Essay

Blade Runner with Bicycle Rickshaws11 min read

Cruising the Shenzhen strip for a nosh  Brendan O’Kane

 

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Brendan O’Kane’s blog back in 2002, so some – though certainly not all – of the inconveniences he references are things of the past. –Anne Henochowicz

 

I wanted some familiarity. I wanted some stability and consistency. I wanted food whose origin was known and whose relative cleanliness of preparation was reasonably certain. So I went to McDonald’s in Guangzhou, and I will justify my crime as follows:

I got to Harbin, met some of my fellow English teachers, settled into my apartment, and soon found that my ATM card didn’t work at any machine in the city.

“Of course it doesn’t,” said the woman I asked at the Bank of China. “Foreign cards only work in Beijing and Shanghai. You’ll be able to withdraw cash at one of the windows on the third floor, though. No problem.”

Needless to say, there was a problem.

The signature strip on the back of my card had worn off from a year’s worth of pocket-borne abuse (I guess I’ll have to start keeping my sandpaper in the OTHER pocket). And without my signature, nothing – not the signatures on my passport or voter registration card or school ID or expired learner’s permit; not pleading; not whining “Come on, be a pal!” in Mandarin; nothing – would convince the bank teller to let me withdraw cash.

I had around $15 in my pocket. I had been planning to travel around, and meet up with my Chinese professor in either Shenzhen or Chengdu.

This was a problem.

Fortunately, after all the contract-signing had been done, the school repaid me half the money for my airplane ticket, with a promise of the other half when I got back. That gave me 5,000 kuai – a little under 4,000 once I’d bought a cellphone and various apartment necessities – to play with. I reserved a hard-sleeper train ticket to Guangzhou for the end of the week, contacted my professor to let him know that I’d be in Shenzhen around the same time as him, got a few of my bearings (bars and cheap VCDs). in Harbin, and then was off for Guangzhou.

 

The train ride from Harbin to Guangzhou – that is, from the extreme northeast to the extreme southeast – takes 37 hours. It marked the beginning of a four-day period where I spoke exclusively in Mandarin. It also saw me using Chinese-style toilets more often then I really would have liked to. Which are just – oh, God. Holes. You squat. It’s bad. And then when you’re on a train, there’s a whole new dimension of fun because you get to play travel games like “Guess That Stain” and “Don’t Shit on Your Feet When the Train Lurches.”

And after all that, I arrived in Guangzhou, walked around with my backpack for a few hours, realized that, although I’d left most of my things in Beijing, my backpack still weighed a significant fraction of what I did, and decided to go back to the train station to check it. As I walked out of the station, blissfully unburdened, I saw the Golden Arches across the street, and decided:

Screw my principles. I want something familiar.

 

If you ever have a chance to travel from Guangzhou to Shenzhen, about 45 minutes away by train, I suggest that you do it on a rainy summer night. The train will pull into the station, and you’ll go through the usual process of shoving and being shoved until you’re deposited onto the footbridge outside the station.

As you walk along the footbridge, you and your backpack getting soaked, you’ll look out down the street and see the restaurants, the skyscrapers, the office buildings, youth hostels, and barbershops, all lit up with a minimum of three neon signs apiece. It looks like the futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner: hazy, wet, dingy in a future-noir, cyberpunk way. If you are anything at all like me, you will be greatly impressed by the sheer number of skyscrapers per square mile here. (A cab driver later told me that the skyscrapers there are losing money; people have been unwilling to move into them ever since 9-11, for fear that terrorists coming through Xinjiang will attack Shenzhen. This strikes me as implausible, but hey, what do I know.) Then you will go down to the taxi stop and see the legless beggars scrambling around, knocking their heads against the feet of people waiting for a taxi, holding out bowls with a few cents’ worth of mao and fen coins in them.

I didn’t like Shenzhen at all, though.

It’s the success story of the New China – built with foreign and local investment; big, flashy, new. People come from all over China to make their fortune, and so even though Shenzhen is in a Cantonese-speaking region, Mandarin is the lingua franca here.

At first glance, it’s an impressive, cosmopolitan city, full of skyscrapers and nightclubs and modern concrete flyovers. But if you look a bit closer, the glamour disappears. After a while, the skyscrapers all look the same: mirror glass facing, a lobby with potted plants, and the logo of Japanese technology company at the top. The nightclubs are overpriced, depressing, and full of people asking you if you’d like them to introduce a few nice girls. And the concrete flyovers, new just a few years ago, are already cracked and crumbling.

 

“Hello? DVD?”

“No thanks,” I reply in Chinese, “but if you can tell me where I can find a payphone, I’d be much-obliged.”

I’d just bought a ticket back to Beijing for a train leaving the next day. This was a change from my original plan, which had been to go to Chengdu and Chongqing, and then continue to Shanghai and Nanjing, but in Shenzhen I decided that (a) the South is too hot, (b) traveling around on your own is less fun than traveling with others, and (c) it would be nice to be able to use my fucking ATM card.

My train left the next day, so I was stuck finding a hotel. I’d stayed at a hostel the night before — it was cheap and fairly comfortable, but also out in the sticks, where cab fare to and from the train station brought the price of a night up to about what I’d have paid for a more central hotel.

Mr. Hello-DVD led me out of the mall we were in (I’d just gone there to get out of the rain) and across the footbridge, back towards the train station, and down some steps to a bank of payphones, where I called my mother, assured her that I was more-or-less probably doing OK, kind of, and told her of my change in plans.

Then I agreed to go with Mr. DVD and buy a few movies; he’d been helpful and nice, and hey, I can always use more movies.

I ended up sitting in a fabric shop on the mall’s fifth floor, chatting with him and his bosses and flipping through shoeboxes full of software and DVDs. They complimented me more or less constantly on my Chinese, which made them cool in my book, and we talked for about an hour and a half. Finally, I mention that I’m in Shenzhen for another night, and ask if they know of any cheap hotels.

“Sure – I’ll take you around and we’ll find one,” said DVD Man, and so we left, talking away in Chinese and drawing surprised stares from people in the elevator on the way out.

We went around from hotel to hotel, but they were neither fantastically I said that it sounded great, and we headed off for his place. We finally introduced ourselves in the taxi, me as Liu Shiyong, 27 years old, from Jiangsu Province.

We got out of the cab about a block down Renmin Street from the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, walked down a side street, then turned down another side street lined with barbershops, slipped into a narrow alley next to a “In here,” Shiyong said, and then led me through the “family room” – also concrete, and bare except for a TV and a few kids watching same – and into his room.

The word “room” might not be entirely accurate. The first floor was divided into two halves – the bathroom/living room half, and the other half, partitioned by thin sheets of plywood with newspapers glued to them. Shiyong’s partition was smaller than my closet-sized dorm room last year; his floor was bare concrete; his bed was a plank with a thin bamboo mat over it; his electrical outlet was a cord run in from the street through a window.

“I’m embarrassed to bring you here,” he said. “This alley is the crappiest place in Shenzhen.”

I assured him that it was perfectly fine, that in fact it actually reminded me of home.

“You must be tired from carrying your backpack – take a nap for a while, and then I’ll show you around.”

So we went out, Shiyong and I. We stopped at the Hui restaurant we’d passed earlier and got lunch there. The owner was impressed and delighted by my ability to eat the spicy meat cakes they made; he yelled at the cook to go easy on the hot peppers when I ordered, and when I replied that hot food was no problem, he smiled and nodded, then continued telling the cook not to put in too many lajiao.

Afterwards, we walked around Renmin Street for an hour or so, then caught a bus down to the Plum Sands Beach and watched people swimming until the sun set and it started pouring rain. Then we grabbed another bus back into town. It was about 9:30, and I asked Shiyong which places were fun at this time of night. He replied that there were a few nightclubs near the train station, and so we set out looking for one of those after we arrived in the centre of town.

 

Shiyong was wearing a grubby work shirt, worn slacks, and flip-flops. The nightclub hostesses looked at him with palpable disdain as we walked in, but he was with a foreigner – a mark of class if ever there was one. He and I started laughing as soon as the hostess seated us and walked off with her nose in the air. We ordered a few beers – my treat, I insisted; give me face – and sat back to watch karaoke and, I shit you not, a floorshow done to a disco remix of ‘The Entertainer.’

We took a bicycle rickshaw back to his place. It was cheaper than a cab, but perhaps not the best idea for someone who, like Shiyong, has a low beer tolerance. The Hui restaurant was still open when we passed by, so we stopped in there and got a few skewers of roasted lamb and meat patties. The owner said that he’d make up a bag of the beef patties for me to take on the train the next day, and gave Shiyong a couple bottles of water, on the house.

The plank was more comfortable than I’d expected it to be.

The next morning, we walked down a different series of twists and turns in the alley complex to a Hakka restaurant, where we got a breakfast of soup and lamb with rice. Again, we chatted with the owner and his wife; they were just opening up as we arrived, and the owner’s wife had to keep running over to the skillet to get the fire started again. In the stretch of alley next to the restaurant, some kids were playing at an apparently-communal pool table, arguing loudly over who had or hadn’t potted the cue ball. When we left, the owner’s wife made up a little baggie of chicken feet for me to eat on the train.

The owner of the Hui restaurant gave me 6 beef patties – on the house, despite my pleas.

Shiyong and I ran to the train station, arriving with just enough time to say goodbye before I scrambled on board.

“Maybe I’ll come visit you in Harbin,” he said. “Or maybe we’ll meet up again in Shenzhen. Look for me if you ever get a chance to come back. I’ll still be at the mall.”

“And look me up if you get a chance to come to Harbin. I’ll be around, and you have my number. Take care, man.”

“Take care. Have a good trip.”

And then I was off on a 25-hour ride to Beijing.

The beef patties, I found, were every bit as good cold as they were warm. ∎

 

This essay appeared in an earlier form on Disoriented in the Orient, August 7, 2002. It appears here with permission of the author. Header image by Jasonzhuocn.

Brendan O’Kane

Brendan O’Kane used to live in Beijing, where he worked as a freelance writer and translator and was one of the hosts for Popup Chinese, a Chinese-learning podcast, reviews of which described him as “only slightly annoying.” These days, he’s a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania.