More than just a tour, this was also a tiny conference of open source and physical computing hardware hackers.
(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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
At a glance: Laptops, crowded aisles full of flash memory drives, GPS navigation systems, and headphones.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.