Amid the soaring glass towers and modern buildings of Shenzhen’s Futian CBD is a rare pocket of idiosyncratic low-rise buildings. The ramshackle structures of Gangxia village are colloquially known as “handshake buildings” after their densely packed formation, meaning neighbors could literally shake hands through the windows.
Crammed full of tiny apartments, independent shops, food stalls and more, the “urban village” is bustling with life and atmosphere, providing affordable accommodation for the massive influx of migrants and low-income workers, a melting pot of street food cuisine from Hunan to Sichuan and a panoply of shops catering to every possible need and want.
This charismatic settlement is one of the last of its kind, a symptom of the rapid changes that have seen Shenzhen turn from a collection of traditional fishing villages with some 30,000 inhabitants to a metropolis of ten million people in less than 40 years.
However, Ganxia’s days are numbered. Occupying prime space in the heart of Shenzhen, it won’t be long before the burgeoning city absorbs this urban village as it has many others. Happily for the owners of these dilapidated buildings, the payoff will be enough to set them up for life, with property prices in Shenzhen soaring to unheard-of figures.
“We call them billionaire villages,” jokes Grace Huang, marketing communications manager for Hilton Futian. “Property prices here used to be RMB10,000 ($1,510) per square meter, but now they’re RMB100,000 ($15,100). This is the only village left and according to government plans, it will be removed by 2019 or 2020 at the latest.”
While the rapid emergence of huge cities in China is not uncommon, Shenzhen is a special case for a number of well-documented reasons. In 1979, it was established as the first Special Economic Zone in China as part of Deng Xiaoping’s test of reform and development. The experiment has been a resounding success. Opening up to foreign investment, combined with proximity to Hong Kong, turned Shenzhen into a manufacturing hub. Enormous foreign-run factories from Foxconn to Apple moved in, and in turn, Shenzhen successfully became an electronics hub, churning out up to 90 percent of the world’s gadgets and putting the former fishing village firmly on the map.
The ongoing changes in Shenzhen are so rapid that visitors returning every few years are shocked at the continual rate of transformation. Luohu (Lo Wu) was the first established district and most important part of Shenzhen. Today, it’s most famous for its bargain shopping and colorful nightlife, as well as serving as an important border crossing into bustling Hong Kong. About five years ago, the commercial focus shifted to Futian, the current central business district that now hosts the majority of financial institutions (including the towering Pin An Finance Centre) and more recently, local government offices.
Virtually every international luxury hotel brand has claimed a piece of the pie: Shangri-La, Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Marco Polo, Sheraton, Hilton, Langham – and there are reportedly still more to come. “There’s still a lot of demand,” explains Huang. “We’re seeing more business travelers than ever. We used to have more leisure travelers, but now we’re 95 percent business.”
Growth has already spread beyond the boundaries of the “new” Futian CBD, moving farther west into Nanshan. While many cities clamber for the prestige of being called “Asia’s Silicon Valley,” the title is most frequently used in relation to Shenzhen. The “factory floor of the world” has proven a fertile breeding ground for technological innovation. After all, there are few better places to find parts, supplies or manufacturers; famous electronic malls like the SEG Electronics Market in Futian, with its eight floors, offer just about anything you could imagine, from circuit boards to LED lights. There’s also the Huaqiang North Commercial Street electronics market, the largest of its kind, with around 20 different shopping malls dedicated to parts.
This environment has given birth to a number of tech giants including Tencent, Huawei and ZTE. Other major tech players have also relocated and set up shop in the city, including Alibaba and Baidu, along with droves of start-up entrepreneurs eager to jump on the wave. According to a Financial Times report, Shenzhen is home to more than 180 start-up incubators and has exploded in terms of online services and new IoT (Internet of Things) applications. One of the most successful start-ups is drone manufacturer DJI, one of China’s top ten “unicorns” with a billion-dollar start-up valuation.
“Shanghai is a financial center. Beijing is politics and finance. And Shenzhen is the technological hub of China,” agrees 30-year resident Raymond Su, resident manager at Kempinski Hotel Shenzhen. In addition to its tech legacy, Su believes another reason the city has flourished with respect to new technology is its relative youth. “Shenzhen is a young city, not even 40 years old. So there’s no entrenched position of mindsets. Young people can set up a new system and figure out how to do it efficiently. The local government is also more efficient and there’s less red tape.”
The government is working hard to attract and retain young talent, with a wide range of financial incentives from tax breaks to free rent schemes for returning graduates. Lifestyle benefits within this tech frontier are also evident – from the prevalence of mobile payments and app-centric services, to the presence of luxury brands like Godiva and cool new neighborhoods like Shekou populated by growing numbers of expats and modern entrepreneurs.
Major technology-centric events are also frequently held in the city, says Fiona Liao, director of communications at Shangri-La Hotel Shenzhen. From the Intel Development Forum, which welcomed more than 20,000 guests, to the “must-attend” Mars Summit. Apple, Tencent and Huawei all host major annual or biannual events as well.
In fact, the city has a thriving conference and events industry in its own right, reveals Liao. “One of the reasons Shenzhen is so popular is that it’s very convenient with transport. Shangri-La is the first choice for a conference hotel in Shenzhen – we have more than 80,000 square feet of conference space and are near the Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Centre. Recently we hosted the XIX International Botanical Congress, which saw more than 6,000 guests from 100 countries.”
The MICE business is thriving so much that a brand-new convention center is currently being built in the Airport New City in Bao’an District – touted to be the largest in the world. The Shenzhen World Exhibition & Convention Centre mega facility is scheduled to be completed by mid-2019, with 5.4 million square feet of exhibition space comprising 19 exhibition halls plus meeting venues on either side.
But the new Shenzhen World development is just one part of a new commercial and residential area planned for Bao’an, as Shenzhen develops even further into its western districts. According to Mao Daben, executive deputy general manager for China Merchants Real Estate’s exhibition operations center: “The venue is in talks with IHG, Marriott, Hyatt and Accor (among others) to bring 4,000 hotel rooms in five-star and four-star properties to the area.”
The new development will be served by two metro stations, a new highway and a fourth terminal at the nearby airport, as part of continuing upgrades to transport infrastructure in order to keep up with demand. Commuters have been enjoying the added convenience provided by the ongoing expansion of Shenzhen’s metro line, which now boasts eight lines with three more under construction.
Another major boost to the city’s transport network will come next year, with the completion of the new Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong High Speed Railway that whisks commuters from Futian to Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Station in just 15 minutes.
With efficient transport, cutting-edge technology, world-leading conference venues and modern five-star accommodation, Shenzhen has come on in leaps and bounds in the past four decades – and there’s no sign of it slowing down any time soon.