In China’s Shenzhen, nostalgia for the old days of Hong Kong culture lingers

SHENZHEN, China, July 7 (Reuters) – A trip to glamorous Hong Kong was a distant dream for most mainland Chinese in the mid-1990s, but it was just a lunchtime stroll for schoolgirl Tracey Chen in southern boomtown Shenzhen.

As Hong Kong loses its autonomy after 25 years of Chinese rule, Chen is among the many in his Mandarin-speaking neighbors who are longing for the days when the former British colony’s uniquely lush Cantonese culture spilled over the border.

Before Shenzhen began to transform in the 1980s, Hong Kong’s freewheeling economy was a consumer haven for many on the mainland.

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Chen’s school still stands on Sino-British Street, a 250-meter-long street bisected in half by the border between the territories and the only section where they are not separated by water.

While border guards kept a close eye on visitors browsing instant noodles, beauty products and other mainland curiosities, Chen tucked in her communist student’s red scarf and slipped over to buy ice cream and magazines about Hong Kong pop stars.

“There were some that came out once a week,” she recalled. “My classmates and I would take turns fetching them.”

CHANGE OF TIDES

Shenzhen was a sleepy commercial city surrounded by hundreds of villages before then-leader Deng Xiaoping authorized one of China’s first Special Economic Zones (SEZ) there in 1980, partly to stem the exodus of those risking their lives to flee.

Born in Caopu Village in 1969, Liang Ailin vividly remembers distraught villagers climbing onto freight trains bound for Hong Kong.

“Almost everyone in the villages has family members who have fled,” she said, speaking to friends over a dim sum meal of Cantonese delicacies a stone’s throw from software giant Tencent’s gleaming headquarters.

Villagers told stories of refugees like Li Ka-Shing, a native of Guangdong Province, who fled to Hong Kong and became one of the leading tycoons, Liao Wenjian said.

“We all imagined Hong Kong was heaven in the 1970s,” said Liao, another Shenzhen resident who was born in 1969. “As long as you work hard, you won’t starve and make a lot of money.”

But after 1980, Hong Kong companies poured well into its own export-oriented manufacturing boom, pouring more than 90% of Shenzhen’s investment across the border to pioneer the industry there, officials learned from their neighbor’s market economy.

The flood of refugees soon subsided.

SOFTSHELL TURTLES

Many of Shenzhen’s original residents spoke the Hakka language, and Mandarin was taught in schools from 1984, but the power of Hong Kong’s economy and the appeal of its music and films gave Cantonese a prestige edge, Liang and Liao said.

In the 1980s, Guangdong authorities regularly tore down antennas that could pick up Hong Kong television programs with their perniciously colorful romantic dramas and martial arts films.

But in neighboring Shenzhen, which had 80 TVs per 100 households in 1985, a year after Shenzhen launched its own rival station with newscasters in Western clothes, picking up Hong Kong’s signals was easy.

“My husband, a northerner, learned Cantonese from TV,” Liao said.

Along with her pop star glossy products, Chen bought fashion titles for her aunt, who studied her for the latest trends and made clothes for mainland people, she said.

But the admiration wasn’t mutual, as many visitors to Hong Kong viewed their mainland cousins ​​as chumps, said Fang Yan, who came to Shenzhen in the 1980s.

Some border areas became notorious as “lady villages” for the number of wealthy Hong Kong men who had second wives there.

“We called them soft shell turtles (rich easy targets) and the pretty girls said, ‘Here come the rich Hong Kongers!'” said Fang Yan. “The pretty girls have been waiting for you.”

AFTER 1997

However, 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 luster eluded the former British territory, Liao added.

“I realized that Hong Kong’s glamor is only for those at the top of the social pyramid – the wealth gap is too big,” Liao said.

“We live no less well in Shenzhen now.”

Today, Shenzhen is China’s third wealthiest city, with hundreds of thousands of migrants among its 17.6 million residents, few of whom have ties to the Cantonese language and culture.

The old train tracks next to Liang’s village are now a tourist attraction, sandwiched between a high-speed rail line and a Bentley workshop.

Young Chinese come dressed up to have their photo taken home next to a vintage train to the Happy Station cafe, which serves bubble tea.

Many of Liang, Liao and Fang’s friends lament their grandchildren’s poor knowledge of Cantonese, but see this development as inevitable.

“It’s a migrant city and a melting pot,” Liao said. “We don’t have a millennia-old Cantonese culture.”

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reporting by David Kirton; Edited by Anne Marie Roantree and Clarence Fernandez

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.