Although no official list exists, cities in mainland China are informally categorised into four tiers. The Chinese media has persistently made reference to this classification system in its various outlets and publications. Major cities you’ve doubtless heard of such as Beijing and Shanghai fall into the “tier one” bracket whereas those in the “tier two” bracket include locations less familiar to Westerners such as Hangzhou, Suzhuo and Chongqing. (Quick note: I’m not implying that cities in lower tiers are less desirable to visit or live in. I fully intend to visit the aforementioned locations in the future.)
Shenzhen, (深圳) which literally translates as “deep ditch between fields” is a tier one city located in Guangdong province and has been my abode for the previous two and a half years. Oft known as “the Silicon Valley of China,” this rapidly expanding city, as of 2017 has a resident population of approximately 12.53 million. It continues to attract young, ambitious visitors with its tropical, hospitable weather and both a reputation as one of the safest places to live in China and as a city of opportunity for industrious, aspiring dreamers.
The Sleeping Giant Awakens
It may not possess the glamourous sheen of Shanghai or contain the rich, extensive history of Beijing, but Shenzhen has its own unique tale to tell and incorporates an unusual demographic uncommonly composed of people predominantly from outside the city. It’s often said here, with a hint of hyperbole, that ‘No one from Shenzhen is actually from Shenzhen’.
The birth of modern Shenzhen begins in Luohuo Yumin, a small fishing village which was to become China’s first Special Economic Zone; (this year in its fortieth anniversary) this evolved and grew from relatively humble beginnings, gradually transforming into the bustling metropolis packed with the Blade Runner-esqe cityscapes we see today. The meteoric growth of China in recent times is often credited to Deng Xiaoping, who opened up his country to foreign investment and the global market; a man recognised as the “father of reforms” and the “Architect of Modern China,” who tapped into China’s vast economic potential by modernising socialism (“socialism with Chinese characteristics”) and in the process, awoke a sleeping giant from a lengthy slumber and lifted his nation out of the doldrums of poverty. His economic effect on China threads through Shenzhen and weaves through the broader tapestry of modern China.
Having lived here for two and a half years I feel appropriately placed to offer up a few of my favourite haunts and experiences- restaurants, scenic locations and the like. When I’m not working, I spend the majority of my time eating and trying new types of food, playing sport and hiking, so such activities make up most of my recommendations.
Let’s dive in….
Gorge on Delectable Street Food
Among my favourite types of street food in Shenzhen is a “Jian bing” (煎饼), a savoury snack similar to a fried pancake. The pancake is formed by spreading batter evenly over a circular grill during which an egg is cracked on top. A thin layer of hoisin sauce is spread over the fully formed pancake with sesame seeds lightly sprinkled on top; crisp lettuce, scallions and crunchy fried crackers are commonly added as fillings and you can choose between a variety of additional fillings such as chicken, pork, vegetables and chili. Filled with a delectable contrast of textures and flavours, this snack is thought to have originated in Shandong Province; it’s traditionally eaten for breakfast but I prefer to eat it as a snack in the evening. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you might venture to try another street food regular: acrid sticky tofu; tofu which has been fermented in milk and brine. Personally, I find the smell of stinky tofu more akin to an odor. The faintest whiff causes my nose to twitch uncontrollably and I begin to wonder if the nearest sewer is overflowing before eventually comprehending the source of the evil stench overwhelming my nostrils.
Be sure to also try barbequed aubergine (“kaoqiezi”- “kao” means “barbeque,” “qiezi” means “aubergine”) which is essentially an aubergine sliced open, grilled and marinated with oil, garlic, chili and chives. When cooked correctly the pulpy inner layer delicately slices off in thin, appetising strips. Chinese people generally don’t eat the purplish outer skin but I always do!
More Street Food at Dongmen Street Market
Once upon a time I saw a vendor here selling a live bowl of scorpions but if you’re not in the mood to eat something which may potentially end your life there’s an endless array of food types and snacks available at your disposal: Barbequed meats, liang pi (cold noodles), oysters, seafood skewers; this place has everything and more. All the items here can be purchased without burning a significantly large hole in your pocket.
Feast on a Myriad of Mouthwatering Fruits
China is an enormous country. It’s the world’s most populous nation with a staggering 1.4 billion people. Although it follows a single standard time it spans across five geographical time zones. Its sheer magnitude allows for a wide variety of climates which enable the cultivation of a diverse range of fruits. In Shenzhen I’ve encountered every fruit imaginable from the modest apple to fragrant mangoes, (my personal favourite) pungent durian, fiery dragon fruit, enormous, thirst quenching watermelons (I’m convinced China grows the best watermelons known to man) and sweet, succulent lychees. Even after two years here I still retain a wonderful novelty in being able to buy exotic fresh fruit as I amble my way back from work at the end of the day.
Devour the Finest Mexican food in Shenzhen at “Tristan’s” (Shekou Street, Nanshan District)
It’s hard to stay thin in China if you enjoy Chinese food. Unfortunately, I adore Chinese food. My cuddly physique is a testament to this flab-inducing love affair. Being the unorthodox lad that I am, I’m even partial to the occasional mouthful of pidan (a type of preserved egg that’s occasionally found in porridge. It’s a traditional Chinese delicacy.) My next recommendation isn’t going to make you any thinner but by God, the food is scrumptious. If you’re looking for a reasonably priced, delicious alternative to Chinese cuisine look no further than Tristan’s which offers the best Mexican food (and an extensive selection of international beers) in Shenzhen hands down and is worth visiting for the beef nachos alone; crispy, grilled potato chips are heaped high; densely layered with tender, flavoursome beef, diced onions and tomatoes, kidney beans, then layered with a gooey smattering of cheese and topped with a generous dollop of sour cream. HONESTLY WHAT MORE COULD YOU WANT FROM LIFE. Be sure to try the burritos which are equally delicious/earth-shatteringly good.
It’s an added bonus that the owner is a friendly bloke. (Guess what his name is- It’s a riddle!) He’s a heavy metal aficionado who enjoys a good chin wag when he’s not too busy in the kitchen or overwhelmed by customers wanting to instantaneously inhale his food.
….I also want to give a quick shout out to King’s Bar in Bao’an which does an excellent build your own pizza night on Thursday evenings. Check it out!
Revive Your Soul at Wutong Mountain (Luohu District)
Some of my earliest and fondest memories of Shenzhen are of walking this mountain with friends and companions. Providing a temporary respite from Shenzhen’s urban sprawl, scaling the tallest mountain here is well worth the time and effort, giving you a strenuous workout whilst providing some of the most breathtaking views the city has to offer. Different routes are available depending on what scenery you want or level of challenge you desire. The second time I scaled this peak I observed three women gradually making their way up wearing expensive looking dresses, tottering precariously in high heeled shoes. I didn’t see them at the top or on the way back down so God knows what happened to them!
The hardest aspect of this climb is the seemingly endless succession of steps towards the end but it’s worth it for the scenic panorama of the entire city (you can also see Hong Kong) at the summit of the mountain. There are plenty of shops near the foot of the mountain where you can buy water and snacks. Vendors also sell snacks (seeds, pineapple and other assorted fruits) at various points on the way up. Check the weather before you go and remember to bring loo roll- I can’t emphasise that enough!
Get your Arts and Culture fix at Design Society (Seaworld Culture and Arts Centre in Nanshan)
The exhibition “Values of Design: China in the Making” is running at Design Society until the twentieth of December. What better location to hold it than Shenzhen, a hotbed for fresh, innovative technology and electronics? China’s rapid development has brought extensive change and improvements in lifestyle for its inhabitants but at a cost. The designs in this exhibition offer solutions to contemporary global concerns about sustainability and social equality whilst highlighting the deep well of innovative ideas that are coming out of China. In the past China has been criticised for its copycat technology culture (cheap knock offs of established brands) but is gradually shaking off this reputation. It’s sometimes forgotten that originality doesn’t develop immediately. It often begins with imitation. Even famous artists and creators of the most successful brands begin by studying and copying their idols; even our heroes and role models have their own heroes and role models.
The exhibition invites visitors to share their opinions on what constitutes good design; written responses were submitted on post-its on a designated board which contained some thought provoking and highly amusing responses. (Clearly a large number of teenage boys attended this exhibition.) Highlights include the world’s first Al- powered prosthetic hand by BrainCo which was named one of Time Magazine’s best inventions of 2019, furniture made from upcycled Mobike parts, (the Mobike system here is similar to the London cycle hire system. Although it has reduced carbon emissions it’s given rise to environmental issues, namely vast “bicycle cemeteries”) a watch worn by astronauts during the first Chinese spacewalk, a ‘rebirth brick’ made from disaster area rubble to be used in the rebuilding process and a miniature model of a disaster relief tent; the latter two being designed to both ease the burden and support the spiritual and emotional healing of earthquake victims and survivors.
Catch the Light Show at Lotus Hill Park (Nearest subway: Children’s Palace exit F1 or Civic Centre exit C)
Eat sugar coated hawthorn berries (“tanghulu” 糖葫芦) as you stroll along the lake at sunset or read a book in the blissfully cool shade beneath a canopy of trees. This is the perfect place to relax or drown out the world but its crowning glory is the hill itself which I’ve climbed on numerous occasions, both during day and at night. (It’s an ideal vantage point from which to see the light show. There are three per night on Fridays, Saturdays and national holidays.)
It’s a relatively easy walk that culminates with a spectacular, elevated view of the city. A fitting place to provide as my final recommendation, the Civic Centre spreads below in a multi coloured swerve of red, blue and yellow, serenaded by buildings that glow at night with bright incandescence as an avuncular statue of Deng Xiaoping, fixed in a permanent stride proudly surveys the vibrant city he helped create; a view of a dream miraculously realised; an underrated but remarkable city that never fails to rise to the occasion.
My ten favourite songs this month/ A Shenzhen Playlist
1) Guns N’ Roses: Paradise City
2) Little Simz/Cleo Sol: Selfish
3) BaaskaT: Bittersweet
4) Epic Beard Men: Hours & Minutes
5) Hans Zimmer: My Main Man- Rain Man (Music From The Motion Picture)
6) Yuna/Little Simz: Pink Youth
7) Rapsody: Aaliyah
8) Easy Life/Arlo Parks: Sangria
9) AAESPO: The Inner Child
10) Tame Impala: Breathe Deeper
Post Author: Shehan Nithiananda. Shehan is an English and Drama teacher living in Shenzhen, China. He’s British, and studied Drama at Exeter University, followed by Law at Cardiff University.
Learn more about the Teach China Graduate Program.