Art: All work, no play makes Shenzhen, P.R.C. a dull city

By Adam Fotos

I spent the last year teaching oral English at a public middle school in the “Deep South” of China, right on the sea (kind of) in the border city that joins the mainland and Hong Kong – a little town called Shenzhen.

Of course, there’s nothing little about Shenzhen. It sprawls 780 square miles as a gargantuan forest of progress-asserting skyscrapers and buildings. It’s home to about eight million people – a difficult figure to peg with the influx of illegal immigrants who try to capitalize on the economic freedoms of the city.

Shenzhen is a great place to buy knock-offs of Western goods, like Nika, Adiclas, and Cucci. It is, itself, a knock-off of a western city. If you go to Hong Kong, you will find a fusion of Eastern and Western sensibilities, then return to Shenzhen to find a close approximation of that fusion – that’ll probably fall apart in the wash.

Still, Shenzhen is a new city. Until 1980 it was a small fishing village when the government donned it a special economic zone, and it boomed into a center of commerce overnight. While Shenzhen has become a magnet for businesses and entrepreneurs, as well as a home-base for much of China’s burgeoning middle to upper-class, the city’s desire for development has not made much of an effort to bring culture into the city.

What we have with Shenzhen is a city built from scratch, modeled after other modern cities and engineered to fit the model. It has all the buildings, the subway, the efficient buses (for China), citizens and high-priced food that we come to expect from cities, yet it seems to lack a soul. And by soul, I mean art and culture.

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The art scene in Shenzhen is relegated to the outer limits of the city, but most of the artists there are devoted to reproducing highlights of Western art history. For a city that’s a symbol progress, there are no places for people to gather to discuss or share their ideas on progress. The best place to see foreign cultures is at “Window of the World,” a kitsch theme park that is home to a quarter scale model of the Eiffel Tower with replicas of Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal not far away – and what day of culture exploration isn’t complete without a laser show? Everyone seems to have one thing on their minds in Shenzhen – money. There doesn’t seem to be time or interest in much else.

So what makes a city? Part of Shenzhen’s design is to rival the success of its neighbor Hong Kong, but could it possibly do this in 25 years? Hong Kong is an island (and territories) teeming with culture. After the exchange of power from Britain to the mainland, Hong Kong has maintained its international sensibility and self-identity.

The city is keenly aware of the international community within its borders and abroad. You get a sense that this is a city that is aware of who and what it is.

Galleries and art-laden bars are throughout Central and Soho, with the Hong Kong Museum of Art hosting excellent shows of Asian and Western art in Kowloon. Cultural sites with real history, while absent in Shenzhen, are throughout Hong Kong, temples tucked between towering skyscrapers.

Movie festivals and art fairs pop up monthly if not more, and young artists gather freely in the parks or around the harbor, talking about their role in China and the world at large.

Here we have two very different worlds supposedly within the same country. Both places have the blood of commerce and the bodies of concrete, but Hong Kong is the only one that, right now, really seems alive.

Perhaps Shenzhen is still on its way, but it runs the risk of being simply an animated golem, functioning as a city should in the realm of economics, yet faltering in displaying the current zeitgeist of China – or mirroring the spirit and focus of a China that is rapidly moving to assert itself as a world power and putting culture to side in the name of progress.