Dongmen: The Shenzhen before Shenzhen

The first Shenzhen I’m referring to here isn’t quite exactly the same thing as the largest city in South China that which also happens to be my hometown. I’m talking instead of the ancient settlement of near an area what most call Dongmen (东门) today (The literal translation of Dongmen in English is Eastern Gate, so its rather evident that the today’s Dongmen largely centres around the east gate of the former market town–which has unsurprisingly since been demolished along with all the other gates). Shenzhen Xu–the Kowloon-Canton Railway (九广铁路) market town one station away from the Pearl of the Orient, and the administrative centre of Bao An County (宝安县), and probably most importantly nowadays for being the namesake of the metropolis that Bao An County has grown into–The very city I was born, raised and currently writing this blog post in.

Now into the fortieth year Shenzhen earned city status, quite a bit of things have happened here. Tens of millions of migrant workers have swarmed in, Mandarin replaced Cantonese as the de facto lingua franca, dirt roads replaced by concrete highways, skyscrapers sprouted all across the farmlands of Bao An County, even the Mainland section of the aforementioned Kowloon-Canton Railway has turned into a high speed rail line.

Yet almost unknowingly, the real Shenzhen is gone, literally. As I revisited the Dongmen area, I was looking forward to at least some historic buildings still standing somewhere in the backstreets amidst the tasteless late 80s shopping district, but I wasn’t able to find any at all. I’m genuinely struck by how the pre-78 market town has been thoroughly wiped out, but not by the slightest bit of warfare or deliberate destruction. The old town has instead been removed via a gradual process bit by bit, and the perpetrators are none else than the forces of capitalism.

I hardly ever thought of Dongmen’s backstory when I last visited it years ago, hence back then I didn’t went on deliberately searching for vestiges of history as I did this time.

Firstly though, just for comparison, here’s some photos of Shenzhen in the 1970s when it was still a market town (These are not my photos I got them from various sources):

Below is a photo from the early 90s. Hundreds of thousands have swarm in but the town itself still largely remains as it were..

Nowadays though…

Brace yourselves…

Quite evidently, as you can tell from these photos, the buildings are not there anymore. I bet not even one of them.

These buildings might look somewhat old-ish but they’re nothing more than tasteless mimicry. I’m saddened in a way, to see how genuine, ancient Qilou architecture were bulldozed indiscriminately to make way for such utterly despicable façadism. How ironic…Demolishing ancient buildings only to build concrete-and-steel reconstruction that resembles nothing like their predecessors.

Despite the fakery of the buildings, I should still emphasise how Dongmen was traditionally no ordinary shopping district. A very significant aspect of the city’s history belonged here. Since Shenzhen was granted city status up until the late 1990s, discounting all the hundreds of factories spread all across town, Dongmen, alongside the electronics market of Huaqiangbei and the sort of foreign exclave of Shekou, was just about all the remotely interesting bits of Shenzhen. Lying only a mile north of the border to Hong Kong, Dongmen then, was virtually THE place where businesses with Hong Kong took place. This also renders Dongmen in becoming the one of the very first places since Republican times, where in the Chinese mainland, goods of foreign influence are being bought and sold. Dongmen thus became just about the trendiest of places in southern mainland China.

This can be evidenced by how Dongmen boasts the very first McDonald’s restaurant in the mainland (Today the number of McDonald’s franchisees in the country is nearing 3,000). That very McDonald’s, opened on 8 October, 1990 is still there at that exact place that it opened at, albeit having gone through all that McCafe rebranding a few years back.

and I took a then-and-now photo of the restaurant…and I set it as the featured image of this post:)and got myself a free pudding flavoured ice cream (not quite as bad as you might think) from that very McDonald’s

Anyway I walked down a few blocks with the ice cream on one hand and my phone on the other, when this came into my eye.

I was rather surprised to see such an ancient building–and just when I said to myself ‘Hey seems like not all is lost of the old Shenzhen market’, reality came around.

I looked on the inscriptions near the building, which rather blatantly states that it was a modern replica of an earlier building that which used to be a study hall for Keju examinations. ‘Urban development’ tore its predecessor down–but then since that earlier building was listed in the local heritage registry, the developers were told to rebuild, and they did so by building this concrete replica that looks old, but not actually so. (On a side note, earlier that day I went to Hubei village some 10 minutes walk away from here, and in that blog post I wrote about a very similar heritage structure that will soon be demolished and most likely reconstructed in the same manner…They never learn from the past do they?)

The replica study hall is opened to the public though, and hosts quite an interesting temporary exhibition of before-and-after photos of Shenzhen. This one here shows Dongmen itself: 1985 and last year. If you take a look at the right of the top photo a skyscraper nearing completion is discernible. It was (is) called Guomao Building (国贸大厦), just about the very first proper skyscraper in mainland China since Republican times, notable for being constructed at a pace of one storey per 3 days (On a side note, and not to boast here, but you might also be interested to know that although it wasn’t the best article I’ve ever written, it was myself who created the Wikipedia entry for this building a few years back [Click here for the revision history]). Anyway this is how that very building looks like nowadays:

A rather interesting aspect about the building that I didn’t include on the Wikipedia entry also is that this was also the first skyscraper genuinely ‘made in China’, so to speak. Earlier skyscrapers either had a foreign engineers or architects, but this one is thoroughly Chinese…and with its novel use of a revolving restaurant, elevators hanging out on the facade, as well as safety and structural stability trumping virtually all other neighbouring buildings of that era, Guomao is one of the very few buildings in Shenzhen that I genuinely admire.

Underneath Guomao is the Shenzhen metro which got me back home…’Twas a relatively long day, but I couldn’t stand lazing at home, so by the next morning, I headed out again, this time heading to down a place geographically a mere mile or south of Dongmen, but an entirely different world of its own…stay tuned!

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