The Thrill of Shenzhen — Candyland for Electronics Geeks

Just getting to Shenzhen is an adventure for a different post, but the Hackaday crew made it and spent our first full day in the city last Thursday.

Unlike Wednesday’s experience in Hong Kong, most people you run into do not speak English and the signs generally don’t have English words on them. This makes getting around hard in that it’s difficult to figure out where it is you’re going. It’s equally tough to convey the destination to a taxi driver or translate it into public transportation. I was able to get to the Software Industrial Base via taxi because I had saved the Chinese character address on my phone and showed it to the cab driver. But when the trip ended I had trouble figuring out how much to pay… the meter reads 10 Yuan but there is an additional charge of a few Yuan which I only realized in retrospect. But my driver was very nice about this and helped me with change and a smile.

Visiting Seeed Studio

You might think finding the correct building would be simple. But the Shenzhen Industrial Software Base is a huge complex of similar buildings. A friendly security guard looked at my saved address and used the squares in the sidewalk as a map to non-verbally get me headed the right way. Seeed Studio, our hosts for SZMF, have a beautiful new office which is industrial-modern in its decor. There are glass-walled conference rooms but the majority of the space is open in design as it wraps around the exterior of half a floor in the six or seven story building.

Hitting the Markets

After doing some planning for the Hackaday workshop the next day, [Chris] from Seeed offered to take us to the electronics markets. How do you pass up that offer? We first stopped off at a Korean restaurant for lunch, then hopped a slightly-crowded cab to meet [Matt] and [Alek] who were already at the market.

The Huaqiangbei markets are multi-story buildings filled with booths. We first went into the wrong one, which turned out to be the used equipment building. Vendors specialize in refurbishing electronics. There were floors and floors of booths filled with equipment — often three tiers or more of laptop computers (open and running) wrapping each booth which were about the footprint of a king-sized bed.

IMG_20150619_184322523Back on track we made it to a brand new building which was seemingly built already completely packed with booths. The place has everything, generally divided up by floor. The top two floors are mostly LEDs of every kind, or drivers for them. We were on the hunt for addressable LEDs, but there didn’t seem to be any legendary bargains available. This may have been an issue of volume because I later heard from a friend that he acquired 25-meters of 12V WS2812 strips for a song.

Next it was the hunt for the “baby phone”. This is an Android phone built to look like a miniature iPhone. They’re cute. The blocks, and blocks, and blocks of walking, backtracking, running into acquaintances who joined the hunt, and finally ascending shady stairs and dingy aisles did pay off. Ta-da, [Sophi’s] new phone!

We hopped the subway to get back from the markets. I love trying out public transportation in different cities and this didn’t disappoint. The stations are so clean, and after 85 degrees F and 80 percent humidity all day the air conditioning is heavenly.

Awesome Subways

Shenzhen-Subway-Token-cropped
Image Source: WhereAmI.org (also an interesting Shenzhen read)

You purchase a token which is a green plastic disc about the size of two american quarters stacked on top of one another. Very light weight and very tech-oriented. Each is an RFID (or some other non-contact) tag. Tap it on your way in, drop it in the slot on your way out. Midway during our return trip we realized we were changing the location for Hackaday’s Saturday Shenzhen Meetup. We got off the train, rode the other way, switched lines, and popped out in a beautiful part of Shenzhen. Everything in this city seems to be new and under construction. NYPD Pizza is in the middle of a very partially completed complex but has the hip, trendy, divebar-neveau that made for an awesome meetup. Check back on that yarn which deserves it’s own post.

A bit exhausted, we made it back to the hotel for a bit of dinner and relaxation. But who could pass up the opportunity to head to an outdoor BBQ party marking the end of Hacker Camp? This creation, started by Hackaday Alumni and Dangerous Prototypes founder [Ian Lesnet], invites engineers and hardware creators to come tour Shenzhen and pick up as much manufacturing knowledge as possible in between epic evenings of socializing.

Dripping wet BBQ Party

Again, figuring out where to go is really hard! We jumped on the subway and made it to the correct stop, but getting to the BBQ alley in what feels like a residential neighborhood required a aimless wandering, and bumping into two different people who had already been to the party.

The atmosphere was sticky and blazing hot. Everyone was dripping with sweat and drinking a very large beverage. Check out this hi-res album for the proof. There were a few restaurants, an open-air bar, and a bodega with bombers of Tsingtao for under a buck (USD). To me it seemed to be a dead end street, but every few minutes a honking motorbike was waddled through the shoulder-to-shoulder crush of sweaty bodies. Hardened ex-pats and locals drank beer from glasses, but the foreign visitors seemed to stick with bottles.

This definitely registered as one of the most exciting days of my life. I love the adventure. The city feels safe and friendly — but travel (especially at night) adds a thrill.

44 thoughts on “The Thrill of Shenzhen — Candyland for Electronics Geeks

  1. What’s that Android “baby phone”? I think phones have gotten way too big, and something small is OK for me. Is there a manufacturer or brand name for it? What version of Android is it running? How big is it? Most of all: where can I get one (without traveling to Shenzhen)?

      1. It’s not tourist scam, the locals pay too. Depending on city and time of year gas surcharge is 0 to 3 rmb flat fee. I’ve had taxi drivers refuse my gas surcharge because it was the wrong time of year.

    1. Tokens can be purchased from machines in each metro station. Upon entering the subway system your RFID token is scanned. Upon exit you put your token in a token slot, which scans it and opens the gate for you. Tokens may be purchased without ever using them.

  2. So, I gotta ask the author and everyone else. Say, Some of us want to get in on this, visit this place, check it out, buy some things, etc…. Some kinda HACK to help others? Some type of map hack? GPS? Something to learn from?
    Just rambling, but two bird with one stone kinda thinking……

    1. Having a cell phone is extremely useful. Be prepared though, google services will not work in China (Search, Maps…). Maps: “amap” is a good Chinese map app. Don’t be scared to use Chinese apps because of language. Search still uses a magnifying glass image. An offline dictionary is another good app to come prepared with. I use Pleco.

      Once you get checked into a hotel take a business card off the front desk. It will include Chinese directions on how to get to the hotel. Once you get lost hand the card to a taxi driver and you will get back to the hotel.

      Consider a price in China fair if the price is about 2x the number of (dollars, euros, pounds..) that you feel are fair. Ie: I would pay 6 USD for a bowl of soup. In China I will pay about 10 RMB. Yes, the exchange rate is 1USD = 6.2 RMB. For the most part that is irrelevant.

      Don’t bother ordering money ahead of time. The HK airport will accept major currency and give change in HK dollars. There are ATM’s everywhere in China. Many have sister bank deals with foreign banks conferring free access and good exchange rates.

    1. You mean sleeping in the midday hour? working form 8:00 to 17:00. No one works there as a slave.They have more holidays then I have. Maybe you should visit Shenzhen and talk with the people.

      1. Agreed, it’s all about perspective when it comes to comparing our standard of living to another. Sometimes you just need to be called a gweilo to get a feel for the place.

  3. What is so hard about getting there? Fly in to Hong Kong, Take the E42 bus to Tia Po Train Station. From there, take the train to Lo Hu Q station in Shenzhen. You are there near the market.

    1. Visa maybe?

      Why does every one go through Hong Kong though. Are there not direct flights into Shenzhen? Or is it close/cheaper to fly Hong Kong?

      I would think flying to Shenzhen will be cheaper than flying to Hong Kong. Maybe that is not the case.

      1. Oh, although everything is well marked in english in Hong Kong. I am not sure about shenzhen. But most major cities do provide good english signs for tourists.

        But yeah, the language barrier can also make it difficult for some.

      2. There really aren’t any flights from the US to Shenzhen. International flights into Shenzhen a typically much more expensive than a flight in to Hong Kong. Depending on your final destination in Shenzhen it can be faster to travel there from Hong Kong Airport than from Shenzhen Airport East.

        1. I went SFO->Shenzhen then Shenzhen -> NYC. Coming back, the only flight I could get had an overnight layover in Beijing. So next time, I’ll fly into HK to avoid the delay.

      3. I don’t believe this applies for US citizens, but some nations citizens can get a China Visa at the land crossing at Lo Wu and they may not need a visa for HK. Cuts down on the planning required for trips.

        However check with a travel professional about visas well in advance of flying out. Much better than trusting some person on the internet.

    1. Just a side note, there are random offsets on chinese maps that google does not compensate for.

      The maps on Apple however (from I have read) do compensate. Of course, local map service providers also proper adjustments to their maps.

    2. An other side note, I scare myself sometimes. It is also crazy scary how easy it was to find that geo coordinates. Kids really should be more careful on social media.

  4. Bless the Chinese for providing us all with cheap goodies. They slave in horrid conditions so I can have a cheaper widget all while putting my own neighbor out of work. Win win win….

  5. My wife is from Guangzhou (“Canton”) and we visit there and Shenzhen (where her sister lives) rather often. Both cities are more comfortable, safer, and a hell of a lot more fun than many large American cities (•especially• D.C., where we live), and I’m amused by the harsh, clueless, kneejerk comments from the guys who have obviously never been anywhere near China.

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