When you mention Shenzhen, many people think about electronic gadgets, cheap components, manufacturing, and technology. I’m there quite often and find that all of the technology and manufacturing related stress can be overwhelming at times. Sometimes I feel the need to escape it all so I go to markets and places that aren’t traditionally associated with technology so I can clear my head as well as expose myself to something different. It provides me with a constant source of new design ideas and also allows me to escape the persistent tech treadmill that Shenzhen runs on. There are a lot of places in Shenzhen that I consider hidden gems that don’t get a lot of press since mainstream media associates Shenzhen with either factories or technology. Here are my favorite places to window shop and de-stress in Shenzhen.
Shenzhen Musical Instrument City
One of the most fascinating markets I’ve been to is Shenzhen Musical Instrument City, an indoor shopping mall with 20,000 square meters of space on four floors. It was the largest indoor musical instrument market in China when it opened in 2006. It’s a hub for music stores consisting of extensive collections of traditional Chinese musical instruments as well as western ones such as string and brass instruments. It’s located near the Science Museum metro station one stop from Hua Qiang Bei, the main electronics market in Shenzhen. I often stay in that area as it’s inexpensive and a short walk away from the electronics buildings that I frequent. The first two floors consist of general stalls and shops but once you get to the third and fourth floors, it turns into a musician’s wonderland.
The mall in its current condition is showing its age and hasn’t been the success that people had initially imagined. It’s in a bit of disrepair and as you climb to the upper floors, the escalators no longer work properly, there’s trash randomly strewn on the ground, and more than a few empty shops dot the mall. A lot of this can likely be attributed to the area’s focus on technology and manufacturing at the expense of classical arts as well as the worldwide march towards STEM education as arts funding decreases.
The owners of many of the shops are music aficionados and will actually play music on their instruments in the downtime when no customers are around. They are also craftspeople and perform instrument modifications and repairs themselves according to the demands of each customer.
Inside the mall, there is also a mini recital hall where clubs and organizations can get together to put on small music performances. I was lucky enough to catch a group rehearsing there on traditional Chinese instruments. It’s really nice and a wonderful change of pace from the rushed life at the Hua Qiang Bei electronic markets.
Dafen Oil Painting Village
The Dafen Oil Painting Village is an enclosed multi-block neighborhood that comprises hundreds of shops dedicated to painting and the arts. Contrary to its name, Dafen also has many sculptors, pottery makers, illustrators, and other types of artists, but the overwhelming focus in the area is oil painting.
The tiny area is believed to be the largest mass producer of oil paintings in the world and is the go-to place when hotels need artwork to decorate multiple rooms in their establishment. It’s also geared towards commissioned artwork where you can hire an artist to paint an oil portrait or convert a picture or digital image into an oil painting. Prices vary, but for a hand painted, framed, oil painting of a simple color illustration about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, I’ve gotten quotes around $20 USD. If you need a mass produced canvas print of an illustration, it’s even cheaper and can get down to around $3 per canvas with a high resolution inkjet print.
When buying oil painting canvases in bulk they can either be hand painted or inkjet printed. The paintings above range between $3 and $20 depending on which process generated the piece. Large format inkjet printers can print graphics onto canvases for very low prices. It’s perfect for collector’s items or special edition illustrations that you want to sell.
The whole area is geared towards mass produced artwork where vendors and storefront people handle sales and negotiations. Then there’s a fleet of freelance artists that take on jobs based on pay and availability and work out of small corners, alleyways, or inside cramped apartment buildings. Framers line the streets and are constantly cutting wood strips that will be used for custom framing the commissioned paintings. Finally, there are numerous shipping agents in the area with the appropriate packaging materials for delicate artwork and will advise on the various shipping options to get it to any international location in the world.
Along with all the storefronts filled with artwork, there are numerous beautiful bars and cafes. The whole area is very aesthetically conscious so a lot of thought goes into the interior décor, dishes, and flatware. They serve as an excellent escape from the mountains of art that bombard you as you walk around the village.
One of my favorite things to do in Dafen is to walk through the various art supply shops. You can find all types of art supplies and specialty tools. It’s also possible to find jugs of oil and acrylic paints by the liter as well as other paints in every color of the (Pantone) rainbow.
Sungang Arts and Crafts City
The Sungang Arts and Crafts City houses multiple markets that cater to specific audiences.
One of the first markets you’ll see is the Sungang wholesale stationery market which occupies two multi-story buildings near Luohu. This market houses multiple adjacent stalls that are jam packed with office supplies, stationery goods, shredders, safes, and pretty much anything else you’d need to jot down notes or run a business.
The Sungang wholesale toy market is in one of the buildings right next to it and has many commodity toys and plushies that are manufactured in the surrounding area. The toy shops are packed floor to ceiling with goods and the vendors are a bit pushy since they’re geared towards selling quantity goods cheap. Most of the stalls are front ends for factories outside of Shenzhen and if you discuss with the stall owners, you can usually arrange to get goods custom made, modified, or private labeled.
The Sungang furniture market occupies multiple buildings and actually consists of both furniture and interior décor craft items. You can find everything from cheap, mass market sofas, giant vases that are taller than me, to giant, hand-carved, wooden animal figures. It was possible to see items from bohemian tasteful to drug cartel gawdy and pretty much everywhere in between. The place spans hundreds of thousands of square meters in total and I’ve never been able to get through the whole thing. If you have time or the interest in interior design, I definitely recommend checking it out.
Luohu Fabric Mall
The Luohu Fabric Mall is located on the fifth floor of the LuoHu Shopping Mall at LuoHu station in Shenzhen. It’s right at the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong and many Hong Kong residents cross into Shenzhen just to access the fabric mall. From the entrance of the mall, the floor is jam packed with stalls that stock every type of fabric, textile, and accessories. It’s not a wholesale clothing market in a traditional sense because there’s not many finished goods there.
You go there with an idea for some type of clothing, towel, or linen you want made, choose the fabric from the many stalls, and then choose a bespoke tailor in the back that will make it for you. You can bring illustrations, sketches, magazine pictures, or personal photos of things you want. Many people bring photos of clothing they want copied, but in a specific color, fabric, or tailored to exactly fit them.
Once the work and money details are agreed upon, the tailors in the back will measure you out, write out a work order, and tell you how long it will take to receive the goods. If you don’t have the fabric, they will also take you out into the fabric mall to purchase fabrics for the order. Most likely, there is some kickback scheme, so it’s best to purchase fabrics before you go to the tailors if possible. In any case, having custom bespoke clothing or linens made is quite simple and inexpensive.
I had a faux fur coat custom made for me there for approximately $40, not including the fur fabric. You will need to haggle for the pricing and often, you’ll need to haggle quite hard. Ideally, you should shop your idea to multiple tailors until you find one you trust and can give you a decent price. Once you find a good tailor, it’s best to just stick with them so you don’t have to constantly haggle and can build up some trust. Once there’s some loyalty established, it’s possible that they’ll offer you options or deals that regular customers won’t get.
I now no longer bother purchasing basic home linens in standard retail outlets. Every trip out to Shenzhen, I bring along a list of linens that I need such as fitted bedsheets, pillow cases, towels, bath mats, etc along with the dimensions. I then head to Luohu and have them custom made there. It’s really empowering to know that I can have anything I want made there according to the fabric, pattern, and color of my choosing. The best thing of all is that it’s a fraction of the cost I’d pay at standard retail outlets.
Cotton fabrics in patterns and colors abound for bedsheets and covers. I’ve since become a bit of a hipster with my linens and prefer bamboo fabric or linen for my coverings. I really like the bamboo fiber textiles since they’re so soft. Bamboo fibers have some antibacterial properties which is an added plus
You can have custom made towels in the fabric and pattern of your choice and in whatever style and size you want. You can also get them monogrammed. There is a wide range of raw towel materials which they will cut and process to size based on your request. Also shown above are some of the raw materials used for custom bath mats.
Random Chinese food markets
Traditional Chinese food markets are all over the place in Shenzhen with fresh produce, freshly butchered meats, and live chickens and seafood. It’s also possible to get all manner of freshly prepared foods at these markets including meat buns, smoked/barbecued meats, noodles, tofu, and lots of other delicious foods. Food markets are one of my favorite places to escape to since I can wander around looking at all the different foods that are not available where I live and think about what kind of dishes they can be used in. The photos in this set were taken at a Chinese food market right behind the electronics market in Hua Qiang Bei and is one of my frequent haunts when I’m on a long stint in Shenzhen.
Above you can see both fruit and vegetable stands found in open food markets in Shenzhen near Hua Qiang Bei. There are many opportunities to have delicious Chinese breakfast pancakes and pastries as part of the shopping experience. Dried mushrooms, beans, and herbs can be found in open bags brought in by merchants.
Freshly butchered meats can be found. Most of the meat used is pork which is a staple in Chinese diets. Beef is not as common traditionally. Live chickens provide a source of fresh eggs and meat while preserved Chinese sweet meats and sausages hang in one of the deli stalls.
Shenzhen has more to offer than just electronics and factories. This is just small sample of some of the interesting markets that can be found in Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta that would be worth a visit. There is a lot of culture here, and anyone who makes more than one trip to Shenzhen should add some of these experiences to their plan.
Akiba is founder of FreakLabs, an open source wireless sensor networking company, and has started multiple hackerspaces around the world. He’s currently working on establishing a hackerspace in Dharamsala, India in the Himalayas and Hackerfarm in rural Japan focused on agricultural technology. When he’s not on a farm, he can be found on the streets of Shenzhen hustling for electronics or hanging out on factory floors.