Shenzhen 深圳, China: The Mythic “Small Fishing Village”

It seems any introduction to Shenzhen’s 1979/80 founding must include one of the following phrases:

“fishing village”

“small fishing village”

“only a humble fishing village”

“one-time fishing village”

“not much more than a fishing village”

“quaint fishing village”

“traditional Chinese fishing village”

“tiny fishing village”

“sleepy fishing village”

The current one-man show, which has brought Shenzhen, FoxConn, and Apple to the fore, also references Shenzhen’s mythically humble beginnings:

“Shenzhen is a city without history. The people who live there will tell you that, because 31 years ago Shenzhen was a small town. It had little reed huts, little reed walkways between the huts. The men would fish in the late afternoon. I hear it was lovely.”

-From the transcript to This American Life‘s Episode #454 “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.”

If you look very closely, however, you will eventually run across a description of Shenzhen’s infancy with a tell: “fishing village of 300,000.”

Yes, apparently, Shenzhen had a baseline population of 300,000. Three-hundred-thousand people is not “a small fishing village.”

For comparison, Cambridge’s (UK) population is roughly 120,000. Admittedly, Cambridge has powerful academic charms and draws a pretty international crowd, so it’s unique for a city its size, but it is less than half the size of infant-Shenzhen and can in no way be classed as a “village.”

In America, Boulder County, Colorado, has a population of just under 300,000 (this includes the town itself as well as the surrounding sprawl and rural areas). It’s small and lovely, but it is also not a “village.”

If these initial 300,000 Shenzhen residents were spread out amongst a string of villages, then yes, each one could feel rather humble. In fact, the area itself was previously known as Bao’An County 宝安区: a name that implies a clutch of rural hamlets.

Early photos of Shenzhen also reveal it to be something more than “a small fishing village.” (All of the photos are available here (Chinese) or here (easier to scroll through and with translations).)

Dongmen Street, Shenzhen, soon after founding

Shekou, Shenzhen, 1983

River border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, 1983

So, yes, Shenzhen was a cluster of small and probably rather provincial towns with a joint population of 300,000.

It has grown to an astounding 14 million people and has a tremendously strong and swiftly growing economy.

As boomtowns go, it’s the whopper.

But it was never “a small fishing village.” So, please, can we at least call it a “provincial region of small towns and fishing villages”?

Sigh… doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

(If you’re interested in Shenzhen’s founding and growth, spend a long while wandering Mary Ann O’Donnell’s extensive blog: Shenzhen Noted. See especially her interesting comparison of boomtown growth here. She also has a good discussion of the 30th anniversary of the SEZ’s founding here with more links to old photos.) 

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One response to “Shenzhen 深圳, China: The Mythic “Small Fishing Village”

  1. Pingback: Shenzhen calling, but not for American me… | Expat Lingo·

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