Creative Shenzhen: Where to Eat, Shop and Visit
Just north of Hong Kong, this thriving city on the Pearl River Delta is stepping up as one of China’s creative capitals. By Christopher DeWolf
Published on Dec 19, 2011
It took New York a century for SoHo to evolve from industrial area to art colony to lifestyle shopping destination. But in Shenzhen, China’s time-warp metropolis, farm fields have given way to a city of 10 million in just 20 years. If, in the past, visitors ventured from Hong Kong to Shenzhen for a cheap massage and a knock-off handbag, today they’re just as likely to be lured by its booming art and design scene. Here, we scope out the OCT Loft (Enping Rd., Nanshan district) creative district, a hub for the city’s burgeoning cultural movement.
The Overseas Chinese Town Eastern Industrial District was born in 1985 as a model industrial zone with plenty of greenery. Twenty years later, the factories moved to the suburbs, leaving prime loft space up for grabs. Rebranded as OCT Loft, the district’s first star attraction was the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, better known as OCAT (+86 755 2691 5100; ocat.com.cn), which opened in 2005. These days, its 3,000-square-meter exhibition hall plays host to regular shows by avant-garde Chinese artists like Shu Qun and Wang Jianwei. Be sure to check out the architecture-themed exhibitions in OCAT’s new secondary gallery, a five-minute walk north. OCAT has also attracted a host of commercial art spaces, including J&Z Gallery (No. 101, Block F1; +86 755 8633 7224), one of Shenzhen’s few commercial galleries specializing in contemporary art. Close by, the likable A-Lift (No. 116, Block A4; +86 755 8271 9826; a-lift.hk) features works by young Hong Kong artists and designers.
Slightly further afield, a 20-minute journey by foot takes you to two pillars of Shenzhen’s art scene. The government-run He Xiangning Art Museum (9003 Shennan Rd., Nanshan district; +86 755 2660 4540; hxnart.com) made waves when it was the first Chinese stop for a major Picasso exhibition in 2005, ahead of Beijing and Shanghai; since then, it has established itself as one of China’s leading art museums. Right next door, the OCT Art & Design Gallery (9009 Shennan Rd., Nanshan district; +86 755 3399 3388) showcases thought-provoking design installations in a building whose polygonal façade bears no small resemblance to Beijing’s famed Water Cube. Along with OCAT, it will play host to part of the 2011 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism.
“Take your pleasures seriously,” renowned designer Charles Eames once said. OCT Loft certainly lives up to that spirit: good design makes for seriously fun shopping. Start by getting yourself some wheels at O2 (3 Enping Rd., adjacent to Shenzhen LOFT Youth Hostel, Nanshan district; 86-159/1417-6375; o2box.net), where you can rent stylish cruiser bikes for RMB10 per hour. Before you go, though, don’t forget to poke through the tiny shop’s collection of leather notebooks, quirky toys and ironic “Made in China” ashtrays.
Next, head up to the Loft Shop (Nos. 117–118, Block A4; +86 755 8614 8700; imloftshop.com), which sells its own line of OCT Loft–themed mugs and notebooks, alongside Lamy pens, Issey Miyake watches and other products that match the store’s colorful, streamlined, aesthetic. Similar in sensibility is Emoi (Block E5; +86 755 3308 6698; emoi.com), a Shenzhen-based lifestyle store whose minimalist homeware, bags and clothing are spreading across China.
At the opposite end of the style spectrum is Little Thing (No. 113, Block A4; +86 755 8614 8010; littlething.cn), a new concept store run by the Chinese zakka magazine of the same name. The look here is twee and whimsical, with old typewriters and vintage vacuum flasks next to handcrafted dolls, clothes and jewelry. Also handcrafted are the beautiful teapots and cups at Tao Yan (No. 101, Block A2; +86 755 8623 2267; teaston.com), which are made from unusual material like Taiwanese rock mud, said to improve the taste of water and tea.
EAT AND DRINK
Thanks to its serene atmosphere, open spaces and abundant greenery, OCT Loft is the perfect evening antidote to Shenzhen’s tacky nightclubs and rowdy bars. Nightlife revolves around Idutang (Block F3; +86 755 8609 5352, idutang.com; drinks for two RMB90), a bar, restaurant and music venue with a bamboo-shrouded terrace and spacious interior. Order a Weihenstephaner wheat beer and enjoy one of the folk, jazz and indie rock shows that take place every weekend.
Old Heaven (No. 120, Block A5; +86 755 8614 8090; drinks for two RMB70) offers an even more intriguing experience. Despite a modern setting in the newly renovated north half of OCT Loft, the bookstore, music shop, café and bar feels like the kind of well-aged bohemian hideaway you would expect to find in the backstreets of Madrid. Browse through the high-minded selection of literature and academic texts before taking a seat in an old sofa, where you can enjoy a cocktail and fantastic music culled from the shop’s collection of vinyl records (think Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré and Beijing indie-rockers Carsick Cars).
Before you drink, enjoy a hearty meal at My Noodles (No. 104–108, Block F1; +86 755 8610 2584; dinner for two RMB80), Hong Kong designer Kenneth Ko’s rustic, inviting dumpling and noodle joint. The handmade Shanghai-style dan dan mian is rich and spicy; pair it with cold appetizers like the garlic eggplant and crunchy cloud ear mushrooms.