It seems any introduction to Shenzhen’s 1979/80 founding must include one of the following phrases:
“small fishing village”
“only a humble fishing village”
“one-time fishing village”
“not much more than a fishing village”
“quaint fishing village”
“traditional Chinese fishing village”
“tiny fishing village”
“sleepy fishing village”
The current one-man show, which has brought Shenzhen, FoxConn, and Apple to the fore, also references Shenzhen’s mythically humble beginnings:
“Shenzhen is a city without history. The people who live there will tell you that, because 31 years ago Shenzhen was a small town. It had little reed huts, little reed walkways between the huts. The men would fish in the late afternoon. I hear it was lovely.”
If you look very closely, however, you will eventually run across a description of Shenzhen’s infancy with a tell: “fishing village of 300,000.”
Yes, apparently, Shenzhen had a baseline population of 300,000. Three-hundred-thousand people is not “a small fishing village.”
For comparison, Cambridge’s (UK) population is roughly 120,000. Admittedly, Cambridge has powerful academic charms and draws a pretty international crowd, so it’s unique for a city its size, but it is less than half the size of infant-Shenzhen and can in no way be classed as a “village.”
In America, Boulder County, Colorado, has a population of just under 300,000 (this includes the town itself as well as the surrounding sprawl and rural areas). It’s small and lovely, but it is also not a “village.”
If these initial 300,000 Shenzhen residents were spread out amongst a string of villages, then yes, each one could feel rather humble. In fact, the area itself was previously known as Bao’An County 宝安区: a name that implies a clutch of rural hamlets.
So, yes, Shenzhen was a cluster of small and probably rather provincial towns with a joint population of 300,000.
It has grown to an astounding 14 million people and has a tremendously strong and swiftly growing economy.
As boomtowns go, it’s the whopper.
But it was never “a small fishing village.” So, please, can we at least call it a “provincial region of small towns and fishing villages”?
Sigh… doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
(If you’re interested in Shenzhen’s founding and growth, spend a long while wandering Mary Ann O’Donnell’s extensive blog: Shenzhen Noted. See especially her interesting comparison of boomtown growth here. She also has a good discussion of the 30th anniversary of the SEZ’s founding here with more links to old photos.)