garden city

Spring in Shenzhen brings memories of dustier grasses and bluer skies. 18 years ago, I lived next to a construction site, and the low cost local ornamentals and creepers flourished in moderation. We breathed construction dust and navigated street floods (or “accumulated water” as I have learned to say in Mandarin). But the skies, if organic and digitalized memory serve, we’re blue and vast and clear.

Yesterday I ate brunch on the Intercontinental patio and had an afternoon tea-becomes-dinner meeting at 1 Haiguan Rd. Once upon a developmental time, both were located near Shenzhen Bay. When built in 1982, the Intercontinental perched near coastal oyster beds and provided visitors and investors in the OCT and Shahe Industrial Parks with simple accommodations. That same year, there was no restaurant at the top of “Microwave Hill” as the site of 1 Haiguan Rd is known. Instead, it was the site of the first local (difang) broadcast tower in post Mao China. The tower broke through tree cover to send and receive signals from Hong Kong, which was just across the water. It symbolized a new communication independence from Beijing, but not too much independence; the simple two-story border guard tower still stands.

The original Intercontinental has been razed and in its place a 5-star Spaish-themed hotel stands. Outside is a galleon, while inside the male staff wear bull fighter costumes and the restaurant hostesses sashay in modified flamenco dresses. The patio area has imported flora, a black marble pool with multi-color goldfish, and a break in the lush green buffer that opens to a virtual beach area. The coastline, of course, is now pushed back, placed on the southern edge of the Binhe Expressway and the narrow Shenzhen Bay Park, which stretches along the reconstituted coastline. 1 Haiguan Rd is the physical realization of another chapter in the same history, albeit land reclamation-in-progress to accommodate a larger port area and a yacht marina. The interior of the border tower has been fitted with stage lights that create the nostalgic centerpiece of an elaborate and fragrant garden.

I enjoyed both outings. I was with generous and creative friends, with whom I often collaborate. All have helped with 302, and all are interested in contributing to the cultural life of the city. Moreover, they are truly willing to share what they have. It is a joy to be with them.

And yet.

Our friend dropped us off at our late 80s compound of boxy concrete low rises, crumbling compound floor, local plants, and ordinary pavilion with tacky pseudo-imperial glazed tiles. The combined cost of yesterday’s two meals was more than my monthly rent. Sometimes, my increasing sense of distance from ever-growing areas of the city provokes anxiety. Sometimes it hooks into my sadness about the forms of social segregation that are being built into the city. Last night, the contrast made me nostalgic for a dustier, more industrial Shenzhen, when large tracts of undeveloped land were still accessible for exploration and amenable to common dreams.

Photos taken at 1 Haiguan Rd, where the changing Shekou coastline is visible from the third floor gardens.

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One thought on “garden city

  1. Unfortunately, this is a universal experience. In any language and in any country, one sees this disparity. “Inbalance between the rich and por is the oldest and most fatal ailments of all republics” wrote Plutarch two thousand years ago. I think that the progress and inevitable wealth that go along with this give a false and flawed sense of success. We develop out material well being, flamingos and spanish dancers included, at the cost of our civility. We cultivate bright colors and suffocate the greater need for dialogue, empathy, connection and love.

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