In a series of articles, we're taking a look at how four key ares of Shenzhen have changed since the city became a Special Economic Zone, transforming into a megacity in less than 30 years. This section takes a look at Dongmen.
It’s difficult to imagine Dongmen as ever being sleepy, small or village-like. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty, however, that it became a happening place. Known by many different names, including East Gate (Dongmen), Old City (Laojie) and Shenzhen Market (Shenzhen Shichang), one thing is for sure: it’s always been a center of commerce and trade.
With its strategic location in Luohu, near the edge of the ‘Bamboo Curtain,’ it was always destined to boom due to its close proximity to Hong Kong. After Deng Xiaoping’s historic decision to open Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone, Dongmen and the surrounding villages experienced terrific upheaval as land was transferred, roads were built, skyscrapers went up and a massive wave of people came from all corners of the mainland.
Dongmen was renovated in the 90s and was host to one of the most important events in Shenzhen, and perhaps all of China: the first-ever Chinese McDonald’s opening, which took place in October 1990. By 1999, most of Dongmen was closed off to street traffic, giving the area the only pedestrian markets in the city. This remains a key feature of what makes Dongmen successful today.
The best way to experience Dongmen is to circle the perimeter first and become oriented with the two main subway stations: Hubei and Laojie.
Take exit B of the Hubei Station and cross Hubei Lu. Take a left, and then keep an eye on the right side of the street for the unassuming entrance to Hubei Village. Some of the buildings here date back 500 years, and it is Luohu’s last ancient village – in the process of being demolished to build a new MixC shopping mall. Don’t be afraid to wander inside; the cramped streets will lead you through locals’ intimate lives as they do laundry and play mahjong.
Come back out the way you entered, and you’ll see a large orange building across the street called CAQ. It’s a kitchen supply paradise with everything from RMB1 bowls to industrial hot dog makers. If there’s something you need for your kitchen, you’re almost certain to find it here. Handy tip: the men on the street with the tatty small vans are drivers and can take you home if you over-shop, but make sure to haggle hard.
Leaving CAQ, head west and cross the street when you see the sign for the Fabric Market. There are two: one has mostly curtains, the other has clothing fabric and tailors on the third floor. The latter is above a wet market, so the smell will be your guide.
At this point, you should see Dongmen’s famous pedestrian walking bridge, where Hubei Lu and Dongmen Zhong Lu intersect. Cross Dongmen Zhong and take a right, heading north (you won’t be able to miss the heaving crowds on the eastern edge of the pedestrian shopping center). Keep walking north, past the MOI department store (feel free to take a break in the secret Starbucks inside). At Lixin Lu, take a left.
There’s a shopping center on the right that looks odd, bedecked with lot of signs and frames outside. You can get your paintings and photos mounted here very cheaply. If you find the escalator upstairs, you’ll discover this is Boyi Arts and Crafts Mall. Inside is every musical instrument ever invented for sale, as well as a nice art book section and lots of unique gifts to buy.
Outside, if you keep following Lixin Lu, you’ll come across a number of spa, beauty and hair-supply super stores. You can buy everything you need to open a nail shop or massage parlor here, down to the chairs and uniforms. More likely, you’ll want to purchase inexpensive packs of fragrant foot soaks, face masks and hair-care products.
On the right-hand side, towards the end of the street, you’ll find the anime and comic book mall. It’s being renovated, like much of Dongmen, but it’s still worth a look for cool kids’ games and cosplay outfits.
Lixin Lu runs into Rainbow Mall, a good landmark to help orient yourself. Take a left and start walking south (the crowds of Dongmen will be on your left now). Right before you reach 1234 Space and the Hyatt Place hotel, you’ll see a building on the left with a pair of spectacles on it. This is Glasses City, which offers the largest selection in Shenzhen of… well, you can guess what. Have your prescription lenses made quickly and cheaply here.
As you reach the 1234 Space Mall, with big signs for H&M and Gap inside, look to the right. There are some restaurants, bars and little shops across the street. It’s a great place to wander, with little coffee shops and Korean clothing boutiques inside. It’s actually the entrance to Dongmen People’s Park, a beautiful amusement park that is one of Shenzhen’s treasures. Inside you’ll find roller coasters, haunted houses and carnival games. Rent a paddleboat here and head out to a romantic spot on the lake to watch the sunset over the city skyline.
Strolling back to 1234 Space, a new mall featuring hip brands and pop-up shops, you’ll find that you’re actually at Laojie Station. One of the biggest and busiest subway stops in the world, the tunnels of the station go on and on for miles underneath the mall.
Laojie Station is on Shennan Lu. Walking east on this road will bring you back to where you started, Hubei Station.
Now that you have your bearings, plunge directly into the madness that is Dongmen.
Be sure to check out the Kids' Clothing Mall and the Wedding Dress Mall, two of our favorite spots. If you get really lost, head towards the middle of the Cultural Square and try to find the old library, called Siyue Shuyuan. According to local expert James Baquet, it was a library/schoolhouse when first built, meant to educate members of the local Zhang clan and named for ancestor Zhang Siyue. Later, it housed runaway Hong Kong strikers protesting a 1925 massacre by the British in Shanghai, and for a time was used as an inn. Dismantled in 1996 for improvements to the area, it was faithfully reconstructed in 1999. Now, it has exhibitions of artwork.
To grab a bite, you can relax in one of the nice restaurants in 1234 Space, like the branch of Tsui Wah Hong Kong restaurant upstairs, but our top recommendation is the indoor snack street, by the big Uniqlo. A huge space with just about every Chinese street eat possible, vendors sell everything from steamed and fried Hunan dumplings, to grilled lamb skewers, to freshly made ice cream.
If you’re from out of town or in need of a staycation, a good option is to book a room at the Hyatt Place on top of 1234 Space.
Locals often say you haven’t experienced Shenzhen until you’ve been to Dongmen. With map in hand, even a short-term China visitor should be able to handle the thriving bustle.
// For maps and info, visit lovesz.net. All photos courtesy of Shenzhen Museum.