They're characterized by eclectic street-level commerce, narrow alleyways, and low-rise "handshake buildings" — structures built so close together, neighbors can shake hands through their windows. At night, hawkers sell cheap and delicious street food like lamb hot pot and noodles to locals and office workers in the shadows of the glossy skyscrapers next door.
The government views the chengzhongcun as a blight, but they've been championed by urbanists, who see them as fostering city-size versions of shanzhai — ad hoc methods of creative problem-solving and mixed-use efficiency. One advocate is the Shenzhen-based anthropologist Mary Ann O'Donnell, who since 2013 has codirected Handshake 302, an exhibition space and artist residency in a 130-square-foot walk-up in Baishizhou, a chengzhongcun that has long been threatened with demolition. Now, however, Baishizhou is experiencing something like gentrification. It's the site of the American-run Bionic Brew, Shenzhen's first craft brewery. Next door is Magma, an Italian wine bar and DJ space. A French-run gastropub called Mash recently opened in Shuiwei, a chengzhongcun east of Baishizhou.
These kinds of businesses have proliferated, with government encouragement, because they cater to the city's growing upper middle class. One reason Shenzhen has become popular with well-off Chinese is that it is surprisingly pleasant: it has green space, tropical foliage growing on buildings, and relatively little air pollution. There are beaches (real and man-made), including the one where Shenzhen Fashion Week recently took place under palm trees. In the words of designer Cynthia Rowley, one of the presenters, "It felt very Miami!"
Another draw is Shenzhen's distance from the capital. As the old Chinese saying goes: "The mountains are high and the emperor is far away." Though the government engineered Shenzhen, its location in the Pearl River Delta, more than 1,300 miles from Beijing, gives it a more relaxed atmosphere. "Freedom is a really big word, but there is a sense of Shenzhen being more open in every way," says Jason Hilgefort, an American architect and educator who leads the local urbanism academy Future+.
This openness triggers experimentation at every level, from circuit board to city block. Hilgefort's favorite new bar is Beer Man, a craft-beer joint in a shipping container in an empty lot in Xiangmihu District. "It's where you used to go to buy a used car," he says. "Then a few people started a place where you can play basketball, then the beer place, and now a fried-chicken place." From Beer Man, you can look at the lights of Chegongmiao, the hub of Futian, Shenzhen's new city center. You can even climb onto the roof for a better view. "Everyone is welcome up there," Hilgefort says.
By Air: There are few direct flights from the U.S. to Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport, so for most American travelers it is more practical to fly in to Hong Kong.
By Land: Shenzhen is accessible from Hong Kong by bus, taxi, and train.
By Sea: Ferries operate from the Hong Kong airport and Hong Kong–Macau Ferry Terminal.
Four Seasons Hotel: Located in Futian, the city's newest business district. doubles from $246.
Shangri-La Hotel: The city's first luxury hotel, known for its circular rooftop bar. doubles from $109.
St. Regis: Occupies the upper floors of Shenzhen's second-tallest building. doubles from $248.
Cuiyuan: A Hong Kong–style chachanteng (diner) with staples like barbecued pork noodles. 86-755-8860-6228; entrées $3–$8.
Mash: Shenzhen's first gastropub. 86-755-8322-0215; entrées $12–$20.
Tian Gong at the St. Regis: Elegant private Cantonese dining with views of Hong Kong. 86-755-2223-9366; prix fixe from $145.
Bionic Brew: The taproom of this pioneering craft- beer spot in the urban village of Baishizhou opens daily at 5 p.m.
Huaqiangbei: Hackers and makers source parts in this mall district to create the products of the future. Huaqiang Rd., Futian.
OCAT: The city's leading contemporary art museum.
Design Society: Opening this fall, this space will include a museum, a gallery, a theater, retail, and more.
Museum of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition: An innovative "cloud" structure will link two different museums under one eye-catching roof. Shenzhen Civic Center, Futian.