Forty years ago, the city of Shenzhen, home to fifty-thousand people, was unheard of both inside and outside China. Today, that same city has blossomed into a mega-metropolis. Shenzhen ranks as the fourth largest city in the most populous country in the world and is among the top ten cities with the largest economies in the world. Without question, the rise of Shenzhen over four decades has been astronomical in every respect. WIRED’s 2016 documentary Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of Hardware aims to unearth the history of this city, providing insight into what makes this city such a unique place. However, watching this documentary detail such a massive change in such a short timespan begs the question: how has this rapid pace of change affected the urban fabric of Shenzhen? This article will answer this question, delving further into Wired magazine’s documentary with a particular focus on how the city’s history and recent rise have influenced its current design and architecture.

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Shenzhen Skyline, WIRED_©www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGJ5cZnoodY

A Summary of Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of Hardware

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Shenzhen from Above, WIRED_©www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGJ5cZnoodY

WIRED is a publication focused on technology. Accordingly, the technology industry is also the primary focus of WIRED’s documentary on Shenzhen. The documentary is incredibly engaging; it is almost a little too fast at times, but its pace is merited considering the ground it covers in just an hour and seven minutes. Director Jim Demuth has expertly weaved testimony from local entrepreneurs with commentary from host  Andrew “Bunnie” Huang to create a story. The documentary begins with a brief insight into how modern Shenzhen came to be. In 1980, China’s planned economy was steadily building itself up while providing a comprehensive social-welfare system for its people. However, there remained a lack of significant wealth for the average person at the time. To remedy this problem without compromising the country’s ideals for governance, communist party leader Deng Xiaoping designed Shenzhen as a special economic zone where capitalist market growth could occur unencumbered. As an interviewee mentioned early into the documentary, “it attracted people who wanted more freedom” 

From then on, the city has grown at a breakneck speed, focusing on innovation for technological hardware development. Indeed, the documentary stresses how Shenzhen continues to be eight months to a year ahead of the Western world’s technological development. A unique facet of this technological development has directly contributed to the speed of the sector’s growth: a strong spirit of collaboration. Where technology companies like Apple in the USA have made patenting every aspect of their design and technology an integral part of their business model, the people developing technology in Shenzhen have pioneered open source technology. The promotion of open source technology has led to two outcomes: collaboration is encouraged, and the sharing of information necessitates a faster pace of innovation to stay ahead of the competition. This speedy development has also contributed to a concentration of material wealth in the city and the rise of a new middle class in China.

The factors affecting Shenzhen’s Urban Landscape

As the documentary makes clear, Shenzhen’s history is storied, beginning from a small fishing village, and evolving into a hub for technology and the country’s elite. These three facets of its identity are also key to how the city’s design and architecture have come together.

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An Interior Shot of Huaqiangbei Electronics Market, WIRED_©www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGJ5cZnoodY

The business within the city has strongly influenced the type of buildings constructed in Shenzhen. Shenzhen is home to multiple technologies, finance, and IT companies, creating a high demand for upscale office space (A guide to office space in Shenzhen, 2015). On the other hand, the collaborative, grassroots nature of entrepreneurship in Shenzhen has also led to demand for lower-budget collaborative office spaces and large marketplaces where hardware vendors can distribute their wares. An example of the latter would be the Huaqiangbei Electronics market, the largest wholesale electronics market in the world. Footage of the interior of the market helps an outsider understand how the competition between hardware manufacturers has affected the space’s design: stalls are crowded together, allowing customers to easily browse through the products on offer.

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The Density of Shenzhen’s Urban Villages, WIRED_©www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGJ5cZnoodY

Shenzhen’s identity as an erstwhile fishing village has also contributed to arguably the most interesting element of its urban landscape: urban villages. These high-density spaces comprise buildings in extreme proximity to each other, with windows so close to each other that one can shake hands with a person in the next building. While these structures resemble a walled city more than they do the archetypal image of modern, gleaming Shenzhen, they are a vital part of the city’s housing. These urban villages are centers for affordable housing that allows historical residents to remain at the center of a city, and are home to many small-scale businesses on their ground floors and smaller, affordable residential units on their upper floors. 

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Shenzhen’s Art District, WIRED_©www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGJ5cZnoodY

However, Shenzhen’s government is trying its best to do away with parts of its heritage (like the urban villages) due to a trend toward gentrification. Shenzhen is a wealthy city, with the second-most skyscrapers in the world and the fifth-highest number of billionaires. The success of the city’s technology entrepreneurs combined with the city’s rapidly growing financial sector has resulted in older sites being slated for redevelopment. A key example mentioned in WIRED’s documentary is the arts district of Shenzhen. While the galleries in this district used to be home to smaller, avant-garde artists, the government’s encouragement of these areas that they believe will “beautify” the city has led to larger gallery owners entering the space, pushing prices up, and gentrifying the neighborhoods. This trend applies to the urban villages for two main reasons: their perceived lack of order, and their prime location. The density and labyrinth nature of the urban villages makes them an eyesore (and blindspot) for the city’s government, leading to discomfort with their existence. Their location at the center of the city’s development has also led to them being extremely attractive to developers. These two factors mean that the urban village’s gentrification is unfortunately in full force.

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The Streets of Shenzhen, WIRED_©www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGJ5cZnoodY

Undoubtedly, Shenzhen’s rise has been incredible to witness. It is fascinating to consider how its urban landscape is shaped by its unique history of economic progress, technological innovation, and original fishing communities. As the city contends with a shifting landscape and a lack of uniqueness as other cities in China catch up, it will be fascinating to observe how the future focus of Shenzhen will create change in its urban fabric.

References: 

  1. En.wikipedia.org. n.d. Shenzhen – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shenzhen> [Accessed 11 July 2022].
  2. Instantoffices.com. 2015. A guide to office space in Shenzhen. [online] Available at: <https://www.instantoffices.com/en/cn/a-guide-to-office-space-in-shenzhen> [Accessed 11 July 2022].
  3. Reynolds, M., 2016. Inside Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of hardware. [online] WIRED UK. Available at: <https://www.wired.co.uk/article/shenzhen-silicon-valley-of-hardware-wired-documentary> [Accessed 11 July 2022].
  4. Walsh, N., 2020. The Curious History and Beauty of Shenzhen’s Urban Villages. [online] ArchDaily. Available at: <https://www.archdaily.com/932731/the-curious-history-and-beauty-of-shenzhens-urban-villages> [Accessed 11 July 2022].
  5. WIRED, 2016. Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of Hardware.

    Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGJ5cZnoodY> [Accessed 11 July 2022].

Author

Aaditya Bhasker he is an undergraduate student of Architecture and Urban-Studies at Haverford College. He hopes to channel his passion for architecture into social justice work surrounding housing reform in India. Outside academia, they also enjoy watching movies, reading, and hiking with their dog in Hong Kong, where they currently lives

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