Rediscovering Shenzhen Market: The Commercial Culture of the Old Special Zone

On Saturday November 24, 2018, over twenty people joined Handshake 302 on our rediscovery of  the commercial culture of the “Old Special Zone.” The program began in Hubei, traversed Dongmen and ended in the historic Guomao Revolving Restaurant. Over the course of the day, we discussed how Chaoshan migrants influenced Shenzhen’s “entrepreneurial” cultural geography, the role of the garment industry in Shenzhen’s early industrialization, and the way in which new infrastructure—especially the railroad and the East River waterworks—allowed the city to compensate for its lack of water resources.

However, the most alluring aspect of this new cultural geography was market culture.  Under the national plan, China did industrialize and many urban residents had entered modern production as workers and engineers. Indeed, “worker” was one of the most coveted social roles in the planned economy. Instead, what made the Old Special Zone “special” was the organization of production for private consumption and the organization of consumption through the market.

Through the market private desires took on a “special” role in the early days of Reform and Opening. On the one hand, where the planned economy held that desires were “bourgeois,” in the newly established Special Zone, desires were “productive”; desires infused the supplies and demands, which in turn influenced what would and would not sell on the market. On the other hand, the importance of desire to the Old Special Zone meant that its cultural geography not only included spaces for production, but also spaces for consumption. Moreover, consumption itself was celebrated and encouraged. In fact, among the second generation of Shenzhen immigrants—the so-called “Shen 2s”—consumption became a means for expressing personality and social belonging.

The cultural geography of the Old Special Zone comprised three heterogenous roots—the establishment of the historic Shenzhen Market in the Ming Dynasty, the opening of the Chinese section (Luohu to Guangzhou) of the Kowloon-Canton Railway in 1911, and the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 1980. Over the course of the walking tour, we visited sites that manifest these diverse cultural roots.

The original Shenzhen market was held within a walled compound or “wei” with four gates—north, south, east, and west, serving the surrounding villages. Importantly, although all neighboring villagers could rent stalls and shop at Shenzhen, the Shenzhen Market compound was owned by the Zhangs of Huangbeiling owned the market, while their relatives the Zhangs of Hubei were responsible for the official market scale, which would be used to arbitrate disagreements in the market itself. The market was opened on the second, fifth, and eighth days of a ten-day cycle.

At the beginning of Reform and opening, Chao-Shan entrepreneurs and their families came to the Special Zone to open markets. During the roughly nine months (1980.6.17-1981.3.6) that Shenzhen’s second Party Secretary, Wu Nansheng was in office, he mobilized over 100,000 Chao-Shan compatriots to settle in the early SEZ with an eye to jumpstarting administration, manufacturing and commerce. In fact, Dongmen and Old Hubei were only two of the areas settled by Chao-Shan migrants. Other key areas include the electronics markets of Huaqiangbei, many of the township and village industrial parks in Longhua and Longgang Districts, and the fishing villages of Nan’ao in Dapeng District.

The architecture of Ancient Hubei Village and the contributions of Chao-Shan entrepreneurs nourished the growth of Dongmen’s market culture. In turn, we visited the Dongmen Textile Market, the West Gate Emporium, McDonald’s, and the Shenzhen Opera House. Each of these sites highlighted how “fashion” and “taste” were becoming important symbols of personal identity.

For second generation Shenzheners, the amusement park at the Workers’ Cultural Palace was one of the sites where they learned about consumption. On the one hand, in the amusement park, consumption was a family activity. Parents and children paid money in order to play together in a specially designated space. On the other hand, inside the amusement park was 8+8, one of the first teahouses that catered exclusively to teenagers. During the 1990s and 00s, 8+8 was a space where young people could experiment with cultural alternatives such as tattooing, dating, and smoking.

We ended our tour with a discussion at the iconic Guomao revolving restaurant. Through the restaurant windows, we had bird’s eye view of the Shenzhen’s most famous landmarks—the train station, Shenzhen Bay, and the Shenzhen Reservoir, for example. These scenes reminded us how much work has been necessary to create and sustain Shenzhen’s commercial culture, giving us some perspective on how market reforms transformed Shenzhen Market into the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

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2 thoughts on “Rediscovering Shenzhen Market: The Commercial Culture of the Old Special Zone

  1. Dear Mary Ann – many thanks for your insightful post and blog. I’m hoping to get in touch regarding academic collaboration, I hope you can contact me.

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