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Back to the Future

December 28, 2016

I recently returned from a 7-day trip back to my hometown, Shenzhen, China. To say I hadn’t been there in a while would be an understatement.  The last time I was in Shenzhen was in August of 1998 when my husband and I had a beautiful Chinese wedding ceremony at the China Folk Culture Village there, to which I invited almost my entire high school class (numbering 37) to attend. 

As a thriving and prosperous city right next to Hong Kong in southern China's Guangdong Province, Shenzhen is regarded as the premiere window into China's reforms and its policy of opening-up. As an international showpiece, the city also features many contemporary buildings, such as the 600 meter tall Ping An International Finance Centre, and a number of amusement parks.  Shenzhen is a major financial center in southern China. The city is home to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange as well as the headquarters of numerous high-tech companies. 


Shenzhen began as a sleepy little town of 30,000 people on the route of the Kowloon-Canton Railway.  That all changed in 1979 when Shenzhen was promoted to city status by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who succeeded Mao Zedong and who led China through many market reforms.  In 1980, Deng designated Shenzhen as China’s first Special Economic Zone, and things have never been the same.  According to a recent Chinese Government report, as of 2015, Shenzhen had been transformed into a city with a population of 10,778,900 and a metropolitan area population of over 18 million.  Shenzhen was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world through the 1990s and into the 2000s.

My family first moved to this blossoming new jewel of a city from a small rural village called Heyuan in 1983 while I was attending middle school. My chief memory of that time was that there was construction everywhere! I lived in Shenzhen for eight years before leaving to come to the U.S. in January 1992, to pursue further education in finance and accounting.  While living in Shenzhen, I had a unique view of the outside world, watching Hong Kong TV showing CNN news by using an antenna on the balcony, and I soon learned that I prefered listening to Hong Kong radio stations.  In those days in Shenzhen, biking or taking public buses to school were the most common ways to get around. The old 8-story apartment building we lived in didn’t have an elevator, so we (including my grandma) used to walk up and down the stairs several times a day to our sixth floor apartment.  So I had a lot of memories flooding back as I rode the long international flight back.

When I landed in Shenzhen’s Bao’an International Airport at about 11 p.m. on November 2, I was immediately struck by the futuristic vibe of this dazzling new airport, with its high ceilings and spacious walk ways.  The construction of this terminal was completed on November 28, 2013 after 4 years of construction and planning.  Shenzhen’s airport was the 5th busiest airport in China in 2015.  It has 62 boarding gates and can accommodate any type of plane in the world.  The Shenzhen Metro provides eastbound service from the airport via Bao'an and Nanshan to Futian Station connecting to the rest of China at Futian Railway Station with its High Speed Rail services. 

I stayed at the Westin Hotel in the Nanshan District, which is connected to a shopping mall and very close to a few major theme parks such as the China Folk Culture Village (where I was married in 1998), the Happy Valley and the Window of the World.  My first night there, I found out that Lang Lang Music World was right across the street from the Westin and that his gigantic portrait was prominently displayed on the front of the building. Lang Lang, the renowned Chinese pianist, first opened his own music school in 2012. Music, and especially piano music, is very popular in Shenzhen, and the city ranks first in China in terms of the number of people learning piano and owning one.

For the first four days my schedules were packed with meetings at various restaurants with some relatives and many old friends, including some middle school friends whom I hadn’t seen for 30 years.  Key summaries include:

  1. China's Priciest Real Estate Market is Shenzhen.  In the year 2000, the average residence home price in Nanshan District was 4,000 Yuan/square meter, which was about $53/square foot.  The current home price is between $1,078/square foot and $1,347/square foot.  An average size 2 bed, 2 bath rents for nearly $1,500/month in the Nanshan District. Since June 2015, the average home price in Shenzhen has exceeded those in Beijing and Shanghai, and reports from many credible sources (including The Wall Street Journal) now say the city has by far the most expensive home prices in China, with prices climbing 46% last year.
    Why is this happening?

    A. Shenzhen has continued to experience surging population growth.  Experts predict it will overtake Guangzhou in population by 2020. 

    B. Limited supply is a big factor. Shenzhen city is only 1993 square kilometers, excluding agricultural land area of ​​906 square kilometers, the area for the development and construction is 934 square kilometers that consumes 47% of the total land area. In Hong Kong, a city for 170 years, the development and construction area accounts for only 21% of the total land area, less than half of Shenzhen 47%. While in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou it accounts for only 8%, 13.5% and 12.5% ​​of the city's total area, respectively.

    C. Shenzhen is also experiencing a boom in the technology sector.  Tencent and Huawei are still dominating their respective sectors domestically.  Shenzhen has become the start-up hub of China, more highly educated graduates from other parts of China are flocking to this new land of opportunities. 

    D. Shenzhen is more welcoming for migrants than other Tier-1 cities.  The metropolis built on migration continues to have comparatively open policies towards migrants.  There is a saying “If you are here, you are Shenzhen residents.”  This place is truly the melting pot of China. 

    Most of my classmates own their homes without debt and some even own a few condos, having bought them at very low prices 15 to 20 years ago.  For the younger workers, the home prices are out of reach based on current salaries.  One direct result of China’s one child policy was that parents generally helped their child buy their first homes by paying a large down payment for them. 

    Even though the 2015 price rise is very unlikely to continue through 2016 and 2017, it’s difficult to say with certainty what will happen.  Experts say it may take a few years to get back to normal growth.  The mayor promised recently that the city would address the issue. 
  2. Shenzhen people use their smartphones for many services.  In addition to online shopping using smartphones, they seem to use it to pay each other and pay for parking more often than we do here.  WeChat is the most popular app, similar to Facebook, but it also allows people to transfer money using WeChat Pay.  It’s common for people to go out to eat and use it to pay each other.

    I started using WeChat app in 2013 when my younger sister Anna told me to install it to be connected with her, our parents in Shenzhen and my other sister Lily in Los Angeles.  Compared to Facebook, I found it easier to form a group and share articles, pictures, especially to record short messages by speaking directly to the phone.  It also offers video calls for free so we can talk to each other easily. 

    After my friend parked his car on the street, as he and I were walking to the restaurant within a block, he paid for the parking on his phone within a minute.  When he parked the car inside a parking ramp, he didn’t need to take a ticket at the entrance as the computer system scans his car and calculates the rate when his car leaves the ramp. 
  3.  Shenzhen people are quite eclectic and international in their food choices.  Originally, the people in the region about 40 years ago were mainly local Cantonese and Hakka (I am of Hakka descent).  But most of the people living in Shenzhen now are from all over China, making this city a great place to taste various dishes.  Cantonese dim sum and congee are two Cantonese foods that locals eat a lot of.  Sichuan hot pot, stir-fry dishes, Muslim noodles, pizza and steak are also popular and have become some favorite restaurant meals in local restaurants. 
  4. Shenzhen is also known as one of the cleanest large Chinese cities with over 50% of streets lined with trees and large parks and green spaces available to its residents.

For a city that has experienced the type of rapid growth it has, it was very fortunate to have had forward thinking city officials and planners to help manage its success. Shenzhen officials remarkably were able to implement a total of three master plans within the span of 25 years; each adding to the fuel and direction of growth.

The Shenzhen Metro opened on December 28, 2004.  It currently has eight lines, 166 stations, and 178 miles of total trackage in operation. The system underwent a recent major expansion with the opening of Line 11 in June 2016 and both Lines 7 and 9 in October 2016 making the system the third longest in China.

In summary, my visit was eye-opening.  After being away for 18 years, I was perfectly poised to be amazed by the dramatic changes in so many areas including people’s lifestyles, businesses, skylines, and mobile devices.  My short trip back to Shenzhen was like living through a unique time travel episode, going both forward and back at the same time.  I experienced both very familiar people, places, and things, along with strange and exhilarating feelings at the same time.  Initially, I was thinking mostly about connecting with old friends and reliving some old memories.  After this experience, however, I feel like I was just shot into the future in a Chinese bullet train, as so many things I saw and experienced were so dramatically futuristic.  I’ve even used WeChat a lot more this month, participating in postings from the two new groups that were formed especially for my middle school friends and high school friends. 

I can tell you this, Shenzhen is already changing the world, and I’m glad to be along for the ride.

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