Shenzhen's new identity

Plans to turn the Chinese city into a design hub get a boost via a tie-up with a British museum

The former Dacheng flour factory will host an exhibit from Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum.
The former Dacheng flour factory will host an exhibit from Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SHENZHEN • Known to the world as a city of knock-offs, Shenzhen is seeking to reinvent itself as a creative hub for China's new economic vision with the opening of a huge design museum in partnership with Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

From robotics for children to mobiles for the elderly, the V&A's exhibit at the 2015 Biennale Of Urbanism/Architecture gives a taste of the designs thought up in the southern Chinese city that will go on display at the Shekou Design Museum when it officially opens in 2017.

Part of a huge development project by the state-backed China Merchants Group, it will not only be the V&A's first major foray outside of Britain but also the first time a museum has entered into this type of partnership abroad, said its curator.

"This is us coming to China and trying to engage with what is happening with China's creative communities... in a different way," Ms Luisa E. Mengoni, head of the Shekou V&A gallery, said.

The museum is the highest- profile example of the state push to turn Shenzhen into a hub for home- grown designers - a vision that is at odds with a city famed for its malls of fake handbags and electronics.

But exhibitors at this year's biennale are seeking to show that reinvention is possible. Eye-catching designs on show range from a giant futuristic scale model of Shenzhen to elaborate sculptures made of fungus.

Housed in a former flour factory, the event opens on Friday and runs until Feb 28.

"People in Shenzhen don't have the burden of history. They want to create something of their own," said Ms Doreen Heng Liu, one of the biennale's curators.

Since becoming China's first Special Economic Zone in 1980, and the first city people from across China could move to freely, Shenzhen has ballooned from a tiny fishing village to a vast metropolis of more than 10 million people.

In three decades, it has turned into one of the world's largest manufacturing hubs, earning it plaudits as a poster boy for China's shift towards a more liberal economic policy, but also gaining it a reputation as a cultural wasteland.

China's government has sought to make Shenzhen a focus of its drive to promote home-grown creative industries as it shifts away from an export-led economic model in the face of stalling growth. Since Shenzhen was named a Unesco city of design in 2008, the government has introduced incentives from subsidies to idea-sharing workshops to drive growth in what it calls "creative and cultural industries".

Those efforts have had limited success. Experts estimate only around 5 per cent of Shenzhen's economic output comes from creative design industries - and how creative those are is disputable.

The V&A's exhibit at the biennale includes examples of an engineer who designed a kit for children to learn to make robots and phones with longer-lasting batteries in demand in India and Africa.

Other experts say that it is the manufacturing lines and supply chains that have been built up through years of making products for other people that has given the new generation the tools to experiment.

"The manufacturing and social networks that enable the cheap knock-offs are part of what has drawn young entrepreneurs and inventors from around the world to Shenzhen," said Ms Lyn Jeffery, director of research from think-tank Institute for the Future.

"So the very thing that is the city's Achilles heel is also its greatest attraction, at least for some."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline 'Shenzhen's new identity'. Subscribe