Letter from Shenzhen — From the June 2013 issue

Instant City

China’s Wild West gets tamed

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In 1848, Charles Dickens vividly described in Dombey and Son the hordes of men and women streaming into London from the countryside, “footsore and weary, and gazing fearfully at the huge town before them, as if foreboding that their misery there would be but as a drop of water in the sea.” Nearly two centuries later, a similar migration is occurring in the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen. The poor are lured from the country by the promise of a better life, only to be swallowed up in the city’s immensity.

Those with enough luck and fortitude to make the trip — for many are too old or too poor to even attempt it — end up toiling brutally long hours in Shenzhen’s bleak factories and on construction sites. Many live in temporary housing next to where they work. In the district of Bao’an, thousands of laborers live in a makeshift city of prefabricated dormitories beside the hulking, mile-long steel shell of what will soon be the city’s newest airline terminal. The standardized aluminum-panel houses, held together on steel frames, stand precariously on dirt tracts and are splattered with mud when it rains. Nearby, workers have constructed a makeshift shed out of salvaged materials — corrugated metal, canvas tarps, and leftover scaffolding — where they cook and eat at grimy plastic tables in front of an old TV. A sign painted on a discarded piece of insulation board advertises a bowl of noodles for five yuan, about eighty cents. Job sites operate around the clock, so the workers sleep in shifts, taking turns on the beds.

There are other forms of housing available for the restaurant employees and house cleaners who make up the city’s growing service class; they for the most part live in dilapidated dormitory-type buildings in the inner city — the kind of anonymous, poorly built concrete structures that became symbols of the numbing uniformity of life in the postwar Soviet Union. But 40 percent of the city’s estimated 10 million migrant workers live in “urban villages.” These gritty neighborhoods are run by the area’s original peasant farmers. Over the past two decades, as Shenzhen’s population soared, many of the farmers demolished and rebuilt their properties three or even four times, replacing modest structures with taller and taller tenement-like buildings, in the process becoming billionaires. In the densest of these areas, some buildings reach eleven or twelve stories and are so closely packed that you can reach out from an upper-floor window and grasp the hand of someone in an apartment across the street: these are the so-called handshake buildings. As in the dormitories, people might live four, five, six to a room in apartments with minimal amenities — a hot plate perhaps, and a shared bathroom. Many of the buildings’ occupants are single men. Those with families commonly leave wives and children behind in the countryside, sending them whatever wages they can spare. They are lucky to see their children once a year.

With virtually no privacy at home, most life takes place in the streets. In Dongmen, a commercial neighborhood of the larger district of Luohu, only a few slivers of light find their way between the concrete façades to the congested streets below, which are lined with hundreds of tiny shops and vendors’ stalls. Workers eat at plastic tables at the street’s edge or play ping-pong in back alleys. Not far away, in a plaza flanked by a McDonald’s and a Dairy Queen, elderly couples dance to traditional Chinese music blasting on a boom box. Men sit along a low wall smoking silently; a few women practice tai chi in a corner.

At night, people crowd the avenue sidewalks, milling past megamalls, boutiques, and hair salons, their exhausted faces lit by the glow of electronic billboards. The swarm of people — the main train station that serves as an entry point for many of the city’s migrant workers is only a short walk away — has become so thick that the police have thrown up metal barricades to stop them from spilling into the streets and being run over by cars. The scenes have less in common with the slums of Mumbai or São Paulo than with Paris’s nineteenth-century boulevards — for Shenzhen in the twenty-first century is the city as spectacle.

To the extent that we in the West have thought about Shenzhen, we have mostly been aware of the horrible working conditions in many of the city’s factories: here is where the iPhone, the Kindle, the Xbox, and a dozen other totems of consumerism are made by the millions. Yet the city is no less notable for its steroidal, zigzagging patterns of growth: an odd mix of communist central planning and free-market capitalism has produced one of the most extraordinary urban environments in recent history. And it has done so with alarming speed. In a mere thirty years, Shenzhen has been transformed from a rural backwater into one of the world’s most vital industrial metropolises — a process that for the major industrial cities of the West took centuries. And unlike other huge modern cities, Shenzhen actually laid the foundations on which a more humane city could be built. That possibility is now on the verge of being lost.

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