t the heart of Shenzhen, the booming metropolis of the south, there is a deception.
As lies go, it’s rather innocent. The oft-told story goes like this: 40 years ago there was nearly nothing here, until late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping formed this city of special economic zones to launch the era of reform and opening-up. Like all political stories, the reality is more complicated.
Once you start to tramp the 2,000 square kilometers of Shenzhen, the signs of preDeng life begin to appear behind the creative destruction of the ever-building city. In countless neighborhoods you find the remnants – hidden, ruined, or still thriving – of the myriad Hakka villages that have dotted the hills and countryside for centuries. These “guest families,” driven from northern and central China by conflict, settled in the south long ago. Their villages, crowned by distinctive diaolou towers and fortifications, were often dismantled as the city marches toward its gentrified future, but a few pockets of the city retain the wonder and charm of those earlier times. Niuhu Art Village is one of those wonders.
Whether calling itself Aohu, Niuhu, or New Who (they can’t seem to decide), this village in Shenzhen’s northern suburbs stands as a living and evolving memorial to those earlier times. Other villages sold off their land in earlier real estate booms, or transformed to cater to the factories that rose in their back yard. But not Niuhu.
Thanks to the ever-expanding subway, Line 4 now travels from the Hong Kong border all the way to this far-flung get-away. It takes about an hour on the train, then another 15-minute walk through the Aohu village gate, along decayed concrete sidewalks and past the shops of the petite bourgeoisie. But your journey delivers you to a shining little gem that feels a world away from the rest of this cash-grab city.
In this relatively quiet corner – the sounds of construction pervade all Shenzhen, but they’re softer here and fade to the chirping of frogs at night – the poverty of earlier days is enriched by art and a few distinctive shops. Village life continues with its labor and services, but they’ve infused the older population with a smattering of artists from Shenzhen, elsewhere in China, and even the US.
The village is not the whitewashed simulacrum found elsewhere in China, recreated for tourists and devoid of life. Instead, the moldering of generations remains, but in a scrubbed and well-cared-for fashion that invites visitors to wander these tight-tucked alleys to enjoy the sights. Beyond the gardens found in all Hakka villages, Niuhu boasts an assortment of visual treats. The traditional village pond stands at the front, a bit green but clear. The little shoreline, like the rest of the village, is built for walking and decorated with art from the start. Looming large at the entrance, a mural of a bewildered cow could be the cousin of the bull in Picasso’s Guernica. Both stand as witness to drastic changes in their world, if much less violent here.
It’s tempting to compare Niuhu to the late Caochangdi, which once sat north of Beijing’s city center. But Niuhu is much smaller, with far fewer galleries and a flagship space that’s often only half-utilized. But that’s part of the soft-sunset charm of the place: wandering through side streets you might catch a butterfly-brief exhibit, or find everything closed and just enjoy the mural-painted architecture, the lush home gardens and an uphill walk to the nearby park.
Mongolia House is one of the most fascinating, and most ephemeral, of the galleries here. Tucked into one of the alleys (look for the orange sign and the yurt) it often hosts brief exhibitions of owner A-Kun’s photography and the future-leaning works of his friends. Recently the space hosted four “hard noise” artists who are big in Japan. The oscillating dissonance, amplified rumblings and crashes of sound were too challenging for me to say I’m a fan, but on a cool spring night it felt good to share such experimental music with a community of dozens, young and old.
Back toward the village entrance, near the flagship Aohu Art Gallery where working-class portraits are built into the walls, Malsonart is the most reliably open and enjoyable exhibit of locally crafted art. Ken and Bella, the artist-owners, experiment with forms and designs which utilize their surroundings for a charming and challenging perspective from this corner of hyper-modern China. They’re both incredibly personable and frequently present, making the pair an ideal introduction to the other hidden treasures of Niuhu.
After a rambling afternoon absorbing the sights, Art + Canteen is always waiting with a good meal: on our visit it was great seafood, curried pork neck, an adequate chestnut fried rice and skippable egg-and-jasmine-flowers. They don’t offer adequate beer, but a tasty buy-one-get-one deal on Chilean wines was perfect for our little party. Just down the way, as you follow the pond, a little shop offers a wide assortment of beers and barbecue that pairs with it so well. It’s not the cheapest but it’s delicious, especially if you mark the option to have less spice added to the dishes.
Shenzhen is now enjoying a mild spring, but expect some rains in May, heat in June– July, and more rains in August and September. The rest of the year is quite dry with a relatively warm winter.
Currently no vaccinations or Covid tests are required to enter Shenzhen, but keep a watchful eye as the situation may change quickly. Bring a mask and be prepared to fill out Shenzhen’s WeChat health code app, but the situation is currently quite stable.
You might not be visiting Shenzhen for sheer tourist pleasure. I can’t blame you for that. But if you’re down here for business, or because you want to get as close to Hong Kong as you can without crossing the border, take a weekend wander through this quieter slice of old-time Shenzhen, before the factories, the skyscrapers, and all the rest. Even if the art doesn’t move you, the space does the soul some good.