25 June 2014 by Adrian
Shenzhen is not a typical tourist destination in China, but ever since hearing stories from fellow geeks of the downtown electronics markets I’ve wanted to visit just to see them for myself. With promises of entire buildings dedicated to whichever electronic component you wish to buy a million of, if I was in China I had to visit Shenzhen to “look at resistors” as Henry mockingly described my fascination.
After crossing through the first of what would be many Chinese security-theatre checkpoints (xray machines attended by apathetic operators and metal detectors not turned on), we had entered China. The landscape changed instantly at the border, and suddenly it was ten times more difficult for us non-Chinese speakers to find anything. A quick attempt at buying a sim card failed because the retail staff were too busy sleeping and playing Angry Birds to acknowledge us with more than a shake of the head, and getting directions to the Metro was almost thwarted by hustlers dressed in uniforms that coincidentally look very much like the station staff uniforms (“No train! Only taxi!”). “Ten days of this”, we mused.
We had been told that Shenzhen was different to the rest of China, and ominously warned not to judge China based on our initial impressions there. With this in mind, we set off towards the city. The brief feelings of victory after finding the train station were lost somewhere during the one and a half hour search for our hotel, eating into our only afternoon in the city. Eventually, after another long train ride to Huaquiang station, we arrived in the enourmous electronics district around 3pm. Armed with a very useful guide called the Shenzhen Map for Makers, put together by a local open-source hardware developer (Seeedstudio), we randomly headed first for the “Security and RFID” centre with no idea of what we were actually in for.
Wandering around the outside of the building we saw a vast display of hundreds or thousands of different types of security cameras, before heading up the stairs into the market place. There were more stalls. A lot more. It was a gigantic maze of little stalls staffed by little people selling little cameras and we had to brisk by them all with our senses overwhelmed just to make any progress through it all. One stall sold complete camera modules. The one next to it sold just image sensors. Next to that sold lenses and then there was the stall that sold facial recognition modules. Another had a wide variety of infrared LED illuminators and yet another sold enclosures and stickers. Any combination of these components that you desired could be arranged right there and then into a sample and I got the feeling that a million units could probably be delivered by the end of the week. We headed upstairs. It was identical. Upstairs again was the same thing, multiplied by seven floors. Somewhere between floors two and three I realised that one afternoon, a day, even a week, is not enough time for a geek in Shenzhen.
In spite of the solid language barrier I managed to haggle with one vendor for some component samples for a tenth of the price I could get them anywhere else before heading for a quick lunch break. After a few distractions looking at Chinese imitations of common products, (The $50 “Sumsagn” Galaxy S3 mobile phone looks the part but doesn’t have quite the same processing power as it’s inspiration), next on our list was “LED World” as it was the only thing I could convince a melting Jazz to muster any enthusiasm for. Unfortunately, just as we arrived the clock struck six in the evening and the lights went off in the enormous LED world, and somewhere, one of the many enormous furnaces in one of the many enormous coal fired power stations probably shut down too. Our whirlwind tour of Shenzhen was over as quickly as it had begun. It was bitterly disappointing, but I don’t think there are any possible business hours that would have satisfied my curiosity for this suburb in the short time we had allocated there.
Deflated, we took the long train back to our hotel and met up with Moe to find some “Street Oysters” that he had spotted earlier. Two dozen delicious oysters, a fish, two beers and 30 CNY (about AU $5) later, we headed to bed. If Shenzhen is the worst part of China like we’d been told, maybe ten days here isn’t so bad after all.