A RICH history
Shenzhen made the quantum leap from paddy fields to initial public offerings in little more than a generation, trading agriculture for hi-tech and high finance at the drop of a hat.
The region was designated China's first special economic zone in 1980, but really took off for good a decade later. No sooner had Deng Xiaoping uttered the phrase 'to get rich is glorious' during his historic 1992 tour of southern China, entrepreneurs started to pour in by the thousand, the skyscrapers began to soar and Shenzhen changed for good, for the better and forever.
Perhaps the best introduction is to cross the boundary between Hong Kong and Shenzhen at Lok Ma Chau. A few minutes' walk from one set of immigration counters to another is all that lies between two highly modern mass transit systems, and the rail lines from Futian Port -on the mainland side- cover much of Shenzhen and are rapidly expanding as far as the airport.
Alternatively, the boundary crossing at Lo Wu stands a few minutes' taxi ride from MixC Shopping Mall, a gargantuan development that includes prestigious residential blocks, a futuristic-looking Grand Hyatt Hotel and a plethora of designer-label boutiques. Entertainment comes in the form of mega skating rinks and cinemas, alfresco dining and people watching as the newly rich dispense their wealth. MixC's neighbours include the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, state-of-the-art hospitals and Shun Hing Square, a 384-metre-high office block that is the 14th-highest structure in the world.
There is a well-stocked safari park in Shenzhen, but the city's human residents -conservatively estimated at 14 million- are even more diverse. Work has lured most to the region, whether as a high-flying expatriate executive or a humble employee.
A steady procession of schoolchildren cross the boundary to Hong Kong shortly after breakfast, while their journey is mimicked by hundreds of adults who enjoy Shenzhen's cheaper accommodation and are happy to let the rail services whisk them to and from work.
Futian houses City Hall -a remarkable structure with a roof shaped like a bird's outstretched wings- and Shenzhen's main library and concert hall. A park, topped by a statue of Deng Xiaoping, provides one of the city's many green lungs, while five-star hotels, malls and residential blocks have swiftly risen in the vicinity. Many businesses have opened offices nearby, drawn by the location of the 280,000-square-metre Convention and Exhibition Centre, the largest building in Shenzhen. There's a saying in China that you talk golf in the office and business on the course. If that's the case, there's certainly no shortage of venues for discussing work matters in and around Shenzhen. Apart from world record holder Mission Hills (see story opposite), scores of other golf courses have popped up around the city.
For day-to-day living, Shenzhen is comparable to any other sophisticated city. The area known as Overseas Chinese Town, or Hua Qiao Cheng, is a case in point. Its retail offerings are anchored by an outpost of Walmart. A long-established wet market stands just behind, while a little further on, beside Ecology Park (a favourite venue for dance enthusiasts, tai chi devotees and a Chinese orchestra), is Eco-Dental which provides treatment to locals and foreigners. On the other side of the highway from Walmart, a full-sized replica Spanish galleon marks the entrance to the InterContinental Hotel, which in turn is a short hop from Happy Valley, one of many theme parks in Shenzhen.
The city's best-known amusement centre is Window of the World, showcasing scale models of the world's most famous landmarks, including a 108-metre-high Eiffel Tower. Initially opened as a marketing ploy to encourage Chinese to travel overseas, it's now more of a case of the world coming to Shenzhen.