Saturday, 2 March 2013

Hopping Over the Border

Kids coerced into posing for the camera at OCT HARBOUR in Shenzhen
I have been to Shenzhen a handful of times and each time it's to cross the border at Lo Wu and head to the giant building there for some cheap (fake) shopping. And it's usually a one-day affair.

Some funky mouse pads that verge on the subversive
This time I'm here for an overnight stay and the hotel is located in the city centre which is a completely different landscape. Like many other Chinese cities, I'm looking out onto skyscrapers that have no relationship to the next one, sprouting out from the ground, some with flashing lights, others with brightly-lit colourful signage, many of them with the word "international" in them.

In the afternoon we visited two complexes, each with the acronym OCT which stands for "Overseas Chinese Town." The first one is OCT-LOFT Art Terminal, which was formerly a cluster of factories apparently making different products and were abandoned a few years ago. Since then small boutiques and independent restaurants (and yes Starbucks too) have breathed new life into the place.

Casual eateries inhabit spaces that were formerly factories
The atmosphere is very similar to Beijing's 798 art district, but here the buildings are closer together, and not as large an area. Every first weekend of the month there is a small area where vendors can set up small stalls selling all kinds of things. In a way it's a good test market for new products, like some laowai were trying to sell gourmet tea from the UK to the Chinese -- bizarre when you think about it -- as well as artisans selling leather crafts, jewellery, vintage postcards and Chinese comic books, cotton shopping bags and slightly subversive graphics on mouse pads and notebooks, like Mao, Lenin, Marx and Stalin looking like they got the Led Zeppelin treatment.

Beautiful murals on the sides of factories
Meanwhile the cafes and restaurants looked very casual, with tables spaced out unlike Hong Kong where you're crammed in like sardines, and were decorated with whimsical furniture and accessories. We didn't have time to check out the actual galleries, but it's something we hope to see next time.

The second place, called OCT HARBOUR is a massive restaurant complex that is a great place to walk around like a park, which makes it more of a destination area. At the entrance we were greeted by a massive futuristic silver thing that looked alien next to modern Chinese buildings. We were told one of the most popular dining spots here is 本家 or Ben Jia, a Korean restaurant that has a whopping 300 seats in it and if you get there by 6pm, you have to wait an hour for a table, and there are no reservations, unless you book a private room which involves a minimum charge.

A space-age "thing" at OCT HARBOUR
Southern Beauty, the chain restaurant serving Sichuan cuisine is also next to Ben Jia and is doing a brisk business, but other than that we hear the other dining establishments aren't doing very well. It's a pity, but the location is not very convenient in terms of public transportation as it's between subway stations. However, OTC HARBOUR is popular for weddings, with many outdoor venues for ceremonies and western-style parties.

On the whole we were quite impressed by Shenzhen's speed of modernization. It's cleaner and more international than most Chinese cities, though we have to say the software is still a bit rough around the edges. Driving is reminiscent of Beijing, with the constant need to do U-turns and our driver even went the opposite direction of a one-way street to get out of OCT HARBOUR which was disconcerting, but he said everyone else was doing the same...

A collection of restaurants in a beautiful setting
Ah, TIC -- This is China.

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