Shenzhen – from rural village to the world’s largest megalopolis

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Shenzhen – from rural village to the world's largest megalopolis
A Disney-like theme park emerges from the green fields surrounding Shenzhen in 1992 / © Ian Berry - Magnum Photos
Shenzhen – from rural village to the world's largest megalopolis
A Disney-like theme park emerges from the green fields surrounding Shenzhen in 1992 / © Ian Berry – Magnum Photos

When Leo Houng arrived in Shenzhen in 1974, it was an unremarkable Chinese settlement that ‘smelled of countryside’. Since then, he has witnessed the city rise up at a bewildering rate – with little regard for the families caught in its path

It should be here somewhere,” says Leo Houng, a retired cello player with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. We are in a tangle of small streets in central Shenzhen, just next to Lao Jie underground station. Lao Jie (“Old Street”) has existed for decades, which is more than can be said for most of Shenzhen.

When Houng stayed here in 1974 on his way to Hong Kong, Old Street was pretty much the only road around – with just a few lanes leading off it, dotted with simple restaurants and a handful of small shops. From there, unpaved alleys soon merged with the surrounding open countryside – an unimaginable landscape from today’s suffocating vantage point.

“Back then it smelled very green; it smelled of countryside,” Houng says. “There was no pollution or industrialisation, just natural smells.”

Shenzhen, a city of around 11 million people, is now merely one element of the Pearl River Delta, the world’s largest continuously urbanised area with a population of more than 60 million people – not including all the undocumented migrants, nor the inhabitants of its two “special administrative regions”, Hong Kong (7.5 million) and Macao (580,000).

This is the area that inspired architect Rem Koolhaas to coin the term “generic city” back in 1995 (in his volume S, M, L, XL), referring to a city without history that develops randomly. In Shenzhen today, cars and motorbikes clog the roads while skyscrapers tower over the city’s small commercial area, one of many such neighbourhoods in a congested and hyperactive urban environment. […]

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