Shenzhen has country cousin to Stanley

A MAJOR port and relatively quiet coastal resort, Shekou is an hour's drive from Shenzhen City. The two cities' ambiences are so different visitors may think Shenzhen Special Economic Zone is operating a ''one zone, two systems'' policy.

It is: Shekou is virtually self-ruled by the China Merchants Holdings group.

The company appears to have few skyscraping ambitions, and its low-rise harbourside apartment blocks sport an almost Mediterranean atmosphere.

Surrounding hills are being razed less frenetically than elsewhere in the SEZ, and the rural character and community spirit of old Shekou town survives in market streets and rows of shops.

Hawkers lounge on the tree-lined coastal promenade, touting sunglasses and cheap clothing. Fish-farmers' rafts float offshore. Amateur anglers squat patiently on a rocky knoll and wide causeway, while businessmen roll up their trousers and paddle in a man-made lagoon.

With its seaside cafes and Italian restaurant (founded by a real Italian), Shekou appears to be a country cousin of Stanley.

To think so, visitors must ignore the port area, unless they want to view its monument commemorating the spot where the last Sung Dynasty boy-emperor died.

Shekou's other historical relics include over-preserved Chiwan Ancient Fort (a 19th century anti-British bastion), and a terracotta warrior and horse in the town's Exhibition Hall.

Shekou's cheerfully non-trendy image is typified by its oddest landmark, a 14,000-tonne cruise ship, the Minghua, withdrawn from service in 1983 and permanently berthed at the waterfront.

Renamed Sea World , it boasts Chinese characters written by Deng Xiaoping during his first SEZ promotional tour, in 1984. As of the end of 1992, the four-deck hotel-cum-amusement park was being given an overdue renovation.

The ship has a pleasant sun deck with umbrella-shaded cafe tables, a shop selling jade trinkets and gifts and a line of distorting fun fair mirrors.

Visitors can pose for costumed photographs on the bridge and step into the embracing arms of figures (life-size foreign devils) that laugh maniacally.

Beyond the ship, the lagoon's wide promenade and causeway lead to an imposing statue of Yu Wah, the legendary half-human half-serpent goddess who mended the primeval sky.

She ''became the mother of mankind and goddess of love'', according to the plaque on her plinth. ''In the same spirit, Shekou was created,'' it says.

Shekou's name (meaning Snake Mouth) describes its geographical position as a spur of land on the edge of Deep Bay. But Shenzhen City's visitors can soon sense why a Special Economic Zone goddess would prefer to live in laid-back Shekou.

Shekou and Sea World Deep Bay, Shenzhen Special Economic Zone Sea World entry is $8 or 6 FEC (5 RMB for locals).

Public transport Private minibuses from Shenzhen City station bus terminal take one hour (4 RMB, $7 for non-locals). Be warned Shenzhen's version of our 14/16-seat PLB holds at least 22 people (the extras sit on fold-up seats or plastic stools in the aisle, or squat on the engine casing); a fare-collecting conductor squeezes in, too. No-smoking law not always observed. Cheaper public buses take longer.

Refreshments Many cafes and restaurants; Nanhai Hotel, managed by Miramar Group, between lagoon and ferry pier. (Barry Girling was accommodated by the Forum Hotel in Shenzhen City.) Cross-border transport Avoid rush hours on KCR to Lowu ($25); hoverferry services to Shekou from Sheung Wan (3/4 times daily) or China-Hongkong City (2,3 times) take an hour, can be bumpy, cost $56; advance bookings, up to 10 days ahead, essential. Macaumorning service most days ($71).

Reminder Visas required for those not holding Chinese re-entry permits.