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Thriving design district hums amid hustle of manufacturers

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Bicycle wheels form an art piece, above, in front of a cafe in the OCT Loft district of Shenzhen, China.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Old factory equipment, such as an industrial press are repurposed as pieces of public art in tribute to the city’s industrial past.

SHENZHEN, China >> With its anonymous sprawl of skyscrapers and factories linked by busy highways, the southern Chinese manufacturing megacity of Shenzhen might not appear at first to be the best place to do some sightseeing.

The city is a magnet for foreign business travelers, many of whom come expressly to visit factories and meet suppliers, but it’s far off the beaten tourist path. And that makes any effort to discover local attractions more rewarding than prowling the cliched, overpriced nightspots of neighboring Hong Kong or jostling with crowds at the shopping malls and historical sites of Beijing and Shanghai.

On a recent trip to Shenzhen from my base in Hong Kong, I discovered the tranquil charm of OCT Loft, a cluster of old factory buildings converted into an art and design zone.

A visit to OCT Loft, in the Nanshan neighborhood, was a welcome antidote to Shenzhen’s hyper-urban intensity. I took a cab from downtown and 20 minutes later high-rise tower blocks gave way to narrow streets lined with leafy trees and bicycle paths.

The district’s low-rise buildings are filled with design studios, architects’ offices, art galleries, bars and restaurants. There’s a Starbucks, but thankfully that was the only multinational franchise around.

Finding your way around is easy, thanks to metal maps set into walkways. Buildings are denoted by simple combinations of letters and numbers: A4, B3.

Disused pieces of factory equipment painted bright red were set up on the pathways as a reminder of the area’s industrial past. An oversized machine press stood on a walkway paved with skinny red bricks. Nearby were two rustic cafes, their outdoor seats hidden by potted plants and shaded by mature trees, and I stopped at one of them for a glass of iced lemon tea.

The district is also a great place for contemporary art. Murals adorn walls and buildings; paintings and sculptures are on display at galleries; and exhibitions are held at OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, or OCAT. (The current show, “Digging a Hole in China,” runs until June 26 and features video and other multimedia works by 12 Chinese artists on the concept of land.)

It was almost time to head back to Hong Kong. But first, I treated myself to a slice of cheesecake (20 yuan; $3) at SE Artspace, a minimalist space in white and gray.

OCT Loft itself is part of a wider tourist district that includes theme parks and hotels known as Overseas Chinese Town, and a shopping district called OCT Bay. The state-owned company that runs it also operates an ecotourism resort called OCT East on the other side of the city.

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