Shenzhen is sexy and semi-appealing. I never thought I'd say this.
Fifteen years ago I crossed the border and instantly wanted to turn around. The border crossing experience was similar to walking into Tijuana. Once is enough. The crowds bore the uncanny resemblance and appeal of a mosh pit. If it weren't for the promise of cheaply and finely tailored curtains and knock-off handbags, I wouldn't have crossed.
Turn the clock forward and I could barely recognize the city. First of all the border crossing was painless as a station called Lok Ma Chau opened in 2007 to alleviate the crossing chaos. Everything was fairly drama free. The smoothly paved roads, picture perfect infrastructure (not a single pot hole and traffic moved swiftly), and svelte modern skyscrapers that created a semi-appealing skyline, had replaced the poorly paved roads and mass and mess of bicycles.
Speaking of transportation, the friend's friend a Mr. Z came to fetch us in one of his Mercedes. The other Mercedes was safely stowed in a parking garage in his high rise, one of several high rises. Mr. Z, like many of China's nouveau riche, is an entrepreneur. He owns an upscale tea business. The tea wasn't cheap with prices ranging from USD $35 for a palm-sized can to USD $500 for the premium sort. How was business doing? I asked. In retrospect a silly question as his success seemed obvious at least on the surface.
As part of the personal tour we swung by only one of many upscale shopping malls, which looked like clones of the multitude of malls in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, Shenzhen. Hong Kong, Shenzhen. Was it just me or were the cities increasingly resembling each other?
Shenzhen used to be a shopping mecca for bargain hungry Hong Kongers, but now I was in for sticker shock. The shops, mostly carrying international brands, were two to three times more expensive than Hong Kong. The children's section offered a good glimpse of how far ahead China had come. The Toys "R" Us was filled with queues of parents and chubby rosy-cheeked children, a telling sign that China had come a long way and would continue to ascend.
Mr. Z ended the tour by taking us to a local restaurant that's specialty is Peking duck and fish. The soup bowl was the size of a Humvee's hub cap filled with the fish a hefty five-pounder. The restaurant packed like most of the other restaurants in Shenzhen. Business was good, to say the least. Mr. Z, a native of Shenzhen, liked talking about his city's transformation. He noted that the biggest problem was that the city seemed a bit transitory as new buildings swiftly replaced old ones sometimes seemingly in the blink of an eye. There wasn't a balance of old and new, of past and present.
"The hardware has come a long way, but the software has a ways to go," said Mr. Z as he sucked on a cigarette. He was talking about the customer service, the concept of queuing up versus pushing and shoving. And there remained the generally canyon-sized gap between the wealthy and the poor with a healthy amount middle class yet to surface.
"Give it another three to five years and we'll get there," he said. "Come back and visit again," he grinned. In the past I would have thanked him and thought yeah right, but this time I thought why not. Sure I'd be back. Someday the kiosks selling kitschy Dr. Dre look-alike headphones and fake Oakleys would be gone, and maybe three generations later there would be order and patterns amongst the current chaos and crowds. It was getting better every time at least on the surface.