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Shenzhen, China, is still filled with nostalgia for the early days of Hong Kong culture

Image: Reuters Berita 24 English -  For most Chinese mainlanders in the middle of the 1990s, visiting fashionable Hong Kong was a distant f...

Image: Reuters

Berita 24 English -  For most Chinese mainlanders in the middle of the 1990s, visiting fashionable Hong Kong was a distant fantasy, but for schoolgirl Tracey Chen in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen, it was simply a lunchtime stroll.

Chen is one of many in its Mandarin-speaking neighbour who long for the times when the former British colony's distinctively vibrant Cantonese culture spilled across the border as Hong Kong loses autonomy after 25 years of Chinese rule.

Before Shenzhen started to change in the 1980s, many people from the mainland looked to Hong Kong's chaotic economy as a haven for shopping.

Chen's school is still standing on Sino-British Street, a road that runs through both territories and is the only part of it that is not bordered by water. It is a distance of 250 metres (273 yards).

Chen would stow her red communist student scarf and slip through to buy ice cream and publications about Hong Kong popstars as border guards maintained a tight check on shoppers looking for quick noodles, cosmetics, and other rare items from the mainland.

She recalled that some of them appeared once a week. "I would alternate going to acquire them with my classmates."


Before Deng Xiaoping, the country's leader at the time, approved one of China's first special economic zones (SEZ) there in 1980, Shenzhen was a tranquil trading town surrounded by hundreds of villages, in part to halt a mass outflow of people risking their lives to flee.

Liang Ailin, who was born in the town of Caopu in 1969, can still clearly recall watching helpless locals scramble onto cargo trains headed for Hong Kong.

She added, over a dim sum supper of delectable Cantonese fare with friends, a short distance from the glistening Tencent headquarters, "Almost everyone in the villages has family members who fled."

Li Ka-Shing, a Guangdong native who fled to Hong Kong and rose to prominence as one of its leading tycoons, was one of the escapees that the villagers had stories about, according to Liao Wenjian.

Another Shenzhen resident, Liao, who was born in 1969, remarked, "We all thought Hong Kong was heaven in the 1970s." "If you work hard, you won't go hungry and you'll make a lot of money," the saying goes.

However, after 1980, as its policymakers learned from their neighbor's market economy, enterprises in Hong Kong, which was well into its own export-led processing boom, rushed across the border with more than 90% of Shenzhen's investment to pioneer industry there.

Soon later, the wave of refugees began to recede.


Although many of Shenzhen's early inhabitants spoke Hakka, and the city's schools began offering Mandarin instruction in 1984, Liang and Liao claimed that Cantonese still held a slight advantage in terms of prestige due to Hong Kong's strong corporate presence and the allure of its popular culture.

The Guangdong government occasionally tore down antennas in the 1980s in order to block the corruptingly colourful romantic dramas and martial arts movies broadcast on Hong Kong television.

Picking up the Hong Kong signals, however, was simple in neighbouring Shenzhen, which, by 1985, had 80 television sets for every 100 households and had its own competing station with news anchors dressed in Western garb.

Liao claimed that her northern spouse had learned Cantonese from television.

Chen claimed that she would purchase fashion magazines for her aunt along with pop star glossies so that she could examine them for the newest fashions and sew clothing for people on the mainland.

However, the admiration was not reciprocal because many tourists from Hong Kong thought of their mainland relatives as backwoodsmen, according to Fang Yan, a visitor to Shenzhen in the 1980s.

Due to the large number of wealthy Hong Kong men who lived there with their second spouses, some border regions gained notoriety as "mistress villages."

The attractive girls would exclaim, "Here come the rich Hong Kong guys!" and we'd call them softshell turtles (rich easy prey), according to Fang Yan. "They were being awaited by the lovely gals."

AFTER 1997

However, Liao added, some of the lustre of the former British colony began to fade as travel to Hong Kong became more convenient in the years following its transfer to China in 1997 and Shenzhen's economy continued to thrive.

The wealth disparity is too big, I realised, therefore Hong Kong's glitter is only for those at the top of the social pyramid, claimed Liao.

"Now that we live in Shenzhen, we're not any less wealthy."

With a population of 17.6 million people and hundreds of thousands of migrants, Shenzhen is currently the third richest city in China. However, very few of these migrants have ties to the Cantonese language and culture.

Sandwiched between a high-speed rail line and a Bentley garage, the former train tracks next to Liang's town have been transformed into a popular tourist destination.

Young Chinese people dress up and visit the cafe "Happy Station," which offers bubble tea, to take pictures of themselves in front of a vintage train.

While many of Liang, Liao, and Fang's friends mourn their grandchildren's weak Cantonese abilities, they acknowledge that this evolution is unavoidable.

It's a city of migrants and a melting pot, Liao remarked. "Cantonese culture has not existed here for thousands of years."

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