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Monday, 26 May 1997. As you may recall from my "Hong Kong (1)" notes, we go through the wrong border crossing from Hong Kong to China. Our hosts are waiting at the Lo Wu train station, but we are far from there. Where? We don't know exactly. Lok Ma Chay? Wenjindu? Who knows!

It's already past 1 p.m. and we were supposed to meet our hosts at noon. There are plenty of bright red taxis, but the drivers don't speak any English. The nice man who helped us cross the border gets a taxi for us and negotiates a price. We get in. Our luggage doesn't fit well in the trunk. The driver ties it up with a small cord and leaves the lid open.

Here we are, riding a red taxi in Red China, with a driver with whom we cannot communicate. He drives fast. The loose trunk lid bangs up and down violently as we move. We are afraid we may lose some of the luggage

As we get near the station, traffic - both pedestrian and automotive - thickens. The taxi slows down and hundreds of Chinese men run for our luggage in the open trunk. We don't want them to touch it; we literally have to fight to keep the hordes off. It is not easy to make them know we want to carry it ourselves. The language barrier They keep reaching for our luggage, we keep fighting for it.

The Chinese side of the Lo Wu train station lies on a huge open area where the very wide Heping Lu avenue ends. Its grandiose style (Stalinist architecture with a Maoist touch, I would say) reminds me of Alexanderplatz in (ex-) East Berlin. The Luohu Commercial Plaza and Bus Station are also there. The crowd is shoulder-to-shoulder thick; we have trouble getting through with our big luggage. And it's very hot and humid.

How are we going to find our hosts in this crowd? We are almost two hours late, and they expect us to come from the Hong Kong side How would they know we are already in China? We head towards the ticket counter, hoping to find someone who speaks some English.

We are the only non-Chinese in the multitude, which turns out to be to our advantage. We stand out and a man comes to us, flagging a sign that reads "Basheer Khumawala, Sukran Kadipasaoglu, Julio Peixoto". They found us!

He is Alan Lee, a pleasant handsome man in his 20s. He takes us in his car to a residential complex of 'China NONFEMET Limited', a NONFErrous METal company. We get pass a fence, a gate, and a post of heavily armed security guards who check for the driver's documentation. Inside, it's like a small town of identical, big, two-story houses. All very modern; lots of gardens. One of these houses is reserved for guests, like a small luxurious hotel. In we go.

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"The mountains are high and the emperor is far away" (ancient Chinese proverb).

That could be Shenzhen's motto. Life can be relatively free if one keeps far enough away from the central government. Shenzhen is more than 2300 km from Beijing but within sight of Hong Kong. Like their neighbors in the (now, but not then, ex-) British colony, Shenzhen residents want only one thing from Beijing - to be left alone.

In 1979, Shenzhen was a small farm town. Now it's a clamorous 24-hour city of more than three million people (bigger - and richer - than Houston), with a lifestyle almost indistinguishable from that of Hong Kong. The turning point was Deng Xiaoping's policy of "socialism with Chinese characteristics". Would-be entrepreneurs soon divined what that meant: capitalism, the dirtiest of all dirty words in Red China. Indeed, capitalism spread rapidly in coastal China; they call it now "The Gold Coast of the Pearl River Delta". It's capitalistic as capitalism can be, but still not called that way. Still a dirty word.

Shenzhen is officially labeled a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Three other SEZs were established in 1980: Zhuhai (near Macau), Shantou in the eastern part of Guangdong (Canton) Province, and Xiamen in Fujian Province.

Shenzhen's location gives it a huge advantage over the other economic zones. Hong Kong investors can easily slip across the border to keep an eye on the factories they have set in Shenzhen to exploit China's cheap land and labor; and Hong Kong tourists find it cheap and convenient to make weekend excursions to Shenzhen's luxury resorts (which were also built by Hong Kong investors, by the way; from Hongkongers to Hongkongers - but in Red China). A maximum tax rate of 15% and a minimum of bureaucratic hassle (by Chinese standards) makes Shenzhen an attractive place to invest.

Another attraction is the open policy on housing. In China, everybody needs a permit, called a "hukou", to establish where they want to live. Legally changing your place of residence is difficult in bureaucratic China. Not in Shenzhen; anyone who buys an apartment can live there.

In the past, crossing from Hong Kong to Shenzhen was like entering another world. That was the main attraction for tourists seeking the exotic - like me. Now, unfortunately, the only visible difference is that cars drive on the left in Hong Kong and on the right in Shenzhen.

Shenzhen is China's leading boom town (excluding Hong Kong). Not only its economy is exploding; so is its population. The government has to fight to keep people out. Access is restricted. Chinese citizens need a special permit to visit, and nobody can reside in the SEZ for more than 15 years. To stern the human tide, an electric fence has been built around the SEZ. But illegal immigrants keep pouring in

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That same afternoon, our hosts take us to a huge theme park on the west of the SEZ, next to Shenzhen Bay. This "cultural Disneyland" has three sections: 'Splendid China', 'China Folk Cultural Village', and 'Windows of the World'. We don't have time for the last one, but spend the rest of the day (and night) touring the first two.

'Splendid China' is a clone of Taiwan's 'Window on China'. It allows one to 'visit all of China in one day'. Beijing's Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Tibet's Potala Palace, the Shaolin Temple, the gardens of Suzhow, the rock formations of Guilin, the Tianshan Mountains of Xinjiang, the Stone Forest in Yunnan, Huangguoshu Falls, Even some sights of the rebel Province of Taiwan! They are all there. The catch? Everything is reduced to one fifteenth of its real size.

It's very well done. I take some great pictures, carefully choosing the angle so that it looks as the real place. We spent hours there, at a fast pace, and yet cannot get to see most of it.

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We next run to the 'China Folk Culture Villages' section. It's past 7 p.m., and we'd like to see at least part of it before dark.

In this case, rather than admiring miniaturized temples, buildings and statues, we get to see real-life ethnic minorities. To add to the effect, there are over 20 re-creations of minority villages, including a cave, a Lama temple, drum tower, rattan bridge, and a statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. We are constantly reminded that China is giant and diverse, that it has 50 nationalities and 52 provinces -- or is it the other way around? Taiwan is, of course, one of these provinces. To emphasize the point, the 'Gaoshan' ('high mountain') minority is there to represent Taiwan's 10 aboriginal tribes. However, as of yet there are no representatives of Hong Kong's 'gwailo' ('foreign devil') minority. Hey, come to think of it it could be an employment opportunity for me.

Night comes, and we keep tracking the trail through the villages. This place doesn't stop. Cultural shows pop up everywhere. Exhausted, we stop at a park restaurant to eat and rest.

We go on. Next: a Chinese opera - Beijing style.

Chinese opera is a world away from the Western variety. It is a mixture of singing, speaking, mime, acrobatic and dancing that can go on for five or six hours. Ours last about three hours, and we enjoy every second. Spectacular!

The Beijing opera style, the one we see, is highly refined with almost no scenery but a variety of traditional props. The Cantonese style is more 'music hall', with a 'boy meets girl theme', and often incorporates modern and foreign references. The Chaozhou style is the most traditional one, but now seldom performed. It is staged as it was in the Ming dynasty, with stories from Chaozhou legends and folkore, and always contains a moral.

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It's well past midnight before we get back to the NONFERMET residence. The bed is hard but very comfortable. I sleep like a koala again, holding my pillow as if it were an eucalyptus tree. :-)

It's only my first day in China, and the second in Asia. (The first one in Asia and China for Basheer and Sukran.) All has gone well so far, except for the temporary glitch at the border. It has been two very productive and exciting days. I'm happy.


We weren't prepared for the catastrophe that was to fall on us next morning. It came without warning

No warning whatsoever


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