Here's What Shenzhen, China Looked Like Just Before Becoming One Of The Most Important Cities In The World

shenzhen 1980 leroy demery

Photo: Leroy W. Demery Jr.

We recently brought you stunning photos of early-’80s Macau, before that city became a worldwide gambling mecca.Today, we want to show you a city whose transformation is perhaps even more incredible: Shenzhen, China.

Shenzhen is one of the most unique cities in the world.

In 1979, Premier Deng Xiaoping named Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone, meaning it would be immune from the strict Communist regime governing the rest of the country and would instead would be permitted to pursue private enterprise.

Shenzhen’s official population was 12 million and it had a GDP of 500 billion RMB, according to the Asia Society.

“Has any urban area on Earth ever grown so rapidly and changed so dramatically in such a short time as Shenzhen?” 

That’s the arguably rhetorical question posed by transportation expert and amateur photographer Leroy W. Demery Jr. in a photoset he has posted to flickr documenting his journey to the city in the 1980s.

With his kind permission, we reproduce the photos here.

Here is his own introduction:

I traveled China for three months in 1983, and managed to visit, or “pass through,” every province except Tibet, Hainan (part of Guangdong Province back then), Fujian and Taiwan (which I visited in 1980)  However, I made my “first visit” to China on 1980 July 17. I joined a half-day “cross-border” tour operated by China International Travel Service (CITS), Hong Kong. Booking was easy and the price was very reasonable.  Bao’an County, which had a settlement history dating back nearly 1,700 years, was renamed Shenzhen City in January 1979.

At this time, the total population was stated at 300,000. The population of the urbanized area was stated at 20,000 – that’s “20 thousand” – and the urbanized land area was stated at 3 km2. Establishment of the Special Economic Zone was approved in August 1980 – that is, roughly one month after these photos were taken. I saw virtually no sign of the amazing changes that were soon to begin.  Travel guidebooks published during the early 1980s state that China began admitting unescorted foreigners in 1981.

However, our Hong Kong-based CITS guide said that there was a “new arrangement:” one could obtain a visa to visit Beijing and Shanghai in three days. You simply applied for the visa, she said, “and on the third day, you go.” So I might have visited (at least) Beijing and Shanghai in 1980, three years before I actually did.

First, this is what the city looks like today. Shenzhen is now one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

It boasts one of China's largest ports.

It has its own stock market.

It hosts its own big golf event.

And of course, it's home to the largest Foxconn factory in the world.

It wasn't always this way...

Kowloon Station, Hong Kong, about to depart for Shenzhen.

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