A visit to the electronics markets of Shenzhen

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I’ve just returned from a week long trip to Shenzhen, China in a “geek tour” trip organized by Bunnie Huang, with some assistance from the fine folks at PCH International.
DSC_0180 by Tom Igoe

More than just a tour, this was also a tiny conference of open source and physical computing hardware hackers.

The participants were (from left to right above): Jeevan KalanithiEric SchweikardtBunnie HuangNathan SeidleLeah Buechley, myself (Windell Oskay), Tom Igoe, and David Merrill.

(Thanks to Tom Igoe for the photo. Thanks also to Dale Dougherty for helping to get such a great set of folks in contact for the trip!)

Shenzhen is a vibrant, bustling, young, and modern city of 8 million in southern China. Just across the border from Hong Kong, Shenzhen and the region around it comprise one of the most active and important manufacturing centers in the world today. (Hint: “made in China” sounds familiar.) The city itself is filled with people, restaurants, smog and shiny skyscrapers. At night freakishly large LED billboards illuminate the sides of apartment buildings and animated RGB neon displays ripple above nightclubs and bars. With a few more flying cars, it might do a good impression of Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles.

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For me personally, one of the most interesting parts of this trip was spending some time in the vast electronic markets of downtown Shenzhen. The building pictured above, the SEG Electronic Market, is a focal point in the markets. Bunnie wrote quite a bit about this place two years ago (and it’s all true).


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Here’s what the 2nd floor of the SEG market looks like a little while after opening– before it gets crowded. You can see a few dozen vendors– maybe one eighth of the floor.

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A typical vendor’s booth looks like this. It’s roughly a 5-foot square. (“And I thought my office was small!”) In the front of the square is a glass cabinet where the wares are displayed, and in the back is a second cabinet for backstock. This woman is selling LED displays. On her left is another vendor with cooling fans.

The booth size seems to depends on the particular building and the foot-traffic level of the location. Elsewhere there are also larger booths– cubicle sized — and private offices with doors.

This is not a flea market. Most of the booths are run by a particular distributor or factory, and what’s behind the counter are (more often than not) small quantities intended as commercial samples. This LED vendor, for example, only has a few of each type of display. If you need more than a few, they’ll be happy to give you their card that has the phone number you should call. Moreover, for quantities that they have “on hand,” they’ll often send a runner to pick them up from another booth or storage location.

Walking around, you’ll see all kinds of components:

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Transistors, motors, test probes, crystal oscillators,
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IC’s, LED’s, enclosures, sockets.

There were also booths with connectors, switches, wire (in bundles stacked to the ceiling) relays, tools, LCD backlight bulbs, resistors, capacitors, inductors, solder paste, glue sticks, cable assemblies, test equipment, and just about anything else you can imagine.

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And that’s only one floor out of ten. While the scale of this is already hard to grasp, it turns out that the next building over is like this as well– and the one next to that– and the one after that. I walked through markets like this that were several blocks away. After several days of walking through the markets, I know that I didn’t make it to every floor. I don’t know if I made it to every building.

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A curious thing about the organization of the markets: “Low-level” components like the aforementioned transistors and capacitors are found on the lower floors, while “high-level” devices like computers, storage media, speakers, and all of their friends are found on the upper stories.

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At a glance: Laptops, crowded aisles full of flash memory drives, GPS navigation systems, and headphones.

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Even up in laptop land, it’s not uncommon to see one open or under the soldering iron.

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Across the street and up the stairs, there’s a floor full of folks selling (and building) desktop computers, and repairing, if not making, laptops– there’s certainly enough parts to build them from scratch.

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The ethic of the place seems to be that “equivalent substitutes” are often acceptable. It’s a gray market. Excellent quality– possibly genuine –Nokia, Microsoft, Intel, and Kingston labels are sold openly in sheets and rolls. They’re expensive.

This kind of thing leads to some interesting computers:
MacBook?

Down on the component floors, you can see sellers using a heat gun to remove the label from a spool of surface mount resistors. They might apply a new label, taken from an empty spool of brand-name resistors.
Elsewhere a man uses pliers to straighten the leads of medium-size power transistors before sliding them into their tubes– good as new. He looks like a man who is whittling.

An ambitious twenty-something uses a clunky $2 soldering iron to attach high-power surface mount LEDs in a multi-element bulb fixture. It will work fine when it’s tested for the buyer, but those LEDs might not last long without a proper thermal connection.

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Two blocks away– even more firmly in the gray market — is a building full of vendors selling cell phones and accessories. It has five floors, and it’s the third such market that I saw, not counting the markets (plural) that exist for the parts needed to make your own: chips, LCDs, flex circuits, and housings. It’s all there.

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A truly stunning thing is the amount of life that goes on within the markets. The awkward sterility of western stores is absent.

People live there, in those tiny booths and stands. People are constantly eating, chatting, smoking, texting, talking on their many phones, laughing, bargaining, knitting, shouting, running, whispering, playing solitaire (often cooperatively) or other video games, watching streaming videos, watching DVDs, humming, napping, and working. Walking down the aisles you sometimes have to stop and hold still while for a torrent of young kids passes underfoot.

A middle aged man sleeps with his head on a glass countertop while his very young daughter– perhaps granddaughter — plays video games on their computer. A gleaming white scrolling LED readerboard in the back of the booth illuminates them both.
Down on the steps outside the building, a man opens a small bag to show me a laptop. “IBM?” I shake my head. Might as well be a fake Rolex. They have a market for those too.


The rest of my photos are posted in this photo set.

Tom Igoe, Leah Buechley, David Merrill, and Jeevan Kalanithi also had cameras along on the trip and have posted their photos– many of which are better than mine. Go take a look. :)

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21 thoughts on “A visit to the electronics markets of Shenzhen

  1. This is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a long time. I’m jealous that you saw it all and not me, but I’m grateful that you documented it so well! Thanks!

  2. Great post, Windell!

    I’m curious about a couple things. Who is this market targeted at? Do engineers from local companies make a trip to the market to buy supplies for their products (sort of like a walk-in version of Digikey)? Or is it more like a tradeshow exhibition where the companies are advertising their wares and the actual transactions are made later? Would someone who was designing an MP3 player go to this market just to see what LCD displays are available, or would he go there to buy the displays, or both? Not sure if I am making sense, but I guess what I am wondering is what role does this market play in the local business?

    • Such markets are targeted mostly at normal consumers, i.e commonfolk. So if someone wants to get a laptop or other electronics, they can visit such markets.

      Though, I think some companies do go to such markets to scout for suppliers.

      There are lots of such markets in Shanghai as well some of which are huge. ^^

    • This seems to be the go-to place for small and medium scale factory buyers. If Foxconn (or some other mega-manufacturer) is making two million of a particular device to specs from the US, they aren’t shopping there, but they *would* go there to find one-off parts for (e.g.,) a test fixture or prototyping supplies. Medium scale factories that don’t have the buying power of the megafactories probably go there for supply chain research, and these surely supply most of the parts to the shanzhai that Bunnie has recently written about.

      A surprising amount of the markets are also consumer oriented– maybe one quarter to one half of the areas are computers and accessories, not parts.


      Windell H. Oskay
      drwho(at)evilmadscientist.com
      http://www.evilmadscientist.com/

  3. So how are the costs in this place? E.g. how does the price of an Atmega168 compare to Digikey/Mouser? Worth flying to China to stock up?

    • Yes, things are cheap. And I had this… dream … of doing exactly that– going to the market, stocking up on cheap AVR’s (and a few of the other chips we use in quantity), packing up the suitcase, and mining the gold in the suitcase. This didn’t happen. There were AVRs there, yes slightly cheaper than Digi-key, but nowhere near cheap enough to justify the hassle. The other chips that I was looking for were *not* there. I thought that I’d do much better on switches, but of all the thousands of varieties they had, they didn’t have the one I was looking for.

      So, *if* your part is primarily made in China, it’s semi-generic (i.e., made by more than one company), and in current, high-volume use, *and* you know the part numbers, you can do quite well. On the other hand, things meeting that description are already available at excellent prices in the US, if you order in high volume. Your mileage may vary. A lot.


      Windell H. Oskay
      drwho(at)evilmadscientist.com
      http://www.evilmadscientist.com/

  4. Great posting Windell. Your account provides a good opportunity for those of us who can’t get to China to have a window into their electronics world. It’s a hobbyist’s dream. Thanks for taking the time to document it.

  5. Ha! SimLin in Singapore was exactly like this- seeing the people eating and chatting in these photos just brought back the flavor of the place so distinctly. Thanks!

    • sim lim cannot be compared to that in terms of scale.
      anyway. i was in shanghai seg electronics market/building as well a few days ago and it has something similar as well. so for those who has a chance to be in shanghai, you can go to http://sh.city8.com/city8-ps/key_%E7%A7%91%E6%8A%80%E4%BA%AC%E5%9F%8E-n_4
      to take a look.

      in mandarin, it’s called 上海科技京城
      try to enable chinese encoding to recognise the characters.

  6. My questions are the same as mightyohm, “Who is this market for, who buys these products, and how can so much be profitable for anyone in particular?

    • you can take it as a "window" of the agency and factory. The market is both for retail and wholesale. Commonly only small and middle company and individual go to purchase there, since the exclusive distributor doesn’t interest in there quantity. I worked in ShenZhen almost for 4 years, at the beginning of my workday, i go to the market often and often, it’s a memorable time.

  7. Best to check icseek.com for parts.. theres just too many dealers at the market, unless you are looking out for LED dealers that have big light displays that can be easily spotted. You can obtain qoutes for parts via email and then chat to them more on msn. They have english speaking representatives online. For people that can’t visit in person, some dealers are willing to ship via courier but best to get small amount to check for quality if you have any doubts. (theres counterfeit chips here and there) Once your happy with your dealer then ship bulk.

    Probably worth the effort for hard to get parts or if you have a super bulk need.. haha LEDS are dirt cheap 0.1 RMB (Chinese Currency each) for 3 or 5mm. A packet of 5000 leds was like 12.95 AUD when I converted the currency! thats super good!

  8. hy friends i just wanna know that the brand original like sony ho laptop are available in this plaza and brand original mobile phone like nokia apple iphone too..
    thanks

  9. lol. walking distance from my home. hated the crowd and the dirty air there.

    • yes , it opens on sunday but partially. mostly shop keepers missing , some not in the mood of sales. Sunday is good to just visit this market as there is little rush on sunday.
      Good luck

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