By David Kirton
SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) – A trip to glamorous Hong Kong was a distant dream for most mainland Chinese in the mid-1990s, but for schoolgirl Tracey Chen in the affluent southern city of Shenzhen, it was just a dream. lunchtime walk.
As Hong Kong loses autonomy after 25 years of Chinese rule, Chen is among many of his Mandarin-speaking neighbors who yearn for the days when the former British colony’s uniquely exuberant Cantonese culture permeated the border.
Before Shenzhen began to transform in the 1980s, Hong Kong’s booming economy represented a consumer haven for many on the mainland.
Chen’s school still stands on Sino-British Street, a 250-meter (273-yard) street divided in half by the border between the territories and the only stretch where they are not separated by water.
As border guards kept a close eye on visitors searching for instant noodles, beauty products and other mainland oddities, Chen pocketed his communist student’s red scarf and crossed to buy ice cream and magazines about Hong Kong pop stars. Kong.
“There were some who went out once a week,” he recalled. “My classmates and I took turns going to find them.”
CHANGE OF TIDE
Shenzhen was a quiet commercial city surrounded by hundreds of villages before the leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, approved one of China’s first special economic zones (SEZ) there in 1980, in part to stem the exodus of those who risked their lives. lives to flee.
Liang Ailin, born in Caopu village in 1969, still remembers desperate villagers boarding freight trains bound for Hong Kong.
“Almost everyone in the villages has relatives who have fled,” he said, eating dim sum of Cantonese delicacies with friends, a stone’s throw from software giant Tencent’s gleaming headquarters.
Villagers told stories of runaways like Li Ka-Shing, a Guangdong province native who fled to Hong Kong and became one of its top tycoons, Liao Wenjian said.
“We all imagine that Hong Kong was paradise in the 1970s,” said Liao, another Shenzhen resident born in 1969. “As long as you work hard, you won’t go hungry and you’ll earn a lot of money.”
But after 1980, companies in Hong Kong, in the midst of an export-led processing boom, crossed the border with more than 90% of investment from Shenzhen to promote industry there, as its officials learned from Hong Kong’s market economy. His neighbor.
The rush of fugitives subsided soon after.
Many of Shenzhen’s original residents spoke the Hakka language, and since 1984 its schools taught in Mandarin, but Hong Kong’s business power and the lure of its music and movies gave Cantonese an advantage in prestige, Liang and Liao said. .
In the 1980s, Guangdong authorities periodically shot down antennas that could pick up Hong Kong television shows, with their corruptly colorful romantic dramas and martial arts movies.
But picking up signals from Hong Kong was easy in neighboring Shenzhen, which had 80 TVs for every 100 households in 1985, a year after Shenzhen launched its own rival station with Western-clad news anchors.
“My husband, a northerner, learned Cantonese from television,” Liao said.
Along with her pop star glitter, Chen bought fashion titles for her aunt, who sifted through them for the latest trends and made clothes for mainland people, she said.
However, the admiration was not mutual, as many visitors to Hong Kong viewed their mainland cousins as country bumpkins, said Fang Yan, who came to Shenzhen in the 1980s.
Some border areas became famous as “lovers’ towns” because of the number of wealthy Hong Kong men who had second wives living there.
“We’d call them softshell turtles (rich easy whites) and the pretty girls would say, ‘Here come the rich guys from Hong Kong!'” Fang Yan said. “The pretty girls were waiting for them.”
As visits to Hong Kong became easier in the years after its handover to China in 1997 and Shenzhen’s economy continued to boom, some of the glitter faded from the former British territory, Liao added.
“I realized that the glamor of Hong Kong is only for people at the top of the social pyramid: the wealth gap is too wide,” Liao said.
“We are no less comfortable living in Shenzhen now.”
Today, Shenzhen is the third richest city in China, with hundreds of thousands of immigrants among its population of 17.6 million, few of whom have ties to the Cantonese language and culture.
The old railway tracks next to the town of Liang are now a tourist attraction, sandwiched between a high-speed rail line and a Bentley garage.
Chinese youths come in costume to take pictures of themselves next to a vintage train that leads to a cafe, ‘Happy Station’, which serves bubble tea.
Many friends of Liang, Liao and Fang lament their grandchildren’s poor Cantonese skills, but see this development as inevitable.
“It is a city of immigrants and a melting pot of cultures,” Liao said. “We don’t have thousands of years of Cantonese culture.”
(Reporting by David Kirton; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Clarence Fernandez)