Regular readers of the Travel section will know by now that there are certain traditions that need to be upheld. Since 1993, I've been travelling to Hong Kong once every four years. The last time was in 2009, at the tail end of a journey that took The Belated Birthday Girl and I around a number of cities in mainland China. By all accounts, I wasn't expecting to be back in that part of the world until 2013.
But by all accounts, I also wasn't expecting to have a job that would have me working on four continents in 2011, culminating in December of that year with a week in Shenzhen. All my previous trips to China have been documented on this site: just because this one was paid for, it doesn't mean I can't document this one too. (Even if I am doing it over two months later... although, come to think of it, that's a tradition too.)
Now that I've been to Shenzhen once, I'd probably approach both those items differently in the future. The flight was with Air China, and had to take a somewhat roundabout route to Shenzhen, going to the chilly northern climes of Beijing and then changing for another three hour flight south. In fact, Shenzhen is so close to Hong Kong, it would have been easier to fly direct to The Funnest Place On EarthTM, and then finish off the journey with a civilised hour-long border crossing by train.
As it stands, the structure of Shenzhen makes for a curious experience for the business traveller. The metro system – run by the same people who run Hong Kong’s – is a doddle to use once you’ve sussed out the token system used for one-off tickets. That’ll get you into downtown Shenzhen in an hour for under a quid, which is where my hotel was located (the perfectly serviceable Novotel Shenzhen Watergate). It’s also where all the shiny office buildings are located – such as the record breaking Kingkey 100 tower, which is mainly used currently as a gigantic scrolling billboard. Inevitably, this facility has been abused at least once. You'd think that living across the road from the tallest building in Shenzhen would be useful for navigation purposes, but it's almost the opposite: it's so big it completely screws with your sense of distance, especially if you forget that the letters scrolling up the side are several stories high.
However, if your work is going to be taking place in a factory rather than a shiny office, then it’s time to introduce you to the concept of the Special Economic Zone, a rapidly growing industrial area which encircles the downtown area from a distance. Quite a long distance, as it turns out: the trip from the hotel to work averaged out at over 20 kms each way, all done by taxi, as the metro appears to be as reluctant to go south of the (metaphorical) river as the London tube.
I’ve stereotyped wildly about the quality of Chinese city driving in the past – well, in Shenzhen, all the worst drivers are in minicabs, and see every tiny gap between two fast-moving vehicles as an opportunity to show off. It's not like you have the protection of seat belts as they tear down the motorway: in literally every cab I used, the back seats had two belts but nothing to buckle them into, as presumably the minimum safety measure the driver could get away with. Add to that the complication of Shenzhen's two-tier taxi system (red cabs can go anywhere, green cabs have to stay inside the SEZ), and the huge numbers of non-official taxi drivers who swarm on any foreigner standing around on the street for more than 15 seconds, and you can imagine what a joy getting around during the day was.
So in the evenings, I tended to stay in the vicinity of the hotel rather than go exploring too much – apart from the night when the people I was working with took me out to the gigantic Laurel restaurant for a rather lovely Peking Duck dinner after work. Depending on whose transliteration you trust, the residential/commercial area this particular branch of Laurel was in is either called Vanke Town or, more amusingly, Wanke City. (It’s also the home of a branch of a rather nice cafe restaurant chain, Ming Tien Coffee Language, specialising in those curious reinterpretations of Western food you find throughout Asia.)
A couple of decent meals were had in the Novotel itself: a beef Thai curry in the restaurant, plus a couple of club sandwich and burger options from room service. During those nights in, there was always the option of watching one of the Star TV channels, which showed an old subtitled Hong Kong movie every night at ten. It brought back fond memories of my time as an HK cinema fanboy in the early 90s, when I naturally assumed that Chinese TV showed this sort of thing all the time, and how cool that would be. As it turned out, the highlights of the week were all films I'd seen before: Hitman, A Moment Of Romance 3, and Dr Wai.
But most of the fun was to be had in nearby shopping malls. It’s hysterical to think that when I first visited China back in 1993, shopping was limited to a city’s Friendship Store, the government-backed equivalent of Woolworths which was the only option available to you if you wanted to buy anything. Nowadays? Well, just taking the Novotel Shenzhen as an example, I could walk for no more than ten minutes in three different directions from there, and encounter three different gigantic shiny shopping malls.
West of the Novotel is Citic City Plaza, probably the most downmarket of the three. It’s probably better known for its surrounding terrace of interesting bars than the shops inside it. KK Mall, due north, is the most spectacular building, or at least in the shadow of the most spectacular one (that's KK as in Kingkey 100 tower). You'll find a slightly better class of shop and restaurant in there. But the biggest and most mental mall is MixC to the east, which is crammed to the rafters with high end Western brand names. They all have a few things in common – they all have a Pizza Hut (it appears to be the one Western chain restaurant that’s really taken off here), they all have a multiplex (of which more later), and they’re all selling tons of copies of the Steve Jobs biography (which is ironic, given how many Chinese workers Jobs had PERSONALLY KILLED in his lifetime).
The best meals on this trip took place in mall restaurants. Chamate in MixC is part of a chain, but an interesting one: specialising in lots of exotic varieties of tea, with a good selection of dishes to accompany them. I suppose if you want to be picky, you could say I went for the steak like a dull Western tourist, but it was actually sizzly pan-fried beef with a curious mix of veg and pasta, which I had with the pretty flowering tea shown above. The following night, I went to Yes Thai inside the KK mall, mainly because it had the most readable English menu (which tended to be the case with foreign restaurants generally, I found - the Chinese ones were less likely to tell you what was available). It may be Thai, but I had mandarin fish with mango, and you can't get more Chinese-sounding than that, can you?
All these malls had cinemas attached: New South China Movie City in Citic City Plaza, UA in KK Mall, and Golden Harvest in MixC. So, given my recent report from Eindhoven for Mostly Film, you'd imagine I was in and out of the movies all week, correct?
Well, sadly, no. There were a couple of movies I was very keen to see, particularly in the KK Mall cinema. In a bid to experience disappointment with 3D films from as many countries as possible, I could have caught the bulgy Korean horror flick Sector 7. Or I could have gone for more traditional homegrown product with East Meets West aka Eagle Shooting Heroes 2011, the latest spoof from Jeffrey Lau of A Chinese Odyssey 2002 fame. But in both cases, I didn't feel up to the job of making myself understood at the box office till, and there wasn't any way of buying tickets automatically.
So, yeah, I wussed out of that one. And I know that for a fact, because while I was skulking around outside cinemas, I saw loads of publicity for the two big films that were coming out the week after I left China: and if either of those had been in cinemas while I was there, I would have found some way of making myself understood so I could see them. One was the new Zhang Yimou, The Flowers Of War, a tale of the Nanjing massacre featuring Christian Bale to draw in the Western viewers. (It was a plan that would backfire horribly in the days leading up to the film's release, as Bale got into an argument with the authorities which reportedly nearly got the thing pulled from cinemas.) Meanwhile, Tsui Hark had his IMAX 3D Jet Li swordplay epic Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate released on the same weekend, and I'd definitely have tried to get into that because... wait, what part of "Tsui Hark IMAX 3D Jet Li swordplay epic" don't you understand?
So it was down to Air China to provide me with my RDA of recent Chinese cinema, courtesy of their in-flight entertainment system. To be frank, it's a bit like their in-flight catering: both of them are okay as far as they go, but they really need to notice that other airlines have moved on in the last decade. Their touchscreen system is a wheezy old thing that takes ages to respond, particularly during the early part of the flight when everyone's trying to use it at the same time.
As for the films themselves, there are two main ones worth reporting on. What Women Want is the remake nobody asked for: the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt romcom about a man who can read women's minds, transplanted to Beijing and now starring Andy Lau and Gong Li. Any pleasure to be had from the film comes entirely from the two stars, who are as charming and watchable as ever. I haven't seen the original, so I don't know if the sheer daftness of the story is something new that's been added, or if it was always there.
Treasure Inn, meanwhile, is an even dafter period piece from the legendary hack Wong Jing (mentioned previously in the context of Kung Fu Mahjong and Sex & Zen II). Wong's films are always guilty pleasures for me, and once again the degree of guilt comes down to the quality of his actors (hence my unbridled love for God Of Gamblers with Chow Yun Fat, or The Last Blood with - again - Andy Lau). The cast of Treasure Inn isn't in that class, but I found myself giggling like an idiot throughout: maybe Wong Jing films work best when your brain's deprived of oxygen at high altitudes, or something.
It's been over two months now since I was in China, and I've done a couple of other foreign trips for work since then. (One I've reported on already for Mostly Film: the other one should be appearing on there soon.) But working in China is the biggest and strangest culture shock I've had in my working life, even though I've spent several weeks there on holiday in the past. There's even the tantalising hint of a return visit at some point in the future, although currently it's only a hint. If it does come off, I need to learn the Mandarin for IMAX 3D as soon as possible. Being a monkey, and all.