Shenzhen, in Guandong province, used to be a fishing village until the late 70s when the government designated it as the first SEZ (Special Economic Zone) to complement neighbouring Hong Kong. It is now one of the most modern and richest cities in the country, quite an amazing accomplishment for a city that’s only existed for thirty five years. The downtown area reminds me a lot of central Tokyo with its super-sized buildings and broad boulevards. The populace comes from all over China, so the predominant language is Mandarin, despite the city being located in a primarily Cantonese speaking province.
As Shenzhen is such a young city, even the locals feel that “there is no culture here”, whether culinary or artistic. There is very little to see or do other than go shopping, and the days out suggested to me generally involved a one hour taxi ride to somewhere else.
Also, when I searched for restaurants on the web the only ones I found were suggested by Frommer’s but when I called them up the numbers weren’t working and the hotel receptionists couldn’t find the places on the web so they perhaps aren’t open any more.
One area of some interest though is the trendy Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) in the Nan Shan district, which is about 30 minutes walk from the Hotel Mercure, or a cheap five minute taxi ride (to Jinxiu North St).
There are several converted factories and office blocks which now house modern art galleries, lifestyle shops, design agencies, restaurants and cafes. I spent a couple of pleasant hours wandering around. It’s quite peaceful by day but I’d imagine it gets busier in the evenings.
I love Eastern ceramics and found a teapot shop where a nice lady brewed me some Cha in the traditional style using beautiful teapots and cups.
You could also check out the bizarre creations in the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT) (free entry).
I also had an excellent bowl of Niu Rou Mian (beef noodle soup) for lunch in the OCT at My Noodle (Intermediate A). They make your noodles in front of you (quite a skilled job, like a game of cat’s cradle with elastic bands), before chucking them straight in the pan.
The broth was fine (B) but the freshly made noodles were some of the best I’ve ever had, silky and smooth (A+). Apologies but I couldn’t get the exact address as the staff didn’t speak English and it wasn’t on the bill. There is no sign over the door but there are white glass orb lamps and brown wicker chairs outside and the interior has varnished wood tables with circular stools and an open kitchen.
I was put up at the Grand Mercure Shenzhen Oriental Ginza in Futian, one of the better hotels I stayed in when I first came to China in 2008, although it’s a little run down now (A-).
I particularly like it because it was the only hotel in the country where I could access internet sites like Facebook and WordPress and watch the BBC on TV. Usually these are all blocked by the Great Fire Wall of China but apparently you can get these media in certain hotels run by Western chains (although the censor will still black out BBC news reports on China if anything sensitive is discussed).
They also have an excellent gym and a 25 metre pool which is all I need to be happy. The youthful staff have always given me excellent friendly service.
The Chinese Restaurant in the hotel is much like any other in that it serves over-priced but attractively presented cuisine in pretentious surroundings. The food is ok but nothing special (B). On the first night I had the Kung Pao chicken with the meat chopped into little pieces with fragments of bone left in, as is the Chinese style (C). I wasn’t keen at the time but apparently if gives the food more flavour.
On another night, two bowls of plain rice and a plate of stir-fried seasonal greens (Choi Sum?) with tea and a beer came to about £15 which was a lot for what it was. You do get a plate of complimentary fruit at the end though.
Beers in the sports bar upstairs cost a hefty £3.50 for a 330ml. The bartenders will happily give you a game of pool if you’re by yourself. The girl who played me was so serious she even had a glove for her cue hand!
The hotel breakfast buffet is pretty comprehensive with just about everything you could imagine and a whole lot more you couldn’t. They even know how to make proper bircher museli (soaked in hot milk the night before) which is more than many hotels in Europe do. Pictured is the white flesh of Dragon Fruit which looks interesting but is actually pretty tasteless (C).
If you want to escape the clutches of the hotel you could try your luck on the back streets of the dingy residential area behind it. It’s full of life in the evenings with hawkers setting up temporary outdoor kitchens and small tables with mini-plastic stools (Initial B). You can get a plate of fried noodles or fried rice (Initial B-) and a 550ml beer for under £2 at these places. Ok, so it’s not haute cuisine and can be a bit greasy but at least you’re not being ripped off.
One night my local work colleagues took me out to a big modern Sichuan restaurant which was pretty good. Again I don’t have the address but the neon outside said ‘Elegant Sichuan Food’.
Our dishes included a bowl of Mature Tofu with Black Fungus…
…Tomato and Chilli Soup (B+), White Fish, Celery, Straw Mushrooms, Sichuan Peppercorns and Dried Chillies (B),…
…Deep-fried Rolls which I think contained lotus seed paste (B).
My favourite was the Fried Beef with Dried Chillies (A) which I think had been dusted in flour and deep-fried.
However I wasn’t as keen on the Congealed Pigs Blood with Beansprouts and Tripe (C)…
…or the balls of vegetable matter which came with a bitter green cucumber like vegetable (C).
I relearned the most important sentence of Putonghua (Mandarin) here. My workmates taught me that ‘ii be bing pi jiu’ means ‘one bottle cold beer’, a crucial bit of survival language. You could just take a picture of a bottle of beer and show it to them but odds on it’ll arrive warm. Same if you ask for a glass of water. The Chinese believe it’s better for the digestion to drink warm drinks.
To sum up then, I doubt you’ll have many good cultural and culinary experiences here, unless you you’re a fan of modern architecture, but on the positive side, Shenzhen is cleaner and more livable than most Chinese cities. In my view it’s a place to make money and do business but not much else.