Return to Shenzhen

In April, I returned to China for the first time since the pandemic. From Tokyo, it was far cheaper to fly to Hong Kong than Shanghai back then, so we decided to take a long trip by high-speed train from Hong Kong to Shanghai, stopping at Shenzhen and Quanzhou on the way.

MTR Vibrant Express train

Unlike days of old, Shenzhen can now be reached from Hong Kong by high-speed train in just 15 minutes. We spent far more time going through customs than on the train itself, with many people underestimating how long it would take and missing their train.

Evolution of the Shenzhen metro

In Shenzhen, I was keen to visit my old haunts that I’d not been back to in more than a decade. Riding Shenzhen Metro, it was utterly insane to see how the network had exploded since I left in 2010, blossoming from 2 to 16 lines with 369 stations and 547 km of track!

Likewise, my old neighbourhood around Coastal City in Nanshan was continuing to rise towards the heavens with many new and incomplete skyscrapers on the horizon. The mind boggles at how China has managed to keep up this rate of development.

How it looked in 2009
How it looks in 2023

Although this might not be the most interesting of places, I was overcome by the nostalgia of being back where I spent my first few years living abroad in my early 20s. Even just passing the bus stop where I used to wait on my way to work brought back floods of memories like when I met someone who exported wedding dresses from China for a living.

Shenzhen felt like another world to me back then and the world was feeling a lot more optimistic towards China than it is today.

“Happy Happy Rich Garden” apartment complex in 2023

My old apartment block was looking a little worse for wear and could use another visit from this daredevil painter who I spotted outside my window one morning in 2010.

Except for Starbucks, most of the old shops and restaurants that I remembered had been replaced by more upmarket establishments. People in general seemed more fashionable though I didn’t see many signs that Shenzhen is any more cultural than it was. It’s still a place people come to work hard and maybe strike gold.

Back at our hotel, I was amused to see a contingent of Dalek-like robots scurrying around the floors making deliveries. They can even ride the lifts by themselves! We saw them in a bunch of hotels and I suspect they were a pandemic addition.

Shenzhen skyline day and night

Another big change we spotted across all the major east-coast cities we visited during our trip was the massive rise in electric vehicles. Without exaggerating, I’d estimate that about 50% of all the cars on the road are now electric (and 90% of taxis and buses), most of them coming from domestic brands like BYD.

CoCo City Shopping Mall by EEYAUT Waihung

The Chinese government has incentivised this change by making it cheap to get a numberplate for an electric car and extremely expensive to get one for a gas guzzler. The improvement in ground-level noise and air pollution was noticeable. The ChinaTalk podcast has a great episode on the subject and its implications for the future.

Shenzhen is not a city I’d like to live in today, but it remains a fascinating example of urban development on scale and speed that’s never been seen before.

David avatar

4 responses

  1. Hi David, this caught my eye glad to see you get a chance to see it again… I would like too, Im a bit concerned too but still would be interesting. Im pretty sure the place we lived are nothing like when we left in 2015 Lian Tang was almost rural 😛

    Glad to see the EV thing although I wonder about construction quality ” had friends that had a BYD and it was pretty bad ” also where is the power coming from? Almost anything to help the air quality would be better though. I pretty sure I lost years off my life the 2 years in Shijiazhuang, which makes Shenzhen look like Hawaii 🙂

    Take care man maybe someday we come visit ya in Japan 🙂

    1. Hey David, thanks for your message. Quality is a concern for these EV’s though I somehow expect China to dominate the market within the next 10 years given how fast they are moving.

      You should definitely pay Shenzhen another visit if/when you can, though perhaps Japan is better for a holiday 😀

  2. Nix V avatar
    Nix V

    Hi David! I found your blog when searching for people visiting Murakami sites in Tokyo, and saw that you also used to live in China and started looking at the archive…i travel to Shanghai and shenzhen often for work and like to explore around and understand the history (in Shenzhen there’s an arts district that seems to have been started specifically to address complaints of the lack of culture!) Also loved your Murakami series – I had a similar experience of finding myself in somewhat bizarre situations that don’t feel like they could happen anywhere else in the world other than Tokyo and it’s nice that other fans see this too. Wish i saw this earlier, would have loved to meet up there!

    1. Thanks Nix, maybe our paths will cross some day!


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