Published: December 28th 2008April 1st 2008
For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
Finding my Place in China's Premier Special Economic Zone
The Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was created in 1979 as a testing ground for the introduction of capitalist economic policies into the Chinese communist system, and in 20 years it grew from a small fishing port to one of the largest cities in China
, with one of the highest population densities in the world.
Shenzhen today is still growing at an astronomical rate, and when you live there you feel like you are in the middle of a giant construction zone, with new high rises springing up all around you. Shenzhen is ultra modern, and due to the fact that it is a fabricated city many people criticize it for lacking culture
, sites, or any sort of traditional appeal that would characterizes most other cities in China, and I would not disagree.
Shenzhen also has what I am certain is perhaps the worst air quality in the world or close to it
, owing largely to the manufacturing and coal industry that surrounds the city in Guangdong (Canton) province. There are days when I would
look out from our apartment window and could barely see the apartment across the street.
So by this point, you might be asking why I chose to live there, right? Well, I started out by giving you the standard perspective of many, but here is why I chose to live in, and grew to love Shenzhen.
I left Canada to see the world, and to be in an English teacher in order to fund my travels. I chose Shenzhen because one of my oldest and closest friends, Marc Checknita
, had been living there for a year already, and offered me a vacant room in his apartment, a job at his school, and a close knit group of friends. And I can now say with certainty that having that good group of friends can really make the experience
. Every weekend in Shenzhen involved a good night out (even though weekends were my longest days of work), and since I left China I have really missed those friends that I made.
In true Chinese fashion, nights out in Shenzhen always began with a feast at a local restaurant with our group of friends, and many bottles of Tsingtao
Miao Tribe Restaurant Performer
This place was right across from my house, and I could hear the traditional music every morning
number one beer which, at 50 cents or less for a large bottle, was often cheaper than water
From there we would frequently go for drunken bowling
, and then on to one of the city's many clubs or bars, all of which were sub par but we certainly made the best of it. Many foreigners in Shenzhen are drawn to Hai Shang Shi Jie, or SeaWorld
, a strip of restaurants and clubs surrounding a massive parked ship with different bars on it's floors.
Some of the Best Food in my Life
Thanks to being almost entirely a city of migrants, you can enjoy completely authentic foods from all the different corners of China, as well as an abundance of cheap and delicious international foods.
Our favorite local spot was Barbeque Street
, a whole strip of ultra cheap shops with plastic chairs on the street, where we spent many nights enjoying Chinese Muslim food
, BBQ kebabs and tofu, dumplings, spicy potato dishes, noodles, and countless large bottles of beer. It was here that I enjoyed some of the most delicious and cheapest food of my life. Another local favorite was Korean BBQ
, where you grilled your own choice
My Shenzhen Crew
I miss these people dearly
of foods at your table, again with plastic chairs on the street.
Directly across from our apartment there was a very interesting Miao Tribe restaurant
, serving traditional dishes from the mountains of central China, complete with costumed performers playing traditional instruments beside your table, and serving complimentary shots of rice liquor which they pour directly into your mouth. Every morning I woke to the sounds of the traditional music coming from this restaurant.
I also enjoyed some of the best sushi in my life
at the Japanese restaurants in Shenzhen. One of our favorites was the 8$ all you can eat sushi and all you can drink draft beer. The quality wasn't as high, but the selection was enormous and I always left so stuffed I could not walk comfortably. About once a month we also treated ourselves to all-you-eat Teppanyaki
, or Japanese BBQ, where for 20$ you can spend an entire night on an outdoor patio ordering as you please off a huge menu of high quality fresh seafood, salmon steaks, sushi, deep fried ice cream, and all you can drink beer, sake, and plum wine.
We also had our favorite authentic Indian restaurant, and I
haven't even mentioned yet the plethora of regional restaurants, from delicious breads and dumplings in the Beijing-style restaurants and cheap Yunnan noodles to spicy Hunan food and ultra fiery Sichuan cuisine. I simply loved eating in Shenzhen, and the prices were so low that it felt criminal
My Teaching Setup in Shenzhen
I taught English mainly in the evenings, so my mornings and afternoons were free to relax, and I could go out with friends for late dinners or beers any night of the week.
In Shenzhen I taught about 5 different classes with a total of around 50 students. Teaching in China is very relaxed and informal. You can wear what you want, and I had tonnes of fun with little guys, spinning them around and whipping balls at them
. My boss was pretty chill and on occasion she would take us for beers or dinner. I had two different assistants
to control my hyperactive mob of children, free Chinese lessons, my own laptop (that barely worked), my own classroom, and free homemade Chinese dinner every night. I made the equivalent of about 1200 Canadian dollars a month, decent for China, and paid in untaxed cash, about
half of which I saved.
An Excellent Apartment
Our pad was a quick five minute walk from our school
, and on that walk you passed a huge grocery store, two shopping malls, pirated DVD stalls, and countless restaurants. My bedroom was minuscule and my bed quite hard, but we had a massive naturally lit living room with extremely comfortable couch, 12th floor balcony with a decent view, a second balcony for laundry, and two bathrooms. We had a third bedroom, which during my stay we shared with a Phd student from the States, and later by a Filipino English teacher.
Because of the insanely low cost of human labor in China, most people have cleaners who come to their house to do all the laundry and dirty work, ourselves included. Our Ayi (auntie)
was from Hunan province, and spoke Chinese with an accent that I was never able to comprehend whatsoever, but always had a huge smile on her face that was contagious and she was very loving. She cleaned our entire apartment once a week for a rate of just over a dollar and hour.
Shenzhen's location was one of it's major selling points
Our room is the 12th floor, far left
as a place to live. It is immediately adjacent to Hong Kong, with various forms of transportation connecting the two cities, including direct ferries from Shenzhen to downtown Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, and the Hong Kong International Airport
, a major transportation hub with cheap flights to anywhere in Asia and the rest of the world. From the Shenzhen airport I could also get cheap flights within China, as well as budget direct flights to South-East Asia.
We lived on the fringe of Nanshan, a sprawling suburb of Shenzhen
which included Shekou
, a foreigner friendly district with the second largest port in China. Our apartment was a stone's throw from the sea, but the coast in most of Shenzhen is not even nice enough to warrant a stroll. Also visible from our apartment was a new bridge constructed only last year that connects Nanshan with Hong Kong, giving us yet another cheap commuting option to get to that great city for weekend trips.
Indeed, being located so close to Hong Kong, one of the great cities of the world, was yet another major perk to living in Hong Kong. Shenzhen is practically like an enormous, but exponentially cheaper suburb
of Hong Kong, and the two cities are making various economic ties that could ultimately some day lead to the creation of a unified business powerhouse.
On top of that, Shenzhen is also located in Cantonese speaking Guangdong province
(though Shenzhen itself is largely Mandarin speaking because most people are from other regions of China), adjacent to spectacular Guangxi Province and Hainan Dao (island),
both of which I was able to visit during my stay.
The Green City
. Shenzhen is in fact not entirely devoid of interesting sites. A short bus ride from our apartment took us to Honshuling, a coastal reserve of bird filled mangroves
and paths along the coast. Shenzhen had many large parks, giving it the title The Garden City
, and on a few occasions I enjoyed waking up early to watch the elderly people do Tai Chi, exercises and dancing in the park.
A bus and MRT ride took us to Luo Hu, or downtown Shenzhen
, where you could visit Dongmen, the city's largest market
for cheap clothing or just to check out the young trendy kids strutting their stuff. I also took the time to visit Tian Hou Miao (temple)
of the few temples I saw in Shenzhen, but a very beautiful one.
A Farewell to China
In Shenzhen I enjoyed a very privileged lifestyle. Like many English teachers in Asia I made substantially more than the average person in that society, working way less hours at a comparatively very easy job. But in China in particular, because it is so poor, you find yourself living like a king of sorts
. My wage was less then half what I would later make in Taiwan, but my lifestyle was in many ways more luxurious.
Shenzhen is one of the most expensive cities in China, but it is still probably the cheapest city I have ever spent a significant amount of time in
. When drinking, eating out, and enjoying luxuries like getting a massage, buying artwork for your apartment, or having a somebody clean your house are so cheap that you don't even have consider the cost as a factor, then you do those things more often.
Also, China remains in many ways isolated from the rest of the world
, with censored internet and media, and an education system that is entirely inward looking. The result is that
many of the people can be very unaware of what is happening in the outside world (or sometimes even in their own country), and they are all the more curious about you as a foreigner. Any stroll outside involves being stared at a lot, lots of smiles and 'hellos'
, and sometimes even being laughed at. But it is extremely rare that people mean any harm
, and I quite enjoyed the novelty of being a novelty item of sorts.
China truly has a feel to it that cannot be described, only felt. It is just so different from Canada in so many ways, and having now traveled to nearly thirty countries, I truly crave that exotic and other worldly component that is lacking in many of the more westernized or touristed countries I have visited
. Every time I left my apartment to go to work I felt like I was traveling, and on any street you can see countless photographic opportunities, whether it be a thousand bicycles perfectly lined up outside a shopping mall, a group of cute old Asian couples doing ballroom dancing in the park, or a man who has piled 7 meters of plastic buckets into a
Hai Shang Shi Jie
The Drinking Boat
little wagon and is holding up traffic at a major intersection.
I did not leave China by choice. With the Olympics looming
the central government became increasingly paranoid about protests and potential unrest, so they made it extremely difficult for foreigners to obtain visas, especially for illegal workers like myself. The change in policy shattered the lives of many people living and working in China, and our group of friends was broken up as a result
. For months after leaving China I longed to return and see my friends, and it took me some time to adjust to my new life in Taiwan. To this day I still feel an attachment to China deep inside of me, and I am almost certain I will return to live there again some day. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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