City and Cultural Center Shift—Performance Space in Shenzhen

  • Cong SunEmail author


Shenzhen sets an example for rapid development of urban planning and construction. It was the starting point of the largest city-construction movement in contemporary China and also a miracle in the history of global urbanization. On August 26, 1980, Shenzhen became the first Chinese Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and was pushed to the forefront of the reform and opening-up of mainland China. In less than 40 years, Shenzhen has grown from a special economic zone with a total area of 327 km2, a resident population of 310,000 and a GDP of 270 million yuan to a metropolis of 2465 km2 (including Shenzhen-Shantou Special Cooperation Zone), over 12.52 million people, and a GDP of 2.2 trillion yuan.



This paper is part of a study supported by the Research Grant Council, Hong Kong Government, under Grant Project No. CityU 11658816. To begin with, my greatest gratitude goes to my respected supervisor, Professor Charlie Q. L. Xue, both for his ongoing support, helpful advice and warm encouragements during the process of writing the manuscript. I also want to thank many people who had the generosity to help me undertake the field work and conduct my research: Dr. Chen Yixin from Urban Planning, Land and Resources Commission of Shenzhen Municipality; Zhu Ya, Duan Xinren, Kang Rui from Shenzhen Grand Theater; and Li Shunchao, Ms. Pan, Yang Qingxi from Shenzhen Concert Hall. Besides, I am also grateful to my colleague, Zhang Lujia and Xiao Yingbo. I benefited from every discussion with them. Finally, I would like to thank my family for always being there for me. Their love was a strong inspiration.

I was born in Shenzhen, but my parents are not from Shenzhen. I was tagged with the ‘second-generation immigrant’ (Shen Er Dai) label, and Shenzhen city is only eight years older than I am. When I was a child, I lived in a Danwei housing less than one kilometre from the Grand Theater. Although the Grand Theater and the financial district behind it were the most prosperous downtown area in the eyes of others, as to me, it was a paradise for walking after dinner! The Grand Theater was open to the public then, except for the inner performance hall. Every night, my parents took me through Litchi Park to the lively commercial pedestrian street under the theater, and we took a ride on the square… Eventually, when I was four years old, I walked into the theater which was the best art palace in Shenzhen in the 1980s and even 1990s, to watch a drama with a gift ticket provided by my father’s company. After more than 20 years, I have forgotten the name and content of the show, but I remember that the next day I showed off the ticket stub to my classmates and boasted about my experience of watching the show.

In addition to holding various large-scale cultural performances, in the 1990s, the Grand Theater was the site of various high-class conferences and festivals of government agencies and institutions. High prices and outstanding political functions made it difficult for the public to enter the theater. In 2005, the underground commercial street and the up-and-down outdoor squares were turned into an underground car park after the renovation of the whole theater. The Grand Theater and the nearby Dajiale Stage, which carried the collective memory of the first two generations of Shenzhen immigrants have become cold and closed “ground-hitting” boxes.

As we all know, Shenzhen is an immigrant city in which diverse cultures collide and merge. It also seems to be more inclusive and eager to innovate than other cities. In 1987, the government took the lead in conducting an international consultation on the planning of the future central area of the special economic zone. In 1997, the government launched intensive international design competitions for the six major public buildings in the central area, all of which demonstrated the vision of Shenzhen to be open, inclusive and innovative. In 2007, a cultural centre designed by a famous Japanese architect was completed here. I, as a sophomore majoring in architecture, was delighted at the opportunity to behold the master up close. This low-key but sparkling cultural palace amidst the blocks resembling ‘the City of Tomorrow’ imagined by Le Corbusier, with groups of office buildings in a modern American style during the 1980s and 1990s, made me realise that library and concert hall can be open and transparent. However, for various reasons, the use of the building is not as open as the design makes it appear. This kind of high-end cultural space remains somewhat isolated from civic life.

The trend is changing and new construction is in the works. I hope that Shenzhen will create another legend and that in the next round of construction of cultural facilities it will not only transform its closed buildings into more open sharing platforms, but also bring this kind of ‘high-up’ cultural space closer to daily life and integrate it more positively into urban space.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Architecture and Civil EngineeringCity University of Hong KongKowloonHong Kong

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