Forty years ago, the view of Shenzhen from a border look-out in Hong Kong revealed a landscape of abandoned farms. Now the factories built on those abandoned farms have been abandoned. So what’s taken their place?
Shenzhen continues to reinvent itself. The sleepy fishing village that turned into an industrial wasteland in the 1980s and 90s is turning into an increasingy sophisticated metropolis.
I saw Shenzhen for the first time in 1973 – from a distance.
Chinese visas were all but impossible for U.S. citizens to obtain in those days as China was still in the throws of the Cultural Revolution.
My roommates – who were refugees from China, having swum to Hong Kong a couple of years earlier – and I took the train from our cold water flat in Kowloon to Sheung Shui, the last stop in Hong Kong.
From there we took a bus to Lok Ma Chau, a tiny village at the Hong Kong – China border.
There was a small colonial police station atop a hill on the Hong Kong side of the border, with a look-out point next to it.
There seemed to be nothing on the other side of the border but abandoned fields – and verdant mountains in the distance.
I asked why the fields had been abandoned.
“Anyone able to tend a field that close to the border would have escaped by now,” I was told. “Only a few old people that are unable to escape remain.”
Fast forward 30 years. I was spending the day with one of my former roommates and suggested we drive to the police station in Lok Ma Chau to check out the view.
“What do you want to go there for?” my friend’s wife asked. “There’s nothing to see!”
I explained that her husband, his younger brother, a few of their friends, and I had visited the place 3 decades earlier and it would be interesting to see how the view from that look-out had changed since then.
So we went. And this is what we saw …
A depressing urban nightmare of factories and look-alike housing blocks – row after monotonous row.
I liked it better before.
I didn’t actually set foot in Shenzhen untill about 1995, and I didn’t particularly like what I found.
There were beggars and pick pockets everywhere. Children would run up to you from all directions and demand money. One of my travelling companions was once set upon by a monkey as we made our ways back to Hong Kong.
On one memorable occassion, I almost tripped over a dead baby that had been left on the sidewalk in kowtow position as a practical joke. I didn’t return to Shenzhen for 5 years.
Over the last 10 years, however, I have witnessed a change. Those factories and housing blocks have been abandoned just like the farmlands before them.
Only this time they have been replaced with modern high-, mid-, and low-rise buildings.
There are broad boulevards lined with trees, sprawling parks, a subterranean shopping mall topped with a beautifully landscaped garden, several 5 star hotels, sidewalk cafes, the list goes on.
For the 2nd time in 40 years Shenzhen has reinvented itself. Only this time the changes are for the better.
A friend of a friend insists that Shenzhen has become the New York of Asia, but I hate such comparisons. For me Shenzhen is simply a sleepy fishing village that became an industrial wasteland and is now becoming an increasingly sophisticated metropolis.
And I go there every chance I get!