Josh Bismanovsky: misfit, man-about-town, injection-molding sales rep.
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.