Unscientific portrait of young China

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This isn’t a formal study but just some things I primarily picked up hanging around with young Chinese people in Shenzhen.


China is a complex country, development is uneven. Shenzhen is known as a ‘tier one’ city, that is part of a group of cities that are most advanced in terms of economic development. Unlike peers like Shanghai, Shenzhen is a ‘new town’ it was a small town of 20,000 or so before being designated an important economic zone in 1979 as China looked to engage with the west economically since it sat so close to Hong Kong. It is now famous as the workshop of the world. Your iPad maybe designed in California, but it is built in Shenzhen alongside with many other products. It is the world’s centre for packaging and printing as well. Lower value industries have been forced out of Shenzhen further inland driving further economic development.

Shenzhen is now growing new industry sectors such as financial services and the former factories in areas like OCT LOFT are being redeveloped into restaurants, design-driven shops, Starbucks branches and offices for new creative industry companies – architects, interior designers, graphic designers and publishers.

This growth was driven by immigration from within Guangdong (Canton) province and much further afield. This factors make Shenzhen atypical (if there is a typical Chinese city).  I got to hang out with five young people who work within the creative sector so again their experience will be different from people working in commercial roles, professions and blue collar roles. All of them were natives of Guangdong province. Most of this came from them, but it was supplemented by the people that I saw out in the supermarket, coffee shops and the cinema.

Now that is all out of the way:

Print media consumption – whilst young people may not buy that many newspapers, they certainly read them. Many restaurants including Starbucks provide a selection of newspapers and magazines which are avidly read. Many of them feature ‘news of the stars’: rather tame celebrity gossip which is very popular with the Chinese equivalent of your average Heat reader.

The magazine industry is very dynamic and one of the people I spoke to had pictures they had taken printed in style magazines. The images had apparently been found on their online presence and they were contacted by the magazine and asked by them for permission to use the pictures. Whilst the media is a booming sector, content is often ‘boot-strapped’ together.

Smoking – three out of five that I met smoked. The brands of choice were Mild Seven and Wuyeshen (which apparently roughly translates to five-parts leaf tabacco). Smoking was picked up as a habit in university whilst trying to complete essays or cram for exams. I was told that the Chinese government had tried to ban smoking in restaurants but many people don’t listen and many restaurants had ash trays on the table. A pack of 20 Wuyeshen low-tar cigarettes costs about 12 RMB (approximately £1.15), however competitors like Great Wall cost 45RMB for a pack of 20.

Education – Whilst education is the key to success the battle to succeed is a journey not a destination. Despite break-neck growth in China it can be hard to get a good job. Young Chinese people are increasingly pursuing a Masters degree to get entry-level positions and this is partly driving the rise in Chinese being educated overseas.

Streetwear – is as popular as in the west and looks pretty similar in terms of the style at first glance. There is a wide range of home grown brands competing for customers. Foreign brands that seem to have got some cut through include Volcom, Vans and Converse.

Social media – Working in the creative sector means that you are likely to have a social presence on Douban. Douban is a multi-faceted social network: think Diigo, Facebook, Spotify and Meetup.com all mixed up together. Music at work is often streamed over Douban.fm and listened to on headphones or put over speakers for one’s colleagues. There are groups or forums for a wide range of interests that often lead to real-world gatherings. Everything from gallery visits to a dieting | weight loss support network and everything in between. Four out of the five that I chatted with had a Douban presence.

Two of them also had a Flickr account, but not a professional account (Flickr might want to think about getting a payment system on board that caters for the Chinese market). In common with Hong Kong, film photography was surprisingly popular, with one of the people I spoke with having a Lomo camera.  It is relatively easy to find a film development lab here and they will scan the films provide them on a disk to you as part of the service.

Gran Vals, by Francisco Tárrega – Up until quite recently in the UK, Gran Vals composed by Francisco Tárrega was one of the most played and recognisable pieces of music in the UK. You may recognise it as the default Nokia ringtone. In China, it is exceptionally common: welcome to Nokia Country (to paraphrase the old Marlboro adverts). You hear it in public spaces, offices and even in the cinema (unfortunately). Everyone of the young Chinese that I have been interacting with have some sort of Nokia smartphone from the N73 to the E71.

I did see a lot of young people in shopping malls and coffee shops using ‘keitai’-style clam-shell handsets from the likes of Sony Ericsson and Sharp. Secondly both males and females had mobile phone charms on their handsets. By contrast Apple iPhones seemed to be in the hands of the well-off and business people (in much the same way as RIM’s BlackBerry devices had been before they went PAYG (pay as you go) in the UK with the Curve).