Huaqiang Bei is the main road in the downtown city area and not for the faint-hearted. People flock here from the countryside and crowds, hustlers and stalls proliferate.
Huaqiang Bei is THE shopping Mecca of Shenzheners. There are all manner of glitzy malls growing up like mushrooms throughout the city but the real Shenzhener has an abiding suspicion that these are only for the bourgeoisie, a suspicion that we to some extent share. You can look but you’d better not touch seems sometimes to be the applicable rule in some of the malls, and if you’re on a day trip to see the lights even the look part of this rule may not apply.
Not so in Huaqiang Bei. The street is a maelstrom of all classes of Shenzhen life and attracts people from across the world. There are dazzling colours, banners that climb literally hundreds of feet up buildings, screeching their sales messages. There are large groups of women always women selling and buying illegal receipts fapiao, fapiao, there are people touting software and DVDs. There are lovers spooning on the seats on the broad footways and school kids sporting outrageous fashions as they perform public mating rituals. There are people on the streets, wielding packing tape as they bundle up large and mysterious parcels that seem to be something vaguely electronic. There are fashionable women teetering in and out of department stores on impossibly high heels and kids stuffing McDonald’s into their mouths. Mystified outsiders wander the street checking out the height of the buildings. When our senses have dulled enough to take in a sample of it, we just love it.
But above all else, noise. Is there anywhere else on earth that is quite as loud? This street probably has the largest contiguous number of shops anywhere dedicated to competing with each other to sell mobile phones, and each of them has a sound system which blares out a message which, by the time it hits the eardrum, is so loud as to be incomprehensible. Earplugs are useful to bring down the decibel range to a merely damaging level.
Huaqiang Bei also proclaims the flexible nature of Shenzhen’s town planning process. In the late 1980s this area was deeded to the Shenzhen Electronics Group as a factory area. When we first visited the area, the street was lined with eight storey electronics factories. However the supply chain needs of the industry led to the spontaneous formation of very large wholesale components markets which, in turn brought in product retailers, then other retailers. On 20 December 1994, Wan Jia Le, the first department store in Huaqiang Bei, opened. Many Shenzheners couldn’t understand why its owners chose Huaqiang Bei. In those days there wasn’t even a bus in the street. Customers had to walk. But it was a radical concept, a self-service supermarket style department store and people flocked to it in the tens of thousands. Thus, the Huaqiang Bei that we know today was born.
At a certain stage, the Shenzhen City Government gave up and declared that the zoning plan of the street was retail. Was it ever any other way? That’s the sort of town planning that we like.
The components market still exists. If you’re an economist you shouldn’t miss this because we think it’s unique. This is because there doesn’t seem to be any role for large wholesalers in it. The market consists of thousands of square metres, floor after floor, of small stalls, packed with mysterious objects and flashing lights, all in constant competition with each other, a sort of electronic vegetable market. This seems to us to be some strange form of antediluvian capitalism, the sort of thing that Rousseau or Darwin, if they had been interested in economics, would look at, nod their heads, and say I told you so.
Dominating the street is the Shenzhen Electronics Group’s SEG Tower. This is not anything to write home about architecturally, but it’s BIG. At 72-storeys and 356 metres at the top of its spire, it’s Shenzhen’s fourth tallest. When it was completed in 2000 it was one of the 10 tallest buildings in the world.
For $70 you can take the lift to the observation deck at the top. Previously this was done by glass-fronted bullet lift at the front of the building. It doesn’t appear to be working now, which is a shame for devotees of terrifying experiences. Depending on the variable state of Shenzhen’s visibility, the view is either spectacular, out to Shekou and across Hong
Kong’s northern New Territories, or non-existent. Make sure you do it on a good day.
The first 8-storeys of the building are taken up by the SEG Electronics Market, which is one of the must-sees of Shenzhen. It consists of small stalls arranged around an eight storey atrium selling just about anything electronic. Don’t be put off by the mysteries of the wholesale market that occupies the first two floors. The retail goodies start on the third floor. Be prepared to negotiate mercilessly. We have found that the best bargains are local brand notebook computers that are reasonably reliable at low prices.
You may also have read that there is a single electronics market in Huaqiang Bei, the one in the SEG Building. This isn’t true. There is an electronics market opposite SEG on the corner of Huaqiang Bei and Shennan. There is one on the left side of Huaqiang Bei as you go north. And there is a proliferation of them in the lane that runs parallel to Huaqiang Bei behind SEG where there are several 10-storey buildings dedicated to electronics. Some of them flirt with the bizarre such as the building that is totally dedicated to security, surveillance and stealth.
For the shopping in the rest of the street, well there’s more electronics, wholesale and retail, amazing numbers of mobile phones and even some retail white goods and homewares. Our favorites are Gome at the northern end of the street which, alongside its booming home theatres and computers, has a wonderful collection of more or less legal DVDs and Sundan . We are addicted to their 40s and 50s movies at $7, their BBC series and stuff like House and Desperate Housewives in boxed sets for not more than $90 or so. There is a full range of department stores including an enormous MOI, a Women’s World and a Children’s World. For food shopping, the supermarkets at MOI and the Park ‘n’ Shop suffice.
If it all gets too much for you, take refuge in the Starbucks or the McDonald’s next to the MOI department store. And when you’re all shopped out, crash at the Pavilion Hotel at the corner of Huaqiang Bei and Hongli Rds. This is a well-managed hotel with just about everything your heart could desire. Make sure you have a glass of the Chinese Grace Vineyard rose.
Address: Huaqiang North Rd Futian
Metro: Hua Qiang Lu Station line 1, Hua Qiang Zhong on line 2, Hua Qiang Bei Lu on line 3
Buses: 101, 103, 105, 113, 212, 215, 219, 223, 225, 230, 301, 303, 311