Tucking in to England's Famous Cuisine: Aki Shi (center) with host family during a recent year-long UK study stint

NEXTINSIGHT BRINGS YOU a series of interviews with both locals and expatriates who call the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen both their workplace and home.

Our aim is to offer insights into what could be The Next Big Thing – Shenzhen – a city whose GDP growth and population have outpaced those of its richer neighbor, Hong Kong, seemingly since people began paying attention to the big and little dragons’ economic performance in the first place.

We also hope to bring a series of revealing snapshots on just what it takes for non-locals, as well as native Chinese, to live and work here, and thrive while doing so.

A common thread linking these industrious expats and successful locals together is how they have taken the best from their diverse backgrounds to make a name for themselves in what is an oftentimes faraway place like Shenzhen.

Things are rapidly changing in this dynamic 10-mln strong city which sports the highest percentage of non-local born residents of all the country’s major population centers.

London, New York and San Francisco of old – which in Chinese translates as “Old Gold Mountain” due to the belief by some in centuries past that the streets of America were indeed paved with the stuff.—were the destination of millions of Cantonese, Fujianese and other immigrants from Cathay looking to find their fortune in far-off, mysterious and more prosperous lands.

Now the hosts are becoming the guests as more and more foreigners – and successful Chinese from far flung provinces – are seeking to improve their lot in Shenzhen.

In this installment, we meet local IT professional Aki Shi, a marketing executive with a mobile telecommunications firm in Shenzhen.

The 25-year old native of Guangdong has been in the city for the past three years, and says that although the cost of living is much steeper in Shenzhen than back home in Chaozhou, her decision to move to the big city has definitely been a net win as salaries here are much higher than in the countryside.

And although Aki describes her hometown as being “in the country,” only in China would residents of a one-million strong-plus population city describe their surroundings as such.

Readers will take note that the population of Guangdong province is well over 100 million, or roughly the populations of France and the UK – combined!

School Daze: Aki Shi, right, with classmates of old

NextInsight: Three years ago, when you pulled into Shenzhen station after the three-hour train journey from Chaozhou, what were your initial impressions of the city?

Ms. Shi: I would say “new.” That’s what jumped out at me.

There seemed to be construction going on everywhere, and the train station seemed like a huge greenhouse, being so laid out with glass walls and glass ceilings. I am sure that saves a lot on lighting, and also gives the place a decidedly futuristic feel.

Although Chaozhou is certainly no backwater town, I was also bowled over – sometimes quite literally – by the massive crowds in Shenzhen compared to back home. I know I was partly responsible for the recent increase in Shenzhen’s population by moving here three years ago with my parents, but that didn’t stop me from sometimes feeling very small and insignificant.

And, to be honest, I found myself even resenting the newcomers for adding to the human congestion here.

Now, although I have to elbow my way through increasingly large crowds of commuters each day to get to work, I take solace in knowing these same commuters are also potential consumers, and they may very well be taking the same bus or subway car to our shops to spend their hard-earned money on some of our products.

This is comforting!

'I have to elbow my way through increasingly large crowds of commuters each day to get to work, (but) I take solace in knowing these same commuters are also potential consumers,' says Aki Shi. Photo of Shenzhen's Luohu district: Andrew Vanburen

And just a short stroll around ‘Electronics City’ in Shenzhen at Huaqiangbei gives you a sense of just how many migrant workers and non-locals are now calling this city home – or at least coming here on a shopping spree.

Although I speak Chaozhou-hua back home, I had thought that I would be using a lot of Cantonese in Shenzhen.

In the past three years, I find myself using less Cantonese and more and more Mandarin in my everyday dealings.

You mentioned that you commute to work everyday. So overall, you are impressed with the modernity of Shenzhen and the efficiency of its facilities?

Ms. Shi: Yes. Compared to what we have back in Chaozhou, there is really no comparison. And it seems that a new station is being added every couple months, so that is good for people that aren’t big fans of walking long distances in this tropical heat.

But I did spend a year in England studying, so I wouldn't say I had culture shock coming to Shenzhen.

What about the business environment from an operational point of view?

Ms. Shi: We are on the retail side, and don’t deal directly on the manufacturing end of things. So we are all very particular about keeping up appearances and putting the customers’ needs first.

'We insist that our sales staff not only looks flawless on the outside, but has the ability to explain all the inner workings of all facets of our products, and do all this with a genuine smile,' says Aki Shi.

So from our end, we are mainly concerned with keeping our suppliers from raising prices too high, and also trying to command as high a selling price as possible. Therefore, we are very, very particular about our employees.

As many of our products are sold at a premium due to their high quality and market demand, we insist that our sales staff not only looks flawless on the outside, but has the ability to explain all the inner workings of all facets of our products, and do all this with a genuine smile.

If we are not able to do this, then we will be crushed by lower-end retailers, and especially the shanzhai (bootleg) market.

Having said that, we are definitely worried about a general growing trend among Chinese workers demanding higher salaries.

You see the strikes going on at Japanese auto plants in China recently. This is new to me, and I don’t remember things like this happening in the past.

While I of course want workers to get a fair wage for their efforts, if they are given too much, then we will have a very difficult time making a profit retailing their output.

Have you been significantly affected by the rise in the cost of living here, whether it be transportation, food, entertainment or housing?

Ms. Shi:
Yes and no. Yes, I pay a lot more here for rent, food and incidentals. But I also make a lot more here than I would back home in Chaozhou for the same job. A lot more.

See also: SHENZHEN EXPAT: 'Cab rides are cheap, stock investing is scary'


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