A Change of Fortune: Shenzhen

Get ready for it; the title works on a couple of levels. Now that my self-congratulatory pat on the back is out of the way…

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Coming up: A giant face eats my left hand.

 

A Bit of Background

Even more-so than Shanghai, Shenzhen is a perfect encapsulation of Chinese capitalism. Once a sleepy little farming and fishing community, long overshadowed by historical Guangzhou (once known in the West as “Canton”, from whence springs the term “Cantonese”) and the glamorous metropolis of Hong Kong, Shenzhen was radically transformed in May, 1980.

In 1978, the new paramount leader of the Communist Party of China, Deng Xiaoping, started China on a series of economic reforms, designed do undo the economic devastation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. One of the reforms involved opening up certain cities as “Special Economic Zones“; areas in which the state would start loosening economic regulations and experimenting with market capitalism and foreign investment. The first city on the list was Shenzhen.

Evidently, the experiment must have been a success, as China now has a total of 19 Special Economic Zones. Shenzhen’s population has exploded, increasing from a few hundred thousand people in 1980 to over ten million today when you include permanent and temporary residents. And commerce and industry have taken off in a big way in the past 35 odd years; it seems like half the stuff I’ve bought on Amazon in the past year — from USB power packs to gooseneck kettles — was manufactured in Shenzhen.

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And construction… just, like, all the time.

Ultimately, I read Shenzhen one of two ways. If I’m being charitable, I can view the city as a symbol of China’s rapid economic development. It’s really after Deng’s reforms that China’s economy stopped punching below its weight and joined — then surpassed — its Asian neighbours. That turnaround arguably wouldn’t have been possible without an embrace of market capitalism, and Shenzhen is a paragon of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.

However, if I’m being my usual somewhat-cynical self, my impression is a little different: Shenzhen is a giant, sprawling shopping mall, linked together with a metro, and sprinkled with a bunch of factories. Sure, it’s all bright and flashy, but there’s little substance to the sprawl. In short, a bit of a cultural wasteland.

Dawn of the First Day

I awoke late… later than I had at any point in the trip, at least so far. The clock was showing well after 10 AM, and we’d have to be out of the room by noon… besides which, we were supposed to meet up with Chloe for lunch. I scrambled to pack my things, while J — smarter than me, and having mostly packed the night before — was able to take her time getting ready.

We met up in the lobby with Chloe and her friend Eric, a Torontonian living in Hong Kong. The front desk staff were kind enough to stash away our gear for a few hours, to save us having to schlepp our ever-increasing pile to the mall where we’d be grabbing lunch (again, it seems like most of the things worth going to are in some kind of mall or other).

By this point, having had nothing but one of my emergency Clif bars since late afternoon the previous day, I was ravenous, and so I was thrilled when Chloe and Eric brought J and I to what was essentially a malatang restaurant (I’m not sure if it’s still called that deep in the Cantonese-speaking South). J and I loaded up on noodles, tofu and veggies (and especially her favourite, lotus root) and opted for “medium-spicy”, as I was starting to worry about some of the noises my stomach had been making in the past few days.

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The. Freaking. Best.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I love malatang. Getting a bespoke soup made is nice, but that particular type of spice and the thick sesame sauce that go with it are just perfect; icing on the cake (broth on the noodles? hooray for mixed metaphors!). I’ve come to love the stuff so much that J and I actually picked up a bunch of the stuff in Ottawa’s Chinatown to make malatang at home (including the lotus root, of course).

On our way out, I spied something I’d spotted in Shanghai, when we were rushing around unsuccessfully searching for a duffel bag: a miniature version of Rome’s Bocca della Verità?! I had to figure out what this was about.

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“Oh, hey. There’s a hand in my mouth. Cool.”

Turns out they’ve got these machines in malls all over. You pop in a few yuan and stick your hand in the mouth, à la Roman Holiday, minus the screaming and amputation gag (I mean, the screaming is definitely optional, and when you look like us, certainly does draw a crowd). The face lights up, some incomprehensible, terribly compressed audio plays, and a fortune prints out on receipt paper at the bottom of the machine (why the heck didn’t they make the fortune come out of the mouth?! Missed opportunity). The fortune’s in Simplified Chinese, which would have been useless for me, but luckily, both Chloe and J are fluent readers of Chinese.

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Seriously, a bunch of mostly white folks, standing by a giant face, screaming, will draw an audience

Our fortunes now in hand and our hands still thankfully attached to our stumps wrists we headed back to the hotel, grabbed our bags from the front desk, and commenced the long, arduous trek to Chloe’s apartment.

Just kidding. Her apartment is literally across the street from the Avant-Garde. That’s why she had decided on that particular hotel; she sees its unique design every day, and was curious about what the inside was like. Anyway, we dropped our gear off at her apartment — on the 31st freakin’ floor — and hopped a metro headed downtown.

Here’s where that sprawl comes in. We parted ways with Chloe and Eric, as they had some work to attend to, and headed down to a part of town called Sea World. While it wasn’t as long as our metro adventures in Shanghai, it still felt like an eternity to get from Chloe’s place down to Sea World.

Sea World

Ah, Sea World. If you leave the metro station expecting to see dolphins and sea lions, alas, you are bound to be disappointed. It’s not a theme park, like the ones operated in the US by the similarly named SeaWorld chain are. Rather, it’s a planned-from-the-ground-up entertainment district, built around the Minghua Ship hotel; an actual, factual ship that was hauled out of the ocean, landlocked at the spot that would become Sea World, and retrofitted into a hotel. With the plaza’s most recent renovation, a big pool/moat thing has been built around the ship, complete with a fake pier, so that this great big ship, plopped down far from the ocean, looks like it floats (forlorn?) in a far-too-small enclosure.

Actually, when you put it into those terms, it is a little reminiscent of the US SeaWorld and similar marine parks (Marine Land, and your many scandals… I’m looking at you).

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Minghua Hotel, majestically bobbing (but not really) in a little, man-made pond

Now that I’ve sufficiently taken the piss; our time at Sea World actually was pretty nice. We swung by a Starbucks Reserve, where I was able to finish off an earlier blog post (this one, if memory serves), and enjoy a damn fine cold brew coffee. After that, J and I just wandered around the plaza, enjoying the beautiful, clear skies, and later a cheap beer (Tsingtao) in the little park across the lagoon from the ship.

We actually relaxed so hard (do you relax hard? or is it “thoroughly“?), that J realized we’d be late for our planned dinner with Chloe and some friends.

KTV

KTV is karaoke as it’s meant to be done. Typically, we westerners think of karaoke the way it’s often found back home; an otherwise normal bar will have specific nights — or some will just do it every night — where they’ll trot out a microphone, plug it into the PA or a little speaker, and you’ll get sloshed before heading up to the mic and belting out a tune, off key, in front of a bunch of randos (and maybe a few friends).

KTV is a different beast. If you’ve watched Lost in Translation, you’ve got a better understanding of how Asia does karaoke. You and a bunch of friends cram into a small room, order a bunch of snacks and booze, and get an enormous selection of songs to choose from as you get sloppy in the presence of your pals. No random people, just buddies; if everyone’s into it, a karaoke session can go on well into the morning. And the KTV places might have anywhere from three to a dozen rooms (or more), each with their own little party going on.

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Ain’t no party like a KTV party, ’cause a KTV party can last for hours!

We’ve got a couple places that do KTV-style karaoke back home, but China was definitely next level.

Before heading to KTV, J and I spent nearly an hour and a half on the Metro, going from Sea World way up to Longhua, at the North end of Shenzhen. We met up with Chloe, her friend Paul — an expat whom she’d met at university, back in Ottawa — and her boss, Kevin. Kevin drove us all in his beloved little lime-green Volkswagen to a vegetarian (specifically, Buddhist) buffet, where we gorged ourselves, having not eaten since lunch. It’s in Shenzhen where I first encountered the Buddhist buffet; it’d save us a couple times in Hong Kong when our lunching prospects were starting to get bleak.

Our appetites satisfied, Kevin picked up the entire freakin’ tab, and again drove us, this time to KTV. We’d be partying with him and a number of his employees, and as soon as we arrived, they made us feel right at home. A big bucket of Budweisers was on hand — and got refilled a couple times when supplies ran low — and there was an endless march of snacks into the room, carried by smartly-suited waiters. The room seemed to be made of marble, there was an assortment of disco lights and lasers going, a bumpin’ sound system, TVs on both the front and back walls for the lyrics… we even had our own bathroom, just for our suite.

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J’s turn to pick the next song.

That last point came in handy as the night went on, as my stomach was starting to roil; a dark omen that I mostly managed to ignore through our KTV party. By the time we’d finished our last refill of beers and started wrapping up, though, I held no illusions; I was in for a rough night. Or longer…

We caught the Chinese equivalent of an Uber back to Chloe’s building, and she walked us to the neighbouring building, where we’d be crashing in the apartment of a friend of hers, while the friend was out of town.

The Morning After

And here’s where my decent gastrointestinal luck finally gave up. I woke up the next morning with my guts in knots, sore all over, and no energy. I don’t have much to say about our second full day in Shenzhen, as I spent most of it curled in a ball, back at Chloe’s place, while her and J shopped. J had initially wanted to stay with me, but it didn’t seem worth it to have both of us lose a full day. After a brief foray out to a pharmacy to grab me some medicine (which they prepared for me), J and Chloe headed back out, to peruse the shelves at one of the world’s largest bookstores, and partake of a particularly bizarre Pizza Hut pizza [“Corn, pineapple, mushrooms, and a weird, wavy-shaped crust.” – J]

I had Chloe’s adorable kitten, Hugo, to keep me company. When I fell asleep watching old episodes of 30 Rock on J’s laptop, Hugo fell asleep cuddled up against me. Not the worst way to spend a sick day.

We had one last change of sleeping arrangements that night; it turns out Kevin’s place is a lot bigger than Chloe’s, and so he offered us the use of his guest bedroom (does it seem like Kevin’s a super generous dude? Maybe that’s because Kevin’s a super generous dude). He brought J out for dinner and offered that I come along. Still miserable, I declined, and passed out early.

And that was how I spent my second day in Shenzhen; sick, and asleep for most of the day.

Stray Thoughts

  • So, yeah. On the whole, Shenzhen was fun (minus the sick day), but it was mostly a product of the people we were with. The city itself is about as culturally stimulating as the Eaton Centre mall in downtown Toronto.
  • That title thing, how it works on a few levels… let me break it down. 1) Refers to Shenzhen itself, and its reinvention from sleepy little village into industrial and economic powerhouse since 1980. 2) Refers to the actual “fortunes” we received from the Bocca della Verità game at lunch. 3) Refers to the fact that my luck finally gave out, re: sickness on this trip. I realize now, having written out the explanation, it’s way less clever than I’d originally thought…
  • Kevin, if you ever read this, thank you for being hands-down the most generous person we met in China. J’s right… Dongbei folks (Northeasterners) are the best.
    The dude drove us all over Shenzhen in the time we were there, and insisted on picking up the tab at every meal. J and I hope to return the favour, some time.
  • Super bummed I didn’t get any photos of Chloe’s cats! During her time in Shenzhen, Chloe has rescued, fostered back to health, and found homes for dozens of cats. She has Hugo, her own little ball of energy, and while we were visiting, she was also fostering “George”, a tiny furball recovering from FPV and who had to be kept at her friend’s apartment.
  • I’m still not sure what the Chinese medicine was that J and Chloe picked up for me. I know, at least, that it was vegan. In all likelihood, it was rehydration packets and the Chinese version of Immodium. Whatever, all that matters is that it got me back on my feet.

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