You’ve probably been to a dozen joints like Frankie’s: The varnished bar runs almost the length of the restaurant, an oaken finger indicating the cigar room in back. The brick walls are thick with beer logos and framed nostalgia.
Twenty-somethings flit between high tables, flirting and munching on chicken wings. A guy you swear you’ve seen in so many other watering holes sits flanked by empty barstools, suit coat on a peg under the counter, keeping counsel with a Kindle and a glass of wine. Dim overhead lights halo the chalkboard beer list: a dozen brews on tap, including Guinness and a Kansas City saison called Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale. Tank 7 is strong, and the smiling bartenders will warn you about its 8.5 percent ABV on your second or third pint. But hey, it goes well with Frankie’s famous cheeseburger, a large, hand-formed patty topped with a healthy glob of cheese. “Best burgers in town!” read reviews. “They get the fat-to-lean proportions just right.” Other reviews focus not on the burger, but on the atmosphere, which is Frankie’s true specialty: “It has that Southern hospitality I miss” and “I walked into Frankie’s and I was home.” Home, in this case, refers to America. And that’s the trick of this place. Frankie’s—for all its chicken-fried charm—is in Shenzhen, China. It’s at the metaphorical and physical heart of that city’s expat community.
It’s a regular haunt for guys like Josh Bismanovsky, a San Francisco Bay-area native who is a couple of beers in and losing to me at Big Buck Hunter, strafing a simulated alpine stream with a tethered plastic shotgun. His forest of brown curly hair moves a beat behind his head as it snaps quickly to the right. He racks the plastic forend grip and fires at the screen; his shot connects, but with the wrong mammal. Don’t shoot the cow! a pop-up dialog box admonishes. Game over.
“I suck at this game,” he says, drains his beer, and walks outside to smoke. The night is warm and heavy with typhoon rain, still power-washing the city streets after two days of relentless wet. Frankie’s has a little frosted-glass awning out front though, and you can stay pretty dry if you stand under it.
Follow Bismanovsky’s gaze as he pulls on his imported Japanese cigarette, and you might see Hong Kong. Not the famous jagged skyline, but the outskirts: the swampy green of the Mai Po wetlands and the bleak stretches of Lok Ma Chau, the buffer zone the Chinese government set up to separate the cultural anarchy of Hong Kong from the unsullied mainland.
Frankie’s Bar and Grille, Guihua Road, Futian district of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Mainland-and-don’t-you-forget-it China, is about 50 feet from the Free Trade Zone. Small-fronted and easy to miss if not for the illuminated green-script sign, Frankie’s sits among warehouses, at the end of a street crowded with parked tractor-trailers. Opened just five years ago, Frankie’s is nevertheless the alpha pub in a city of dog years.
Here time hurtles forward at an astonishing pace.
Deng Xiaoping created the city from bucolic nothing in 1980 as the pilot of his special economic zone project. These zones were meant to create safe places for Western companies to do business—and they worked. Even though China is not the boom-country it was two years ago, favorable trade policies and cheap skilled labor lure companies and entrepreneurs from across the globe to Shenzhen’s nimble factories. Before the SEZ, there were some 30,000 people in the area. Today, Shenzhen’s population is north of 10 million, and its port is one of the busiest in China. You already know this: Your iPhone is made here. Everything is made here.
But this is not a story about tech made in China; it’s a story about lives made in China.
As of 2013, there were 22,000 permanent foreign nationals living in the city, and nearly 8 million others visiting every year. The expats range from the manufacturing-industry vet with a house and a spouse to the fresh-off-the-plane Kickstarter romantic with a pocketful of pledge cash to the English teacher who can’t tell a diode from a dinner plate. And because humans crave contact with others, a community of couldn’t-be-more-different internationals, united by the allure of this new economic engine, is building something far more important than businesses: a new cultural reality.
There is, of course, a context for all this: epochal change. Just as warming seas intensify typhoons like the one outside, the ineluctable tide of human evolution is washing away borders. Change is a violent storm, and Shenzhen is landfall. The leading edge of this planet-shaping shift is here: Western economics, Western people, Western culture, all thriving inside a country whose government is powerful enough to lock down a billion people’s Internet. No force, not even the thundering anti-globalization roar of America’s most recent presidential election, can stop this tempest.
And though we’re still in the throes of it, you can already start to see what will grow when the chaos subsides. The foreign community in Shenzhen has the makings of a cultural power the world hasn’t felt since the expatriate denizens of post-World War I Europe pounded absinthe together at Harry’s New York Bar. They too ended up far from home thanks to savage economic forces, but they harnessed the energy of change and made things: art, literature, music.
Walking the streets of Shenzhen, feeling the energy of the blurring world, you see those same archetypal characters snapping into focus. Entrepreneurs chasing dreams, artists seeking inspiration, landed gentry following the action, lost souls in search of a definition of self. And though there’s no Shenzhen Hemingway, the ingredients for one exist in the experimental spirit and easy access to almost any component of anything made anywhere in the world. If we haven’t found our Shenzhen Hemingway yet, perhaps it’s because, expecting pages full of words, we’re missing the sonnets of solder and wire. Today, for many of us, it’s not a painting or a poem that captures the spirit of our time; it’s a gadget or an app. Or maybe Shenzhen’s contribution is more subtle: precedent for a global community of creatives drawn not to the historic centers of art, but to the world’s nascent economic hubs.
Most foreigners come to this town to do the Shenzhen Shuffle: design, prototype, build, sell, ship, repeat. Thanks to the proximity to factories, hardware manufacturers of all sizes can get more done in a week here than they can in months back home. It’s a tech-steeped life.
There’s a remarkable variant on this type of visitor: supply chain tourists. This species haunts factories and scours bins of electronic components for fun. They build things, sure, but often their products scratch creative itches more than they break open new markets.
SCOTTY ALLEN: I guess I’m the first one here
JACOB: White guy walking in now
SCOTTY ALLEN: Also, there’s no Tsingtao and at least one waiter speaks very passable English. What city is this and what did you do with Shenzhen?
ALEX C-G: Only Bud there now. If you come next door, there’s Tsingtao here
CHARLES PAX: How cold?
ALEX C-G: At Lamb Place now. Bud is smoking cold
Lamb Place—or DanHa Grill Lamb Leg if you want to get literal—is a quick block off one of Futian’s main drags. It’s jammed with young Chinese people unwinding amid the humidity-thickened smoke of lamb crackling on small grills set in the centers of the closely packed tables. Even with the bumping crowd, it’s not hard to spot the half-dozen white dudes shoved into the farthest table from the restaurant’s entrance.
The six men seated there met through WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese communications app, and are united by membership in a well-known chat group called HQB_2016. The name is short for HuaQiang Bei (Twenty-Sixteen), the section of the Futian district in which they live, play, and eat. Lamb Place is in HuaQiang Bei, as is Jie En, the hacker-friendly short-term apartment block down the street.
“That’s where we all tend to wash up,” says Alex Curteon-Griffiths, a strong-accented Brit who came to China to work in Shanghai real estate. These days, he’s the product lead at SpaceGambit, an organization dedicated to creating a spacefaring civilization through open-source collaboration. Welcome to Shenzhen.
The HQB group fluctuates, but it’s usually around 75 members united by a common love: They make stuff, hence its more-common name: the maker group. The members drift in and out of Shenzhen—some to find work, others because they don’t have to work—but when they’re in town, the group is an anchor. They get together over barbecue and beer “sometimes every other night, sometimes once a week,” and jaw on about current projects, the things they’re building.
Like Charles Pax’s temperature logger, which he built not to fill some screaming market’s urging desire, but because he wanted a temperature logger. “It’s what I do for fun,” he says. He put the device on Kickstarter to see if anyone else wanted one. They did; he’s sold about 200 of them at $165 a pop. “There are people doing automotive stuff, people brewing beer,” he says, excitedly, going on to demonstrate a future version’s modular circuit board—it’ll let you log anything, diligently plotting a graph on its monochrome screen.
Pax used to be the head of R&D at 3-D-printing company MakerBot. Since cashing out in 2013, he’s split his time between Shenzhen and New York. Lately he’s been spending more time here. “A bunch of MakerBot people came to China,” Pax says, “and a couple of them stayed.” As he speaks, he’s unwinding one of his logger’s four wire probes from its spool. “I had come to visit them on vacation—to do some hacking stuff—and I made the decision that this is the place for me.” He wiggles the wire behind the label of one of the table’s many unclaimed beer bottles and powers on his machine. As promised, the beer is quite cold.
Guys—all guys—flow in and out of the group, meeting each other and discussing their projects. There’s a South African media artist on an organized tour of the city and a Spanish engineer who recently road-tripped around Spain in a hacker van. Scotty Allen, an ex-Googler who runs a big data startup called Appmonsta, is here to play in the expansive electronics bazaar down the road. It is a nerd pilgrimage.
“The Market,” as the maker group calls it, is SEG Electronics Plaza; its concrete face suggests an electronics Abu Simbel, and what’s inside commands similar reverence. It’s a nine-story tinkerer’s paradise, where anyone can buy any part to make anything: gallon bags full of cellphone cameras, kilometers of wire terminating in any connector imaginable, whirring machines that will print you a circuit board. Drone shopping? Third floor, keep left. Need an HDMI cable? There’s a booth on five that sells nothing but.
Across the street, up a great glass elevator: Hax, a hardware accelerator that funds promising projects with $100,000 apiece (in exchange for a 9 percent equity, of course) and brings teams to Shenzhen for four months to all but ensure their success. In the loftlike offices, young engineers play pingpong, do laundry, hand-build prototypes, and mine Hax’s China-savvy staff for knowledge about how to launch a successful startup.
Twenty-nine-year-old Julia Kaisinger is a Hax alum, an Austrian who has been in Shenzhen for a year and a half getting her company’s home mealworm farms ready for production. Her team’s Kickstarter raised $145,000 from people who want to grow and eat their own bugs. (Hey, it’s a very sustainable protein source.)
The storm outside is cranking again, and Kaisinger turns to watch the fat drops splash on the flat roof beyond Hax’s kitchen window. “I always think, ‘OK, in a few months, I’m gonna leave,’” she says. But who knows? Neither Kaisinger nor her co-founder are manufacturing specialists, but as the design lead, she’s closest. She’ll stick around town, close to the factory, until everything is running smoothly.
For now, Kaisinger has a good setup. She works out of Hax and found a cheap apartment online, using Google Translate to read the ads; she shares it with three other women—all Chinese. She’s one Metro stop away from the office, because, during the week, she’s almost always there. “I work a lot,” she says. “Maybe, I don’t know, 12 hours a day, minimum?”
You’d think Kaisinger would want to hit the town to unwind. Not really. “There are a few bars here that are OK, but I don’t like the spirit of Coco Park,” she says, referring to expat-heavy area where most of the clubs are. “It’s a lot of male foreigners who give me the impression that they easily pick up Chinese girls.” Shenzhen is a notorious meat market where Western men take advantage of local women. Kaisinger makes it sound creepier than a box full of worms.
On the weekends, she tries to get out of the city. “I mainly like doing outdoor stuff,” she says. There are mountains, remote parks, and beaches within a short train ride. “I have a bike here,” she says. “I go riding, hiking.” Sometimes she’ll take the train into Hong Kong, where the beaches are better.
In some ways, Shenzhen is like any other town. You move there for work; you get an apartment, make friends, and find a couple of spots you like to hang out. Next thing you know, several years have flown by and you’ve put down roots. It could be Cleveland. The difference is, of course, that this is not Cleveland. When living in China, you have the choice to immerse yourself in the local culture or hold onto your own.
Josh Bismanonvsky represents the latter camp: very much a stranger in this strange land—even after spending more time in China than he spent in high school and college combined.
He graduated from the University of Colorado in 2006 and looked for work in the Denver area. “But there were just no opportunities for a communications major,” he says. After a short stint at an Apple store and some motherly encouragement to get out of her house, he came to China for a six-month internship with a supply-chain management company called PCH. The internship ended, and he briefly considered returning to the U.S. Then he landed a job as a sales rep for a manufacturing outfit, and—a decade later—he’s still here.
It’s the day after our Big Buck Hunter outing at Frankie’s, and Bismanovsky is nursing a hangover. To make it go away, he’s just ordered a 180-gram wagyu burger called the MBA. It wears a crown of fried cheese and over-easy egg, and costs the equivalent of $18—10 times what a streetside bowl of noodles will run you. The belly, as the blind poet says, is a shameless dog.
Bismanovsky is modest about his Chinese, but it’s clearly very good. You never see him repeating himself or looking up words, and the sentences flow with ease.
As does, by all appearances, his life. He lives in an $1,100-a-month two-bedroom apartment in a nice high-rise—a bit below market because, Bismanovsky suspects, the landlord is happy to have a single foreigner there instead of a family of four. He works the same steady job he got after leaving PCH.
And though he’s something of a China lifer at this point, Bismanovsky is culturally rooted in the U.S. He doesn’t have many Chinese friends outside work, and he dates mostly Western women. “Unless they’ve lived overseas for some time,” he says of the locals, “I find that we don’t have anything in common.”
Bismanovsky has a solid group of Western buddies from around the globe. They play basketball and got sick of video games together. Although most of his American friends have left Shenzhen, he does still have one left; they split an NFL streaming package and watch the live games late at night. “Nobody else likes it when we get together because we’re super loud and obnoxious,” he says. “All we do is talk about sports.”
The burgers arrive, and Bismanovsky levers his into his mouth. The MBA is taller than it is wide and, at first squeeze, it starts leaking meat juice and liquid yolk from the fried egg on top. The rain outside picks up, as if spurred by the burger to drum Shenzhen’s theme music: a cadence of arrival, a beat of change.
The next day is bright and hot, the calm before another typhoon is expected to swat the region. In the blasting sun, Zachary Hany is impossible to miss—even across a broad plaza. His skin is a shade of white you wouldn’t think possible to maintain in Southeast Asia. The light bounces off his shaved head like a watch face.
Hany, a muscular 6 feet, is big even by American standards. A fast walker, he’s tough to keep up with as he navigates the stairways and hidden turns of the multilevel shopping complex. Though the plaza where we met could have been plucked from any modern city, Hany guides us to unmistakably mainland China.
Water from the previous days’ rain, though dried in open areas by the strong sun, still drips steadily down the concrete columns that support the mall above. We walk into a restaurant with pictures of Hong Kong action stars on the wall, and Hany does the ordering. The server is visibly startled by his Chinese fluency.
An Illinois boy who grew up mostly in Germany, Hany came to China with the Peace Corps in 2000, after finishing his master’s in environmental engineering. “I could have gone to either Jamaica or China, and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t really know anything about either country, but China’s on the other side of the world.’”
He’s been here ever since, living the past 13 years in or around Shenzhen, hustling to knit together a living. “I work on a few projects here and there, just pulling together what I can, hoping,” he says, trailing off.
As if to defy his imposing appearance, Hany is a gentle and genuinely nice guy. He’s also very obviously lost in the world. He’s American, but he grew up in Europe; he went to school in the States, but then he almost immediately left the country again. Where is home for a guy like that? What is he still doing in China?
With his engineering background and formidable bilingualism, Hany could likely land a lucrative job here; he’s uninterested. Even without one though, he’s “not in fear of starving to death.” You can live cheap in Shenzhen. And even though he was recently evicted from his apartment, he scored a room in a friend’s place in exchange for helping out the guy with a project.
The standard Shenzhen path might not be Hany’s chosen course, but there is still a good reason for him to stick around town. Though Hany wouldn’t describe himself as one, he’s kind of an artist. Hany calls it “design stuff,” but he’s talking about papercraft—worlds beyond the cut snowflakes you might be imagining. “I’m fascinated with paper engineering and pop-ups,” he says. Engineering is the key word there. Hany designs complex networks of shapes in CAD and realizes them with a computer-controlled laser-cutter. Many projects are aesthetic: detailed geometric lattices and sharpened fractals that explode along their radii like crystal supernovae; filigreed lanterns that glow from carefully concealed LEDs. Stare at them long enough, and you’ll see a whole universe in their iterated facets.
The practical side of his paper passion is building realistic pop-up worlds for tabletop games—the ones in which miniature metal figurines do battle. The simulated rock and timber of his sturdy paper creations almost look real (as real as the orcs, anyway), and yet collapse down, for easy storage. He has a Facebook page, a booth at the annual Gen Con tabletop gaming convention in Indiana, and, from the buzz in the forums, a waiting market.
When he’s not at home (“I would describe myself as ‘slightly reclusive’”) and not working out (he used to be a certified CrossFit instructor), Hany is likely playing those same games. He and his friends, mostly Westerners, set up at each other’s houses, at bars, restaurants—wherever. He dreams of selling his collapsible constructions someday; he has vague plans for a Kickstarter. But, he says, “life gets in the way.” A veil of melancholy falls over his face. Soon, he says, “I’ll get my head straight.”
The server forgot Hany’s noodles—a simple but delicious tomato-and-beef concoction that you unfortunately couldn’t find in America—but he doesn’t seem bothered. He smiles calmly at the server, casually accepting the apology in his flawless Chinese.
Don’t tell Deng Xiaoping, but the tech industry isn’t the only force that draws people to Shenzhen. As with any global city, some just land here, drawn by opportunity or wanderlust. Many teach English, recruited by well-funded international schools tasked with teaching the children of American or wealthy Chinese families. Often these expats are not in search of the next Shanghai or seekers of new artistic truths. That doesn’t mean they’re any less important to the cultural fabric of the city.
“Shenzhen was the only option they gave me,” says Elspeth Myers as she sips coffee in the booth of a restaurant called Linen Tea Dessert in Nan Shan. Linen Tea looks like the kind of place you’d go after church: white tablecloths and a lot of banquette seating. A 23-year-old education consultant, Myers works for a company that helps well-heeled Chinese kids get into American colleges. “I just wanted to come anywhere,” she says. By “anywhere,” she meant anywhere in China. Myers took every Chinese language class the University of Wisconsin could offer, and is close to fluent.
Her boyfriend, Frank Teng, finishing off a bowl of noodles next to her, quit his job at Make magazine to drink from the Shenzhen fountain of fortune—but didn’t quite succeed. “Hardware is a lot harder than I thought,” he says, laughing at the pun. Now Teng, 25, works for Myers at the education company and spends his free time studying for the GRE.
Though the two of them are both in education, they avoid the local teacher scene. It’s not their vibe. “The majority are guys who are maybe a little socially awkward or just can’t get a job back home,” Teng says. They are more interested in the local women than the local culture. It’s the crew Kaisinger spoke about. “There’s a name for them,” Teng says: “LBH, loser back home.”
Arrica Gilmer is a teacher, but she’s no LBH. “My only request is chicken feet,” says the 30-year-old from Pueblo, Colorado, as she sits down to brunch in a heavily gilded dim sum restaurant. Typical of large banquet halls, there are no windows. If there were, they’d be getting hammered with still more rain; the second typhoon of the week is making its way north, just minutes from hitting town.
Tall and athletic and dressed in workout clothes and a knit cap, Gilmer came to Shenzhen a year and a half ago, after chaperoning a high school trip to Costa Rica. “I came back and I was like, ‘I need to travel,’” she says. She gave herself a year to get out of the country, but within six months had a job here, teaching English to Chinese students.
Gilmer, an African-American woman, hasn’t caught any static because of her race. In fact, she says, people seem to see her as foreign more than they do black, lumping her in with an amoebic group of teachers and tech bros.
She’s actually had more trouble at the gym. “Being an athletic person wasn’t a bad thing at home,” Gilmer says. She power-lifts, and didn’t think it would be a big deal to go to the gym and throw some weight around. It was. “It’s not really what the culture embraces for women,” she says. People stare. This bothered her, until she met her friend Stephanie, an athletic woman from northern China. “She’s really helped keep me sane on days when I feel like a monster because I’m doing things that the boys are doing,” she says.
Outside work and the gym, Gilmer’s life in China revolves around food. It’s her main source of entertainment. Sure, she and the other teachers hit the bars—Frankie’s is a favorite—but Gilmer is mostly interested in exploring delicious new flavors she couldn’t find back home. She and Stephanie comb Shenzhen in search of the best post-workout meals.
And while many Westerners have, shall we say, difficulty with hardcore Chinese food, Gilmer straight-up seeks it out. “I’m pretty sure I had poop the other day,” she says, more embarrassed to talk about it than revolted by the experience. “I was eating some duck, and I grabbed this one piece—I thought it was liver. It looked kinda different,” she says. Honestly, who can identify cooked duck feces? “I was like, maybe it’s some kind of organ—and I like organ—so I didn’t think anything of it. Then I bit into it, and I was like, oh, God, no. That’s not something you’re supposed to eat.” Gilmer swallowed it—whatever it was—and went back in for another piece. “You can’t be a punk when eating in China,” she says. She laughs, and the chicken feet arrive. Gilmer tucks right in.
The storm picked up noticeably during dim sum, so my photographer, Christina, and I hustle back to the hotel to grab our luggage. It’s our final morning in Shenzhen, and we have flights out of Hong Kong. As soon as we walk in, though, we realize we’re not going anywhere. The borders, the concierge tells us, are closed. He stands, palms forward, in front of the door.
Nowhere to go, we grab a table by the window in the hotel’s 26th-floor bar. Raindrops chase each other down the broad sheets of darkened glass. Yet, from 300 feet above the street, the storm looks insignificant. The scale of this city is so massive, someone would have to build a bigger wind to disturb it.
In search of some evidence of storm, our eyes set upon a broad green swath, a park stretching from the convention center’s imperial front to the ultramodern civic center. It’s a marvel: a meticulously planned urban refuge, crisscrossed with pathways and shaded benches, punctuated with water fountains, arching bridges, and open spaces for exercise. Robert Moses’ most tender dream. Impressive just by virtue of its features, this public work has a defining feature that trumps all the others: It runs atop the roofs of all the structures between the two municipal buildings. It’s a sky park.
You could find a public work like this only in a city that sprang forth from some urban planner’s omnipotent head. In the short history of this urban landscape, those buildings have always been malls. Their roofs have always been greenspace. There is no old convention center. This suite of structures is the very crystallization of Shenzhen: huge, new, deliberate.
But you can’t plan everything. Life will always find fissures in your concrete. In Shenzhen, the green shoots of a new culture are drinking in the storm of globalization to eclipse any tower of glass and steel. You think the city is rising, but it’s just a base.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Life made in China.”