Urban Fusion: The Hong Kong Guangzhou Shenzhen Metropolis


"Urban Fusion" Hong Kong Tatler, January 2010

The cities of the Pearl River Delta have been a source of fascination for architects, economists and writers, becoming the subject matter of case studies, projections, postgraduate research and even poetry.  In particular, the relationship between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, ‘twin cities’ which could not be further apart in terms of politics, history and economics, continue to be a source of debate and speculation, some even using the them to redefine the very concept of the city itself.   Inspired by the region’s explosive growth over the last 30 years, the leading architectural practice Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has identified the unparalleled development of a unique form of urbanism in the Pearl River Delta.  The publication in 2002 of Great Leap Forward, a collection of research essays on the region by students from the Harvard Design School, led by Rem Koolhaas, concludes that the city as we once understood it has transformed beyond our comprehension.  The concept of the city is now merely ‘a synthetic idyll in memory of the city’.  In an attempt to rationalize the unprecedented growth experienced in the region, Koolhaas describes the resulting phenomena as a ‘completely new urban substance’ emerging from a ‘maelstrom of modernization’, cryptically redefining the city as the ‘City of Exacerbated Difference ©’.  According to Great Leap Forward,   ‘what counts in the City of Exacerbated Difference is not the methodical creation of the ideal but the opportunistic exploitation of flukes, accidents and imperfections’ giving the impression that the growth of cities such as Shenzhen is dependent on pragmatism and happenstance. 

But what of the ordinary Hong Kong person?  In another  OMA publication, the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Koolhaas and his students put into words something that people in Hong Kong have suspected all along, that shopping, according to the guide ‘is arguably the last remaining form of public activity’ and has become the principal way through which we experience a city.  Shopping has penetrated all forms of public activity to the extent that no museum, train station and  or airport is without its shop.  No visit to a city is complete without a pilgrimage to the shopping mall.  Arriving at a similar conclusion through direct observation and experience, Hong Kong poet and academic Leung Ping Kwan’s poem Border describes the ambivalent feelings that people from Hong Kong have for their neighbour and how they typically experience Shenzhen: 



We go across the border

Eager to buy cheap fabric

To make low-priced cheung-sam in a craze

Try hot herbal wrap and weight-reducing machines

Foot massage

Acupoint massage

Bring back a roast duck at bargain price

On the other side we do

All the absurd things we won’t normally do

Shenzhen is the excuse

Shenzhen is the spare part

Shenzhen is the loose screw.


But are these cut price pleasures all there is to know about the relationship between Hong Kong and Shenzhen?  Whilst we in Hong Kong, with typical insularity, like to consider Shenzhen as a separate city, divided from Hong Kong politically, culturally, economically and physically by the natural border of the Shenzhen River, commentators have long speculated upon a Hong Kong-Shenzhen metropolis, created through the removal of barriers to cross border cooperation to create China’s first top international metropolis.   From the designation of Shenzhen, then a border town of 30,000 people, as a Special Economic Zone in 1979, Shenzhen has become one of the most developed cities in China.  In his groundbreaking book One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform, published in 1990, Ezra F. Vogel recounts how Shenzhen became an experimental ground for state capitalism and model for the development of other Chinese cities, attracting China’s best planners and architects and Hong Kong investors.  Hong Kong quickly became the largest source of foreign investment and by 1987 represented over 90 percent of foreign investment in Shenzhen.  Even during periods of economic downturn, for example in 1984 – 1985, Shenzhen’s proximity to Hong Kong ensured its future, facilitating China’s access and exposure to international markets and information, and world class transportation and communications facilities.  By the same token, Shenzhen offered mainland enterprises a cheaper alternative to doing business in Hong Kong and offered Hong Kong businesses greater freedom of land use, liberalized banking services and cheaper labour costs.  As time passed and Shenzhen found itself increasingly unable to compete with the lower labour costs offered by other counties, it was able to provide a more sophisticated levels of technical and administrative ability and its role became that of a ‘crucial go-between ..educating people in China about world capitalist practices and in training people in Hong Kong how to operate within the Chinese Communist system’.  Even as early as 1990, Pound had the foresight to view the relationship between Hong Kong and Shenzhen in metropolitan terms ‘One way to conceptualize developments in Shenzhen is as a natural expansion of a metropolitan region centered in Hong Kong’.

The publication in 2007 of the Bauhinia Foundation’s research report Building a Hong Kong-Shenzhen Metropolis received far reaching international press coverage at the time and the ordinary Hong Konger was confronted, perhaps for the first time, with the implications of living in a proposed city with a combined population of over 20 million, larger than that of London or Tokyo.  This mega city would operate under the ‘one country two systems’ principle to create a metropolis of global standing and a leading Asian economic centre.  Based on the Foundation’s projections, taking a GDP growth rate of approximately 8 percent per annum the GDP of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Metropolis could reach US$1.11 trillion, making it the third amongst world cities, surpassing London, Paris, Chicago and Los Angeles.  Even taking a lower growth rate of 6 percent per annum, the proposed metropolis would still come in at fourth in the world.  To achieve the required free flow and exchange of resources necessary for the creation of this metropolis, the Report recommended ten key policies:


  1. Strengthen infrastructure links to create a ‘Hong Kong-Shenzhen One-Hour Metropolitan Life Circle’;
  2. Study rail connections between airports to jointly establish a Hong Kong-Shenzhen super air hub;
  3. Conduct planning for Hong Kong’s boundary closed area using the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Metropolis concept;
  4. Establish a ‘Hetao Development Management Authority’ to actively promote development of the Hetao area;
  5. Build China’s first top international metropolis through national level planning for Hong Kong and Shenzhen;
  6. Create a Hong Kong-Shenzhen Metropolis brand name to increase our attractiveness as a base for regional headquarters and branch companies of multinational and domestic enterprises;
  7. Deepen financial cooperation and strengthen Hong Kong’s function as an international financial centre;
  8. Promote effective cooperation on ‘Shenzhen/Hong Kong Innovation Circle’ through implementation of concrete projects
  9. Strengthen education and cultural cooperation by commencing with the ‘Hong Kong-Shenzhen talent nurturing programme’
  10. Focus on sustainable development by jointly addressing environmental protection issues


What appears to be missing from these policies is the initiative to improve and nurture social interaction between the residents of Hong Kong and Shenzhen, something that subsequent researchers have touched upon.  In the wake of the 2007 Bauhinia Foundation report, two studies conducted in 2008 and 2009 by the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Inter city Competition and Cooperation between Hong Kong and Shenzhen in the 11th Five Year Plan Period give a clearer picture of exactly how Hong Kongers and their Shenzhen counterparts feel about the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Metropolis.  Led by Professor Jianfa Shen and funded by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong, the data obtained via telephone survey found that both Hong Kong and Shenzhen residents widely accepted the idea of the metropolis, with 69.8 percent support in Hong Kong and an overwhelming 88.3 percent in Shenzhen.  However, the reports found that an astounding 91.8 percent of Hong Kong residents questioned knew very little of Shenzhen, with 32.4 percent never paying attention to events in Shenzhen and 56.9 percent paying only occasional attention.  The picture in Shenzhen was more encouraging, with 30 percent of residents paying frequent attention to Hong Kong affairs, 60 percent paying occasional attention and 5 percent paying no attention at all.  The survey also concluded that the flow of visitors from Hong Kong was greater than the flow of visitor traffic from Shenzhen, with over half of trips (53.9 percent) to Shenzhen and 73.8 percent of trips to Hong Kong being made for shopping and entertainment.   According to the CUHK report, for Hong Kong residents, the biggest obstacles to cooperation with Shenzhen were ‘the differences in social value, political institutions, the level of economic development, economic environment, as well as the historical and cultural gap between the two cities’.    In particular, the report found that half of all respondents felt that the difference in ‘social value’ was the biggest constraint to cooperation with their Shenzhen counterparts.  It would appear that if we in Hong Kong are to see Shenzhen as more than just an ‘excuse’, ‘spare part’, ‘loose screw’, something that is merely extraneous to our daily lives, then far greater attention to the question of social integration needs to be addressed in order for the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Metropolis to be a reality.  Until that time, the metropolis will remain a theoretical construct and the subject matter of surveys and reports in the minds of Hong Kong and Shenzhen residents.

Davina Lee

© Davina Lee 2009

This essay was first published in Hong Kong Tatler, January 2010