Shenzhen: the archetypal Chinese city

READING TIME: 5 MINUTES

While many hold Shanghai to be the ‘showpiece’ of China’s economic prosperity, which, as a matter of fact, it is, Shenzhen provides the perfect example of a city raised by the buck.

Shanghai was already a booming trade centre in the 1930s prior to the Communists taking over, acting as the primary financial hub within the Asia-Pacific region.  Shenzhen, on the other hand, underwent a rapid transformation from a nondescript fishing village of 30,000 to a global metropolis of over 11 million people as part of the former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s experiment with free market capitalism.  Yet, not many in the West are aware of China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) city. Urban planning characterises Shenzhen’s existence. Each road, each alleyway, each building is carefully constructed to create a feeling of awe for the viewer. I presume even the ordinary ‘Shenzhenite’ may experience this.  What I find most fascinating about Shenzhen is its geographical location within the Pearl River Delta conurbation. The fact that this megacity has overtaken the Greater Tokyo metropolitan area as the world’s largest urban area in both size and population, highlights China’s desire to continue to assert economic hegemony within the Asia-Pacific region. The economy has shifted its focus from agriculture to manufacturing and services, and the major cities of the Delta (Guangzhou, Foshan, Dongguan, and Shenzhen) allow these rapid urbanisation endeavours to proceed at breakneck speed.

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Ping An Finance Centre. (Source: KPF)

I visited Shenzhen with a friend in 2016 and frankly, there is not a trace of history in the city apart from walking on endless new highways, and staring at vertiginous skyscrapers, that attract migrants all over China who come over to make a living. A classic example of the ‘generic city’ coined by architect, Rem Koolhas highlighting a city ‘with no history that develops almost randomly’. We did enjoy the city’s outstanding transportation system, however, particularly the metro. Clean, efficient and reliable; the metro, from my memory, had 7 lines clearly built to serve a bulging population. The sheer number of people during rush hour is quite the spectacle. (although Shenzhenites are pretty good at queuing up I must say). Shenzhen’s growing skyline was also remarkable to marvel at. The Ping An Finance Centre (above), developed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, stands 599.1m tall and at a full 115 floors above ground is one of a few ‘mega-tall’ skyscrapers to have appeared over the last decade. It truly symbolises a city that has witnessed unprecedented economic growth and is a prime example of the prototypical Chinese skyscraper; very tall and very slim. With its pyramidal aesthetic and prominent stainless-steel exterior designed to prevent it from corroding in Shenzhen’s tough air quality, its streamlined shape improves the architectural performance of the tower as well as its wind performance.

Kingkey 100 Development
(Source: ArchDaily)

KK100 (above), another supertall, lies within the Luohu District. Situated at the point where the financial and entertainment districts meet, the mixed-use tower was designed to provide amenities to the area including acting as a hub for transit in the densely populated district. I find the tower’s curved form to be visually pleasing almost alluding to the prosperity of the city. The observatory provides a truly satisfying view of Shenzhen below. Carefully planned streets neatly adorned with trees very much foster this image of a ‘perfect’ city that is constructed with the modern middle-class individual in mind. The view is stunning and on a clear day, Hong Kong is visible for miles away.

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Downtown Shenzhen

I suppose Shenzhen is a concrete jungle in many ways. Don’t get me wrong, there is a beauty walking at night in the city alone, wind on your face, all the neon lights tiring your eyes (not to mention how much you hurt your neck looking up). Standing on the overpasses while watching the cars underneath you pass by is a feeling that is difficult to convey unless you experience it yourself. You also get a sense of the tech-craze that has become a defining feature of the city. I promise you, you can find any gadget in the world here, and customising them will not take very long. I did mention early on that the city has very little history to its name, but if you are interested in understanding how capitalist policies have gripped the city and contributed to its astonishing growth, like me, it is worth a visit.

Walking around Shenzhen at night
Futian District – the central business district (CBD) of Shenzhen

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