ow that China is officially a moderately prosperous society, I start to recognize signs of it here in Shenzhen. We might not be the richest or most expensive city in the country (that’s Shanghai), but being in the top five ain’t bad. Days spent at the heart of this tech-driven megalopolis do feel prosperous... at least moderately so.
Ella Fitzgerald is crooning her pitch-perfect rendition of “Cheek to Cheek” while I tuck into the beef cheek of my massaman curry. All around, pairs of women and three-generation lunch parties quietly enjoy Thai dishes of their own. Here only the infants get loud. There’s a look and feel of self-contained comfort among this slice of the global middle class: only one auntie is slightly garish in her festive prints, the rest mostly wear the pale solids of a turn-of-thecentury J.Crew catalogue.
It’s warm – the whole world is warming, summer after summer – but that’s more normal here in the tropics than in newly scorched parts of the Earth. It’s 33 C today and people are still sitting outside. This whole mall is only partly enclosed, the rest brazenly exposed to rain and sun alike. Just a week ago we forded walkways ankle-high with rainwater. Nature can’t stop the carnival of consumption.
A two-floor Huawei experience center gleams at the center, occupied with gadgets and two SUVs luxuriating in their expensive floor space. It boasts a sense of modern plenty, the promise of 5G and smart- everything, all enclosed behind polished beveled glass.
The rest is opulent shoes, extravagant purses, famous fragrances, clothes, clothes, and endless clothes. As someone who exclusively shops on Taobao, I can’t understand the appeal. But people do stop in occasionally and share the prosperity, at least enough to keep on those glaring lights.
I return to “16 Originality Park,” a shopping cluster just north of Hi-Tech Park with an odd concentration of skateboard-themed shops. A lonesome half-pipe sits in the parking lot (rare wonder), surrounded by a “pop-up shop,” “mobile lab,” and “sk8 workshop”... all closed on a Wednesday afternoon.
But the barbershop is open. It blends in with skateboards festooning the walls, beside photos of basketball players, some seated at their original location. The center of this masculine refuge is dominated by a pool table, which I’ve never seen in use, and a huge video game system, almost always in use. The game’s hero is either very tiny or the mutant rats he slaughters are enormous. The barber swivels me away from the mirror, so his brutal progress is almost always in view. I gaze, listless, until I nod off under the hum of the clippers.
Then I’m tossed back, Sweeney Todd-style, suddenly and acutely vulnerable. Clippers kiss the beard-hair of my lips, a finger brushes my nose as it stabilizes. As the razor grazes my neckline, I’m swept with little epiphanies about the romance of the vampire.
I’m eventually shampooed and powdered, blown dry and pomaded. My coif is the product of countless transactions around the world, building and shipping technology like the clippers and the video game distraction, or products like the scented spray that soothes my razor-kissed skin. All this, for something undone within weeks. And I’ll be back then, to pay my part and keep the cycle going.
A swank hotel ballroom is filled to fete the new Shenzhen campus of one of Manhattan’s top-shelf grade schools. Outside the floor-toceiling glass we can watch the Pacific swallow the sun, adding crimson and gold to the mountains of Hong Kong, just a few miles distant but still years away. Inside, it’s courteous staff and marble everywhere, crystal circles overhead and buffet bites, with free-flowing wine and Tsingtao. Musicians cover pop artists like Dua Lipa with verve and talent as a dancing spirit sweeps the crowd.
Women bob, youthful faces beset with chunky black glasses. In qipao or slip dresses, they’re accessorized with Americans and various Europeans with rose in their cheeks and blond in their hair. Everyone is kind and sparkling, but I can’t shake the feeling we’re all star-chasers reaching for something that won’t quite match our imagination. All of us expats know why we chose Shenzhen, out of all China, to make our temporary home. Talented and driven, we’re here to partake in the next largest economy in the world. Determination glints in these eyes. After enduring a month of meetings and training and prep, there’s an impatience for this new semester to be born. By the end they’re exhausted, as is the supply of white wine. Our prosperity moderated by this setback, we switch to red.