In China’s Shenzhen, nostalgia for the good old days of Hong Kong culture continues

SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) – A trip to charming Hong Kong was a distant dream for most mainlanders in the mid-1990s, but for schoolgirl Tracy Chen in the booming southern city of Shenzhen, it was just a lunchtime stroll.

With Hong Kong losing autonomy after 25 years of Chinese rule, Chen is among the many residents of its Mandarin-speaking neighbour, who yearn for the days when the former British colony’s unique Cantonese culture permeated across the border.

Before Shenzhen began to transform in the 1980s, Hong Kong’s free-wheeling economy was a consumer haven for many from the mainland.

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The Chin School still stands on Sino-British Street, a 250-meter (273-yard) road cut in the middle by the boundary between the two precincts, the only stretch where they are not separated by water.

While border guards kept a close eye on visitors browsing instant noodles, beauty products and other rare products on the mainland, Chen wore her communist student’s red scarf and slipped across to buy ice cream and magazines about Hong Kong’s pop stars.

“There were some going out once a week,” she recalled. “My classmates and I take turns going and getting them.”

change tide

Shenzhen was a quiet trading city surrounded by hundreds of villages before the leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, agreed to one of China’s first Special Economic Zones (SEZ) there in 1980, in part to stem the exodus of those who risked their lives to flee.

Born in Kaupo Village in 1969, Liang Ailin still remembers the desperate villagers who were climbing freight trains bound for Hong Kong.

“Almost everyone in the villages has family members who have fled,” a spokeswoman said while snacking on Cantonese delicacies with friends, a stone’s throw from the gleaming headquarters of software giant Tencent.

Liao Wenjian said villagers told tales of deserters as Li Ka-Shing, a Guangdong native who fled to Hong Kong and became one of its prominent money tycoons.

“We all imagined Hong Kong was a paradise in the 1970s. As long as you work hard, you won’t starve and you’ll make a lot of money,” said Liao, another Shenzhen resident born in 1969.

But after 1980, companies in Hong Kong, ushering in an export-led processing boom, streamed across the border with more than 90% of Shenzhen’s investment into a leading industry there, officials learned from their neighbors’ market economy.

The flow of fugitives subsided shortly thereafter.

soft turtle

Liang and Liao said that many of Shenzhen’s natives spoke Hakka, and beginning in 1984 its schools taught Mandarin, but the strength of Hong Kong’s business and the appeal of its music and films gave Cantonese an edge in status.

In the 1980s, Guangdong authorities periodically knocked down antennas that might pick up Hong Kong TV shows, with romantic dramas and spoiled-color martial arts films.

But picking up Hong Kong’s signals was easy in neighboring Shenzhen, which had 80 televisions per 100 households by 1985, a year after Shenzhen launched its rival station with newscasters in Western clothing.

“My husband, who is from the north, learned Cantonese from TV,” Liao said.

She said Chen was buying fashion titles for her aunt who would check her for the latest trends and make clothes for people in the mainland, along with her glossy pop star.

Fang Yan, who came to Shenzhen in the 1980s, said the admiration was not mutual, because many visitors to Hong Kong viewed their mainland cousins ​​as a small country.

Some border areas were notorious as “mistress villages” for a number of wealthy Hong Kong men who had second wives living there.

We used to call it Soft Turtles (Easy Rich Targets) and the pretty girls would say, ‘Here come the Hong Kong rich men!’ said Fang Yan. Beautiful girls were waiting for them.

Post 1997

Liao added that as visits to Hong Kong increased ease in the years after its handover to China in 1997 and Shenzhen’s economy continued to boom, some luster had come out of the former British territory.

“I realized that the charm of Hong Kong is only for those at the top of the social hierarchy – the wealth gap is very wide,” Liao said.

‘We are no less the luxury of living in Shenzhen now.’

Today, Shenzhen is the third richest city in China, with hundreds of thousands of immigrants among its 17.6 million residents, few with connections to the Cantonese language and culture.

The old train tracks adjacent to Liang Village are now a tourist attraction, sandwiched between a high-speed railway and a Bentley garage.

Dressed young Chinese come to pose for photographs next to a vintage train bound for the coffee shop, “Happy Station,” which serves bubble tea.

Many friends of Liang, Liao and Fang lament the weak Cantonese skills of their grandchildren, but see this development as inevitable.

“It is a city of immigrants and a melting pot in it,” Liao said. ‘We don’t have thousands of years of Cantonese culture.’

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(David Kirton reports). Editing by Anne Marie Rowntree and Clarence Fernandez

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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