The spirit of Shenzhen – 只有一座深圳 – English

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Typically speaking, a city’s personality should depend equally on both its geographical position and its people.

Paris has a seductive, restless air, at once brand new and old. New York has the air of newness, money, and empire. Shanghai has sea air that mixes with foreign flavor, a colonial past and lilong alleyways. Taipei is tropical and girly, reminiscent of the Southern Dynasties mixed with city streets. Whether big or small, new or old, as long as a place has a group of people, it will eventually ferment, and the birthmarks will appear with time, visible and clear.

In old cities, whether 2,500 year old Suzhou, 700 year old Prague, or 400 year old Tokyo, a city’s flavor densifies until it won’t change anymore: a ladle of drink, an order of food, an old man, and a flight of stairs all emit the place’s spirit. In new cities, this spirit is perhaps not as clear and obvious; however, it is being formed. Through a slow and steady process, a city begins to accumulate charming details. For example, take Shenzhen, that 30 year old city. From its beginnings as a microcosm of all of China, a city filled with immigrants, it has transformed into a Shenzhen for people from Shenzhen.

I haven’t ever lived in Shenzhen. My long visits may last ten days to a month while my shorter visits range from three to five days; each visit is to do some business, drink some alcohol, chase some girls and even get chased by some girls. Each time my plane swoops down at Bao’an Airport, I become captivated by the large slice of sea, the clumps of greenery, and the orderly plot of land. In the blink of an eye I feel like the prodigal son returning home. The Five Ranges are scorching hot and because of that heat the vegetation is luxuriant with verdant greenery as far as the eye can see. Because of all the green vegetation, in Shenezhen the people too begin to look as if they belong to the category of green plants. However, the plants in Shenzhen are tall, the leaves round and large, fat, ample, like Tang ladies, their face like a full moon, 正大仙容,没有小家碧玉的灵气、巧气和巧劲。

For someone like me who follows a turtle’s style of maintaining his health, exercise is even more difficult than climbing a mountain of knives and descending into a sea of flames and 吃辣椒水烫烙铁. But Shenzhen alters my long-adhered-to minimum of upkeep because this place has a joyous seacoast. A friend organized a jogging trip, commanding my charming self to go as well, and suddenly I found myself jogging behind a beautiful woman at night along the coastline for a full five kilometers without losing my breath or having my face go red. Obviously, my heart jumped!

The road was filled with men and women, old and young all jogging or walking or exercising. The paths for bikes and pedestrians didn’t encroach upon each other, to God what is to God, and to Caesar what is to Caesar. Stars sparkled on the ocean while the waves reflected the light of the city’s lamps. There was no pollution, no dust storms, and no car exhaust, just sea air, negative ions and the green trees and blue ocean. Immediately my conviction to return to Beijing thoroughly wavered. We’re all just “floaters,” both Northerners and Southerners, but how is the difference between the two types so large? I decided that before long I must return South-whether by myself or with the whole family-to live out my last days.

Six years earlier, I lived half a year in Guangzhou at a time when I had alcohol to drink, meat to eat, and hot-blooded ambition. But two big problems disturbed me. First, the heat from the Five Ranges attacked and inflamed my heart, so each day I drank indescribably bitter cold tea to decrease the inflammation. If I didn’t, I would suffer the pain of constipation. The second problem is that throughout the city, everyone spoke Cantonese, which sounded to me like the talk of birds. Not understanding them wouldn’t be a big problem, but the scary thing was how easy it was to make mistakes leading to misunderstandings. But Shenzhen, a city in which Mandarin and Cantonese are both spoken, is much better. Here you simply won’t suffer heart inflammation, that is, except if you have a boss with no vision or credentials scold you to cause it, or if you have a wife without money to buy Durex or powdered milk argue with you to cause it, in which cases heart inflammation will occur. Shenzhen has ocean and trees which both 压着地火.

The benefit of being is Shenzhen is that you can always find the group you belong to; the fish will go to the sea and the birds to the forest. Here, Northeasterners can find 小鸟炖蘑菇, Sichuaners can find spicy rabbit head, book-readers can find great bookstores, and hoodlums can find someone willing to be their leader. The Shenzhen Book Mall is the best and most recommendable bookstore I’ve ever seen in the Xinhua chain (I won’t call it better than privately run stores like Eslite or Fangsuo though). I’ve never seen a more complete bookstore; the whole thing resembles a library with its coded classification of genres and its high-speed book look-up. It easily surpasses Shanghai’s store, easily surpasses Beijing’s store, and easily surpasses any bookstore with Xinhua’s name on it.

This is Asia’s largest bookstore, and it seduces me every time I go to Shenzhen. I sit in a corner of the huge space, idly turning the pages of ‘A Lady’s Memoir’ or a book of quotes, thinking that in this fast-paced city of Shenzhen, I just stole half a day of urban bliss. Each time, I have the feeling that it’s not it meeting me, but me meeting it by chance, amid the bustle of the floating world, in a moment of temporary luck.

A city needs a cultural landmark, and rather than a museum, concert hall or theme park, I’d rather the landmark be a bookstore. Guiyang has the Sisyphus, Nanjing the Avant-garde, Shanghai has the Monsoon, Hangzhou the Jiaofeng and the Genlin, Guangzhou has the Fangsuo and the Scholar, Taipei has Eslite, Beijing has the Halloween, the One-way-street and the Sanliao Taofen, Hong Kong has the Chenxiangji, Hong Ye and Sum Kee, and Xiamen used to have the Guanghe. Bookstores give the city its temperament, it offers a gathering place for people visiting or living in the city and searching for its spirit.

I’ve long been able to determine the quality of a city from the type and number of its bookstores and the type of books that it has in stock. The bookstores in a third-rate city sell exercise books, romance novels and novelties, the bookstores of a second-rate city sell Bei Dao, Chai Jing, Li Chengpeng, Han Han and Guo Jingming, the bookstores of a first-rate city sell Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Yu Ying Shih, and art books. If we were to compare a city to a woman, a city without a bookstore, although contemporary and western in appearance, would be like a woman with breasts but no brain, hips but no face, it can only sell cosmetics, selling style would be difficult. The good thing about Shenzhen’s bookstores is that they offer you a platform where – if you like to read romance, you can buy romance; if you like to read Chai Jing you can buy Chai Jing, and if you like Wittgenstein you can buy Wittgenstein. Buying or not buying is one thing – being able to buy or not is another.

The first time I went to Shenzhen, I felt like this was Hong Kong’s neighbour, that it was open and cutting-edge, teeming with gangsters, too messy and chaotic, and although there was exuberant vegetation and bright shiny new buildings, yet walking down the street I felt a sense of panic and desolation, and when I stayed there, it felt like my own talent had been thrown into a black vat, covered in black ink. I no longer have this impression, because after travelling all of the county’s 23 Provincial capitals and 15 sub-provincial cities, I haven’t seen another city where the taxi drivers don’t curse, and the cars respect the road rules.

From my experience, Shenzhen is the only city where cars will spontaneously stop to let pedestrians cross the road, even without a red light, they’ll stop to let you go, and they certainly don’t drive drinking and shouting. That’s certainly not the case in Beijing and Shanghai. I was in Nanjing West Road in Shanghai, walking next to the Lavaza cafe, and saw a taxi almost run into a middle-aged man carrying all sorts of bags. The driver rolled down his window and started shouting: ‘how are you not dead yet!’ The drivers on Wangfujing are even worse, they’re feisty and go straight for you, after almost hitting you they shout: “Hey, motherfucker, why don’t you open your eyes when you walk?”

On this point, Shenzhen’s drivers and Shenzhen’s bosses may be closely interlinked. Bosses in Shenzhen don’t look like bosses, they wear T-shirts, they eat at food stalls, with everyone, at the markets, local food. They’re not like in the North, they don’t go to clubs and feel that eating abalone and bird’s nest and drinking Wuliangye and Maotai is inadequate, 不吆五喝六攀龙附凤就不觉得有地位,相比之下,我更喜欢我喜欢深圳老板的这种深藏不露和市井精神,万人如海一身藏,闷声发大财,发了财也不大声,不太攀比财富、阶层、等级和权力。

Weber said that the spirit of capitalism and the Protestant ethic have much to do with encouraging thriftiness. So in Shenzhen, maybe over 30 years the city has developed a socialist spirit of capitalism, where business serves people, officials, the public, the world, the community.

After the completion of the new Terminal at Baoan airport, it has already become a public attraction: many people drive there to watch the sea and the airplanes take off and land. 我走在抬头到处都像莲蓬和眼睛的候机厅里,觉得这片土地既像中国的又不像中国的,身边的人既像是中国人又不像是中国人,而是像到了加拿大或美国的唐人街,在这么干净耀眼的大理石地板上没人吐痰了,没人排队加塞儿了。来到深圳的人在融入深圳气质。克己,在塑造一座城。

If I had to choose a city to retire, I would choose Shenzhen. The desert at the frontier has already turned into an oasis, while desertification is growing inland!

Excerpt from the book ‘looking up to the whole world’, Lin Donglin, Art and culture press, August 2014.

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About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org