December 2021

This is the second city newsletter.  We shall now take a break to research and write a book.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
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As a cultural sign of the times in China, the Hanfu (汉服) phenomenon can hardly be bettered. Among the millennial generation, it is all the rage – whether online or in the streets where young people dress proudly in traditional Chinese dress (Han clothes/Hanfu).

Even the much admired, edgy fashion designer Angel Chen took the recent Shanghai fashion week by storm with her Hanfu catwalk show. This Cinderella trend is simply one expression of the way a swathe of the young is embracing (unironically) what the government argues is traditional Chinese identity and culture.

Our extensive network in Shenzhen can’t agree whether Hanfu is trending or not in their city – and the disagreement throws into relief a question about Shenzhen’s cultural life. Does it have a strong family resemblance to the look and feel of the cultural life of other Chinese megacities or is the city an inevitable outlier, given its distinctive migrant history?  A fishing village of 30,000 people in the 1970s, it is now China’s Silicon Valley, with major companies such as Tencent and Huawei as well as hundreds of start-ups, some of whose viability may be in question as the central government weighs heavily in on the side of state-owned enterprises.


In the west, orthodoxy has it that culture needs to be nurtured from the bottom-up – although the extraordinary achievements of top-down fourteenth-century Venice throw that assumption into doubt; Shenzhen, on the other hand, looks as if it is the litmus test of the argument that cultural life can be ordered and orchestrated from the top down.

The government investment in the cultural life of Shenzhen is huge. It’s part of an attempt by the public authorities to provide an infrastructure, in health, education and culture, commensurate with the city’s economic muscle and fit for its 20+ million burgeoning population. Shenzhen does not even have the kind of university infrastructure that Silicon Valley has with Stanford and Berkeley. Ten years ago there was talk of inviting MIT to set up in the city.

Of the thirteen current largest cultural projects in the world, seven are in Shenzhen, according to the 2020 AEA Cultural Infrastructure Index – with a total budget of US$2.5b. Half of the new and projected buildings are museums – and include the Shenzhen Natural History Museum (image below), the budget for which is US$496m, making it the most expensive single cultural project in the world. These new buildings are spread across new districts as anchors.

Of course the ambition to provide a world-class infrastructure has been developing over years and led in 2017 to the opening of London’s V&A Museum in Shenzhen (disclosure: we brokered the deal that brought together the V&A and China Merchants Group). Such major public/private collaborations have been complemented by a plethora of other initiatives – two art fairs are now operating, one government-related, the other private sector, clusters of art galleries punctuate the city as well as music festivals and design districts.
The AEA report goes so far as to say the ambition is to make Shenzhen itself one enormous ‘cultural district’. This may be the plan but what content will fill these newly built institutions – what will be the quality of that content – and above all will the new cultural infrastructure provision in Shenzhen generate or tap into unmet demand?  The central government is increasingly favouring state-owned enterprises over private sector ones. That’s the case in the cultural sector too. The question is – will it work?

Shenzhen’s population is significantly younger than that of China more generally (around 28.65 years old rather than 38.4) and those aged 20-29 make up 35.7% of the population. A slice of these is well-paid, as hi-tech people tend to be – which partly helps to explain the punishing cost of housing in the city.

These professionals are one of the groups subject to 9-9-6 discipline (twelve hours work each day, 6 days per week) which the government is trying to tackle but to what effect. Some of our Shenzhen network suggest that work not completed in the office is simply taken home, to be completed there.

What kind of culture do these pressurised, well-paid and young Shenzheners want? One index might be that the musical Matilda which played to sell-out audiences in Shanghai struggled to find an audience in Shenzhen. It is rumoured that Shanghai Media Group, a major force in trying to develop home-grown musicals, wants to make a musical based on the mobile game League of Legends (developed in Shenzhen by Tencent, with 180 million monthly players). There are those who think there may not be a sufficient ‘musicals culture’ in Shenzhen for success.

The touchstone of what is attractive in Shenzhen may be a 2017 event. The self-styled Japanese ‘ultra-technologists’ teamLab staged a four-month immersive exhibition which played to 400,000 people across four months, with ticket prices between 23 GBP and 25 GBP. After such success, it is hardly surprising that teamLab will open four permanent installations in 2022 in C Future City, part of a new Shenzhen development, with shopping mall, offices and residential buildings (teamLab is also at the heart of the renovated Asian Art Museum in San Francisco).

This isn’t to say that more traditional art events don’t work. Some do. An immersive exhibition of Raphael, mixing digital and original works played to sell-out audiences. The Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich did well (70,000 visitors across four months) with his massive 3-D tromp-l’oeil works that you can enter – and the spectacular sculpture of Anish Kapoor also proved popular.

 teamLab, “Sliding through the Fruit Field” © teamLab

When it comes to galleries, it is café-galleries that seem to be on trend where visitors can relax and consume as well as view art. Escape rooms are also very much in demand – as are scripted immersive experiences – which enable players to ‘chill out’ and spend time with friends – and in this regard young Shenzheners are no different from their peers in other cities around the world.

 In short, the cultural experiences that seem popular in Shenzhen are ones which put the viewer at the centre of the experience, are informal and can be shared, both at the time and later. Even if Xi Jinping has ruled that the amount of time young people (younger than 18) spend playing games be reduced, the culture of mobile games as well as of retail may be shaping the preferences of the young in Shenzhen. Their passion seems to be for experiences that are informal, immersive, interactive, shareable – and often located in commercial spaces beyond the institutions of traditional culture.

 The fascinating question is whether the city’s major cultural infrastructure programme – with museums, opera houses, theatres – will attract a twenty-first century audience, with their cultural habits and desires.  Will the internal architecture of the buildings be sufficiently flexible and welcoming to attract those used to much more informal cultural experiences where the participant can work out if they are to be the hero of their own story (to quote Dickens’ David Copperfield).


Huawei, the Shenzhen based tech company, may enjoy or endure global visibility, but it is another Shenzhen tech behemoth, Tencent, that may be more interesting, at least in the cultural domain – even if it is one of the tech companies recently chastened by Xi Jinping.
Like Facebook, in its metamorphosis to Meta, Tencent clearly wants to be much more than a tech company.
It is launching Internet + as it moves its global headquarters to a new part of Shenzhen – colloquially called Penguin Island which after land reclamation literally resembles a penguin, the corporation’s iconic logo (drawn in on the image above). The plan is to accommodate 80/100,000 employees; and to make the heart of the enterprise six bases and one platform – ranging from Internet + Medical through Internet + Mass Entrepreneurship to an Internet Sports Interactive base.
If Internet + is a huge statement of intent and ambition, a more modest but significant one is the corporation’s entrance into the NFT market. Non fungible tokens are much talked about as digital collectibles and vehicles to generate money. In August of this year Tencent launched a NFT trading platform named Magic Core / 幻核  with a limited edition of 300  digital collectibles. Last month the corporation expanded its interest, with another launch – the pre-order of a new NFT collection called ‘Under One Person’, inspired by a very successful animation series also produced by Tencent. The content draws on the traditional grammar of Chinese culture – fish, flowers and ink art.
Tencent sees the commercial possibilities of NFT and more than incidentally has found a new digital vehicle for monetising traditional Chinese iconography. Every employee has been given a unique NFT as a gift, a wise move in a city where every other person dreams to be an entrepreneur.
The Christmas holidays means that the next newsletter will appear mid-January.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

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