Overnight Cities


The other day we flew from Shanghai to Shenzhen then took a two-hour bus trip to Huizhou in the Guangdong province in southeastern China. I happened to have been reading about Shenzhen and the surrounding area as we were driving though it in a book called Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler.  I read Hessler’s first book, Rivertown, about teaching English for two years in a town on the Yangtze, a couple years ago and really enjoyed it. He has since become the Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker as well as a contributor to National Geographic and has spent about 12 years living in China. If you’re interested in China, especially the China of the past few decades, I can not recommend Oracle Bones enough. Hessler shares his own stories, and the stories of his friends with keen insight and compassion. It’s a really compelling read and you don’t even notice that you’re learning a great deal.

One of the former students he writes about was working at a factory outside of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a city that 30 years ago had a population of 300,000 and now it stands at over 8 million. It is actually nicknamed “The Overnight City”. In the late 1970s, the Chinese politician Den Xiaoping began a policy called “Reform and Opening” where his aim was to, you guessed it, reform and open the economy to the free market and private industry to improve growth. Instead of trying this in larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai, he opted for less developed areas to create Special Economic Zones. Shenzhen became the most important of those. Young adults left their agrarian life to find work in the factories of these new Special Economic Zones. In fact, it amounted to a massive migration as you can probably glean from the population growth of Shenzhen. Most of the conditions and pay were subpar and unsafe with organizing by the labor forces simply not allowed.  But at least it was a wage rather than subsistence farming. There were stories of those few people who managed to strike it rich or climb to the top that gave people hope for the same.

The drive from Shenzhen to Huizhou was one long stretch of factories and apartment buildings, drab and unfinished, or just finished enough.  Between those I would occasionally see little homes, shanties really, with tiny farm plots. I imagine it was only those homes a few decades ago till all of this industry quickly grew up around them.

A blurry photo of the factories outside of Shenzhen


It was relentless for the whole two-hour trip. At first, it was a little surprising but it shouldn’t have been. I would venture to guess most of the things I own were made in China, in fact, most of the things that most Americans own.

The city of Huizhou looks like it just popped out of nowhere a few minutes ago. There is construction everywhere. It’s an interesting place to see because it seems indicative of the growth going on in China right now to accommodate its evolving and booming economy. Things just can’t be built quickly enough. Our hotel is only two months old. It is upscale and grand but it’s right across from what I can only describe as a slum, to give you an idea, though the term strikes me as derogatory since those are people’s homes. 

The hotel restaurant caters to Westerners. It’s technically “Brazilian” complete with meat on swords. The Chinese wait staff is dressed like cowboys and there is country music pumped in. Well, pumped in when Roger and Bing, the Filipino couple who do English language covers, aren’t playing. The whole place is kitsched out and bizarre. The few places I’ve seen that have catered to Westerners are a little unsettling, like someone drawing a photo of you and making you look totally ridiculous. I want to ask, “Really? This is what you really think of me? Oh dear…”

A few members of the band and myself went out to explore the city the other day. There was a really nice park on the river with gardens and a pagoda-ish (new word alert!) structure that seems to have been a watchtower. 

Pagodaish Tower


We went into town and explored some alleyways with food stalls, live animals and some random wares. There was one terrible yet perversely interesting street that I can only describe as consumerism on crack. It was really a pedestrian walkway lined with shops but every single one, yes, every single one had a speaker outside that was blasting a different song. I suppose it was to lure you in but, really, it just made me want to run away. In the middle of the street I was probably hearing 8 clashing songs. There were also lights blinking and things dancing. It was sensory overload. I had a taste of this in Shanghai, stores where people were yelling at you to buy things, shoving things in your face to try and a Haagen Daz cooler that actually talked, but nothing there compared to this street. We couldn’t get out of there quickly enough.

I can’t imagine why anyone would end up in Huizhou unless on business or if you happen to be in one of the umpteen Irish dance shows traveling the globe. That leaves out a lot of people. I’m glad to have stopped there though. While I obviously have no comprehensive understanding of the changes going on in this country, I’ve just had a glimpse.


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