SHENZHEN, China, July 7 (Reuters) – A trip to glamorous Hong Kong was a distant dream for most mainland Chinese in the mid-1990s, but for schoolgirl Tracey Chen in the booming city of South of Shenzhen, it was just a lunchtime stroll.
As Hong Kong loses its autonomy after 25 years of Chinese rule, Chen is among those in its Mandarin-speaking neighbor who yearn for a time when the former British colony’s uniquely exuberant Cantonese culture permeated the border.
Before Shenzhen began to transform in the 1980s, Hong Kong’s freewheeling economy was a consumer haven for many mainlanders.
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Chen’s school still stands on Sino-British Street, a 250-meter (273-yard) road bisected in the middle by the border between the territories, and the only stretch where they are not separated by water.
As border guards closely watched visitors browsing for instant noodles, beauty products and other mainland rarities, Chen pocketed her communist student red scarf and snuck off to buy ice cream and popstar magazines. from Hong Kong.
“There were some who went out once a week,” she recalls. “My classmates and I would take turns picking them up.”
Shenzhen was a sleepy trading city surrounded by hundreds of villages before then-ruler Deng Xiaoping approved one of China’s first special economic zones (SEZs) there in 1980, in part to stem the exodus of those who risked their lives to flee.
Liang Ailin, born in the village of Caopu in 1969, still remembers desperate villagers climbing onto freight trains bound for Hong Kong.
“Almost everyone in the villages has family members who have fled,” she said, speaking over a dim sum meal of Cantonese specialties with friends, a stone’s throw from headquarters. sparkling from software giant Tencent.
Villagers told stories of escapees such as Li Ka-Shing, a native of Guangdong province who fled to Hong Kong and became one of its top tycoons, Liao Wenjian said.
“We all imagined that Hong Kong was heaven in the 1970s,” said Liao, another Shenzhen resident born in 1969. “As long as you work hard, you won’t starve and you will earn a lot of money. “
But after 1980, Hong Kong companies, well into the boom of export-led processing, crossed the border with more than 90% of Shenzhen’s investment in pioneering industry there, as its officials have said. learned from their neighbour’s market economy.
The flood of escapees ebbed shortly afterwards.
Many of Shenzhen’s original residents spoke the Hakka language and from 1984 its schools taught in Mandarin, but Hong Kong’s business power and the lure of its music and films gave Cantonese an advantage in terms of prestige, Liang and Liao said.
In the 1980s, authorities in Guangdong periodically demolished antennas that could pick up Hong Kong television programs, with their romantic dramas and corruptingly colored martial arts films.
But picking up signals from Hong Kong was easy in nearby Shenzhen, which had 80 television sets for every 100 households in 1985, a year after Shenzhen launched its own rival station with news anchors in Western attire.
“My husband, a northerner, learned Cantonese from TV,” Liao said.
In addition to her popstar shines, Chen would buy fashion titles for her aunt, who would scour them for the latest trends and make clothes for mainlanders, she said.
Still, the admiration was not reciprocated, as many visitors from Hong Kong saw their mainland cousins as rural thugs, said Fang Yan, who came to Shenzhen in the 1980s.
Some border areas have become notorious as “mistress villages” for the number of wealthy Hong Kong men who had second wives living there.
“We called them soft-shelled turtles (rich easy targets) and the pretty girls said, ‘Here are the rich people of Hong Kong! “,” Fang Yan said. “Pretty girls were waiting for them.”
As visits to Hong Kong became easier in the years following its handover to China in 1997 and Shenzhen’s economy continued to boom, some of the shine came from the former British territory. , Liao added.
“I realized Hong Kong’s glamor is only for people at the top of the social pyramid – the wealth gap is too wide,” Liao said.
“We are no less affluent living in Shenzhen now.”
Today, Shenzhen is China’s third-richest city, with hundreds of thousands of migrants among its population of 17.6 million, few of whom have any connection to Cantonese language and culture.
The old railway line next to Liang village is now a tourist attraction, sandwiched between a high-speed rail line and a Bentley garage.
Young Chinese people come in costume to take pictures of themselves next to a vintage train leading to a cafe, “Happy Station”, which serves bubble tea.
Many friends of Liang, Liao and Fang bemoan their grandchildren’s poor Cantonese skills, but see this development as inevitable.
“It’s a city of migrants and a melting pot,” Liao said. “We don’t have thousands of years of Cantonese culture.”
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Reporting by David Kirton; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Clarence Fernandez
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