It’s amazing that it takes only a two hour train journey to be transported to another city, almost another country and definitely another world. Because Shenzhen is definitely another world from Hong Kong even though the whole purpose of the city was to be China’s version of Hong Kong. But somehow it doesn’t quite get there, no matter how numerous the skyscrapers.
Shenzhen reminds me more of Beijing than of Hong Kong. For one, the streets are extremely wide – ever ready for armies to march in. Then, the people are mainlanders, dressed like mainland people. It took me a while to realize that mainlanders did not physically look different from Hong Kongers – it’s just that their clothing, hair and makeup is less sophisticated, their expressions less closed and sometimes they speak Mandarin instead of Canto (but in Shenzhen they speak both). Shenzhen is more dirty and poor, less organized and less safe.
It’s in coming to Shenzhen that you become grateful that you live in Hong Kong. Instead of the mainland, and even – and this is a big one – instead of India. You realise that you are fast becoming accustomed to the convenience, the cleanliness, and most important the safety. To being able to go out partying – even in the red light area if you must – and hopping into a cab at any time of the night and not giving a thought to your safety, except for hoping you don’t throw up in the cab. To being careless with your bag and wallet because the odds of anyone actually grabbing it are slim. Even when your wallet disappears, you’re pretty sure you lost it because nobody has used your credit card.
You realise how accustomed to Hong Kong you’re becoming when you walk in Lo Wu shopping mall and you see it with completely different eyes from the ones you were seeing with two years ago. The mall is dirty, smelly, sleazy and the stuff isn’t all that great.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Shenzhen. I love the mainland people because they are so, well, normal. They are noisy, friendly and curious about strangers. Unlike Honkys who look through foreigners probably because they have seen just too many who have stayed on indefinitely like badly-behaved guests. Mainland people are ever willing to help if you ask for directions, they stare at you and giggle – which though rude is more normal than pretending not to see you at all – and surprisingly, their English is better.
The best part about it is that even though the renminbi is now stronger than the HK$, things are cheaper. Food is cheaper, clothes are cheaper, spas are cheaper and the hotels are cheaper.
When you see Shenzhen – despite the fact that I saw a woman put her baby in her lap and helping it reach into a dustbin for pickings of food and that every day there was one visibly sick pedigree puppy dying on the road while people stared – you wonder why India couldn’t at least achieve this much. This level of development and convenience. This amount of optimal utilization of resources.
China turns everything into a factory. On the first day, we went to Dafen Art Village. Basically, this is an immense area of land dedicated to mass-producing art. Yes mass produced art. Whether it’s copies of Van Gogh or some lesser known Asian artist or Buddha or The Last Supper. Some enterprising guy realised that there was a market for this stuff and that there were many many starving artists all over the country who could make a profitable living from doing this instead of giving up art altogether for more prosaic careers. If you look hard you can even get some original work by lesser known Chinese artists – well, at least I hope it’s original because we bought a couple of a paintings.
The second day we went to a Queens Spa. Again this is an enormous space which can service up to 3000 people at any point of time. It offers everything from aromatherapy massages to traditional Chinese foot massage to Indian ear cleaning to French manicure. Including swimming and sauna. And unlimited fruit and a couple of restaurants. And sleeping capsules. If you spend over $168 (the cost of one massage) the entry fee is waived and basically you’re eating, swimming and watching movies while some guy works on your feet for free. Well, you pay for the foot massage. But it’s an amazing experience and so easy to spend a whole day there.
What makes it’s amazing is that the quality of service is really high. It’s like an upscale spa in India. A nearly upscale spa in Hong Kong – only differing because there are so many people and because, being China, most of them are smoking.
The point is, India has the people. Why couldn’t we achieve something like this. It’s because we cannot achieve the quality. Despite everything said about cheap Chinese goods, they are better than cheap Indian goods. The Chinese are meticulous people. Even when they sell you a couple of little paintings for a steal, they will meticulously bubble wrap it. They do a thorough job – they don’t try to get away with less. And this applies to everything they do – whether it is stitching a suit or making furniture or copies of Picasso. If you order something, you can be pretty sure that the quality will be reasonably good.
Europe has chosen to market itself as exclusivity and high quality. China markets itself as quantity and reasonably good quality. India unfortunately will never been able to produce quantity combined with quality.
But there was a time when we could do quality. I remember interviewing an old man who makes patan patola saris. Each sari could cost upto Rs 1 lakh and is painstaking hand woven. The method is passed down from one generation to the next. Unfortunately they are now mass producing these and nobody wants the hand woven ones. The mass produced ones are pretty crap and soon nobody will want those either. But the hand woven ones are special. They are quality stuff.
The government should be encouraging those things and helping the weavers market them. Not in their pathetic governmenty way but in the way countries like America, who have very little authentic culture, market what little they have. Instead the weavers and artisans prefer their children to be engineers and we lose the one thing that could make us special and could probably add to GDP in the same way that Swiss watching making and wine adds to the GDP of those country. But we’d rather not. Whatever.