Finding Culture in New China by Sarika Chawla

The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place

Finding Culture in New China
By Sarika Chawla

Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.
Confucius, 551–479, B.C.


Sharica with Giant Doll in Shenzhen PRCWhen most people travel to China for the first time, they visit the ancient cities of Beijing, Shanghai and maybe take a cruise along the Yangtze River. But for this first-timer, the introduction to Chinese culture took place in the emerging destination of Shenzhen. Unlike its sister cities where traditions of old reign supreme, the vast majority of Shenzhen residents are under 30 years old, a result of the area becoming a special economic zone in 1979. I wondered if an entire village being razed and replaced with an instant city would also erase the possibility of an “authentic” experience.  — Sarika Chawla

Only 30 years ago, Shenzhen was a typical Chinese fishing village; today it is the thriving financial and industrial hub of South China. Due to its proximity to Hong Kong, Shenzhen was singled out as the first Special Economic Zone and established as a city in 1979. Today, it’s the biggest city in China when grouped with Hong Kong, and perhaps the richest in the country. Getting here is as easy as a short ferry or train ride from Hong Kong, or by train or road from Guangzhou. (On a somewhat more complex and fast-paced itinerary, I flew in to Hong Kong from Los Angeles, and took a connecting flight on Dragonair to Guangzhou, followed by road transportation to Shenzhen, and finally a ferry ride back to Hong Kong.)

Reflective of the transition the area has undergone, even though it’s also a part of the Guangdong province, the dominant dialect is Mandarin, not Cantonese, since most residents come from other parts of China.

In terms of urbanization, Shenzhen is much further along than Guangzhou and a very carefully planned city. There is a surprising amount of green space and tree-lined streets, along with sleek and sophisticated bars and restaurants, and cultural offerings such concert halls, art galleries, museums, and book shops. While sipping evening cocktails poolside at the Ritz-Carlton or Shangri-La hotel, surrounded by imposing skyscrapers, it’s hard to distinguish this city from any number of sparkling metropolises.

But it’s the unexpected that really sets this city apart.

The first thing you might notice about Shenzhen is the proliferation of oddball theme parks. According to the locals, after China opened itself to the world in the 1970s, Chinese officials were so impressed by Disney and Six Flags-type entertainment that they considered it a necessary part of development.

As a result, theme parks include: Splendid China, which showcases miniatures of China’s famous sites and historical figures; the Chinese Folk Culture Park, which features villages of cultural performances, parades and artworks; Windows of the World, where visitors can check out replicas of the world’s greatest attractions — from the Eiffel Tower to Angkor Wat to the Sydney Opera House — as well as mind-blowing theatrical spectacles that put Vegas to shame; and Happy Valley, which is the closest experience to Disney you’ll get in Shenzhen.

Shenzhen Art VillageThese parks are about as authentic to Chinese culture as Disney is to Anytown USA, but they are local institutions that shouldn’t be missed. If you’ve only got time for one experience, make it Windows of the World and cap the evening with a show and fireworks display.

A bit off the beaten path from Shenzhen is another unexpected gem that shouldn’t be missed. Dafen Oil Painting Village is an example in irony when talking about authenticity. Hundreds of artists have set up shop here and can copy virtually any painting you desire, even from a photo, and ship it to you. Raphaelite cherubs? Chairman Mao? Alan Greenspan? Art Village paintingsYour grandchildren? It’s all available there.

However, if getting a cheap knockoff isn’t your style, Dafen is also home to dozens of original painters producing top-quality — and a good amount of mediocre — art. Although the village has been remodeled over the years, it’s a refreshing throwback with squat buildings versus towering skyscrapers, and charming courtyards where visitors can sit down for tea.

Musicians in Shenzhen ParkFinally, there is a side of China that the tourists don’t always get to experience — Sunday in the park. In Shenzhen, Lianhua Mountain Park (Lotus Mountain) is a sprawling, green oasis in the middle of the city. On Sunday morning, crowds gather to practice … everything. Down one path a group of pajama-clad locals twist and bend in elegant tai chi moves. On another patch of grass parents and kids run along hoisting kites in the air.

But that’s the expected.

The unexpected is discovering Shenzhen’s middle-age and elderly population in the form of embracing couples rehearsing ballroom dancing in the park, while somewhere down the lane, peels ring out from a session of laughter therapy. Elsewhere, a collection of singers and musicians, led by an enthusiastic conductor, heartily belts out Chinese tunes — and a special rendition of “Red River Valley” for their “foreign friends.” And, my favorite of all, a group of hip-swiveling, arm-waving women belly dancing their way through Middle Eastern and Bollywood tunes, and beam when we join in to share the joy. Dancing in the heart Shenzhen, I felt as if I had discovered the heart of China.

Bollywood dancing in park

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