Ask Hackaday: What Should Father Christmas Bring From Shenzhen?

Imagine this, you have a friend who grew up in Shenzhen, China. The place from whence all your really cool electronics come these days. They speak Chinese in a way only someone born there can, and given that you know them through a shared interest in hardware hacking you can assume they know their way round those famous electronics marts of their home town.

Now, imagine that in a rash move, your friend has offered to pick up a few bits for you on their next trip home. A whole city-sized electronic candy store opens up in front of you, but what do you ask for them to seek out?

Before you continue, consider this. Why has Shenzhen become the powerhouse of electronic manufacturing (and everything else) that it is? Economists will give you pages of fascinating background, but if you want a simple answer it is that those electronics are produced for export, and that its citizens are only too happy to export them to you. Therefore if you want to get your hands on electronics from Shenzhen you do not need a friend who is a native of the city, all you need is a web browser and a PayPal account.

We have all become used to seeking out the cool stuff and eagerly waiting for a padded envelope from China Post a week or two later, so there are very few items that are worth putting a friend to the extra task of finding. At which point you realize that it is the candy store rather than the candy itself which is so alluring, and you ask your friend for a video walkthrough with commentary of their travels through the electronics marts. Oh, and maybe a Chinese Raspberry Pi with red solder resist, just for the collection.

If you had a friend about to board a plane to Shenzhen, what would you ask them to find for you that you can’t just buy for yourself online? Remember, nothing that’ll land them with awkward questions at either airport, nor anything that’ll land them with a hefty customs bill. That’s a very good way to end a friendship.

Huaqiangbei skyline image: Edward Rivens (PD) via Wikimedia Commons.

59 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: What Should Father Christmas Bring From Shenzhen?

  1. I went to Shenzhen and was full of “what can I buy” before I set off. After I got there I realised it is still easier to buy off Aliexpress than it is to find anything even in the big stores. They are kind of cool though going from finished product on the ground floor through all stages of assembly to nuts bolts and transistors on the top floor.

    1. have been to the markets quite a few times (I work in Shenzhen) and I still find internet shopping easier. At the market I tend to buy loads of crap I don’t really want and never use and usually cannot find what I actually want.

      Taobao and Google translate is the way to go.

        1. Typically much cheaper, you can sort hundreds of vendors by price. Whilst you are in Shenzhen you can get it all delivered to your hotel. Once you get home it is a lot more difficult, you need an agent to collect the items and forward them to you which is a pain. Also getting taoBao credit can be a little teedious but i believe you can buy it from corner stores much like mobile phone recharges.

        2. No, just delivery is cheaper to china obviously. Also there are some things that are not sold on aliexpress (due to copyright?) and some things which are not sold directly on taobao (due to nonexistent market in china). So if you plan a trip to china, it only makes sense to grab the heaviest things off taobao or locally. I have tried to go around the malls but it never really is worth it, they have pretty much turned into massive distribution centers for online stores these days anyway and an actual customer is a rare sight in some places already. Also they are probably making more money online so they are not terribly interested of customers asking stupid questions.

          Personally I would look into power supplies, 3d-printers (probably some knock off with a good frame), other bigger assemblies such as car lights or e-scooter parts and of course general supplies such as shrink tubing rolls, wire, etc., anything to fill the bags with.

    2. Haven’t been to the Shenzhen markets but did make it to the Shanghai “Electronics Market” once on a business trip a few years ago. Was a 6 or 7 story building PACKED with those famous tiny cubicles (for lack of a better word) of little businesses selling every electronic known to man. I was in heaven and was also the only Westener in the entire place. Wished I’d had a copy of Bunny’s electronics translation book with me!

      1. I don’t whenever possible.
        The world market is such now, unless I was off grid doing a subsistence only lifestyle it would
        be difficult to avoid everything made in a foreign country if not still impossible.

        1. Of course if everybody did that (only buy from his own country) the economy would collapse and we’d be back to the primitive times. A better solution is to start making stuff foreigners will want to buy.

  2. You might think about a reflow rig if that’s not too big for buddy to bring. I’d also be thinking about other larger things like 3D printers. I dunno about smaller stuff, 50 of the cheapest ARM-duino-ish boards he can find so you can run linux on everything? Linux dog flap, linux shower head, linux hot water tank…. ….

  3. Well, first of all it seems I can easily get whatever I want from China with the aforementioned browser and Paypal account. Jaw-droppingly low prices, free postage, no taxes/duty on delivery. This is truly a golden time for buying electronic parts and subassemblies, and I have a hard time imagining that it’s going to last forever…

    What I am really waiting for from China is to see what they develop themselves, as they transition from low-cost maker of others’ designs to original innovation and engineering. Sort of like Japan did in the last part of the 20th century.

    So, I would ask Santa to bring me some examples of such new designs, so that I can get a jump on everyone else in setting up North American distribution.

      1. … is that not still with a Tensilica-designed core? (I haven’t looked). But yes, good example – I would definitely consider Espressif an example of Chinese innovation. I was all over the ESP8266 (another 10 on order!), so I actually haven’t had the inclination to get into the ESP32 yet, But Santa could drop off a couple of those, yeah.

    1. Though far more mundane, but those LED bulbs with “filament” strips that make them look like retro incandescent bulbs… That was a purely Chinese innovation. They repurposed the old incandescent bulb factories, and retooled to make the product with much of the same tooling and work skill sets, but with the LED strips instead of tungsten wire. The LED strips are innovative themselves, as they use numerous lower power dies strung in series, which solves part of the heat dissipation issue by spreading out the power draw over multiple dies. I’ve got several in my home, and I love them! They function AND look nice!

      I suspect it’s only a matter of time though before something truly groundbreaking comes out of that country. So much engineering talent has developed over there.

  4. Big/heavy stuff that will lbe expensive to ship but will fit a larger travel bag and weight restrictions on the plane. Cnc machines, stepper motors, BLDC, aluminium profiles? Linear elements?

    1. Last time I did something like that, accompanied baggage/freight was something like a buck a pound, but standard parcel mail double, luggage forwarding services triple, etc…

        1. Naomi – Maybe you should post an extra email address here so that Hackaday readers of this comment stream could contact you in the event any of them from the US were traveling to China. It wouldn’t be too hard to throw a few extra Pi Zero’s in the suitcase and mail them to you once in China. I bet someone would be willing to do it as a hacker-to-hacker favor and only charge the US price + tax (and no shipping of course!). :-)

  5. You folks should check out polida2008 on ebay.
    A seller of misc. genuine new old stock components.
    So in reply to the question… A grab bag of random new old stock IC’s.

    As for something interesting… Some of their computers of the 1980’s.
    We’ve heard about the clever cost-effective production techniques of
    Soviet machines. Therefore… I’m curious what machines they had during the
    time and if they bare any similarities.

    As for something a bit more questionable, Fighter-jet aviation equipment.
    btw, any SU-27 fans here? hehe

    1. From what little I know of Soviet computers (mostly the ZX Spectrum clones), they cloned a lot of Western computers, sometimes using a board full of 7400 TTL rather than the ULA or other custom chip the original used. That, and a few cloned CP/M machines (with cloned Z80 CPU), some early IBM PC clones.

      The Russians had the Pentagon and Scorpion. ZX Spectrum clones, in the early 1990s, when Spectrums were pretty much out of date in the West. Because their technology was advanced from 1982 Britain, their versions were more advanced than ours, but still behind compared to contemporary Western products.

      There were also a few Soviet designed machines, like the 8-bit think Alexey Pazhitnov first wrote Tetris on. Had a text-mode display, was really pretty basic. I think the Soviets made lots of machines along those lines for business. Also stuff like cloned Vaxen and other minis. So, really, Western stuff but a few years behind, pretty much.

      Of course an actual former Soviet citizen could tell you more. Even what I know, I find quite interesting.

  6. A lot of the coolest stuff at the SEG you will never see online. It is equipment and parts for manufacturing and devices from the in-between stages of manufacturing. The only way is to wander about the first 5 floors of the SEG building and other marts, and take your time.

    Why is Shenzhen City like it is? Well, consider that it is a Chinese city with no history. It sprang into being recently on the edges of what were called the “New Territories” opposite Hong Kong. Consider that despite being in the middle of Cantonese territory (Guangdong Province. Guangzhou is where the Portuguese set up business and was called Canton, and is about an hour up the river from Shenzhen, and definitely lots of Cantonese.) in Shenzhen City, Mandarin is spoken a great deal.

    So, you have a young very rapidly growing city with a population drawn from all over China, and drawn for many reasons. A lot of the people are there for high tech and finance and sales jobs and a lot are there with the goal of starting a business (which is made very easy in China – like 24 hours to get all the permits and internet and phone and office equipment) and many simply for work of any sort away from the farms or the very polluted northern cities. Mandarin is used because of the wide diversity of the place of origin for so much of the Shenzhen population, and it is what is taught in the schools.

    When in doubt, use written Chinese. It is the same in both.

    1. No problem, if you’re wiling to take Chinese wages.

      The only way to be competitive is to do stuff that they can’t.

      Manhattan used to be full of factories, because that made sense at the time. You had factories stacked on top of each other in multiple floors. It was the most efficient, even though the land was expensive and in short supply. As infrastructure expanded, it became feasible to build factories on cheap land in Anytown, USA. The farmers there were more than happy to switch to working better-paying factory jobs. And for a while it did result in lots of unhappy, unemplyed New Yorkers, because they were out-competed by Anytown, USA. But over time, the populace requalified itslef and Manhattan turned to doing something that’s more advanced than manufacturing, stuff that requires brain power instead of manual labor, like technology, engineering, research, finance.

      Some time later, the same story began in China. Their lower standards of living and vast population made them incredibly competitive providers of manual labor. But the research and designs come from first world countries.

      The shift of manufacturing from Anytown, USA to China is just the next iteration of the same story, the logical result of everyone wanting cheap products. And the only thing Anytown, USA can do about it is to focus on doing stuff that the Chinese can’t. The era of low-tech manufacturing in Anytown, USA is simply coming to an end, and there’s no one to be angry at.

  7. I went to Shenzhen two months ago. Everything on show on Huaqiangbei Rd is available on toaboa, aliexpress and eBay. The real attraction in what can be done in Shenzhen. Overnight PCB prototypes, zero wait on parts and direct consultation with parts manufacturers. What would usually take weeks to do in Australia can be done in hours in Shenzhen.

    1. You should also hope that it works. As usual, I ordered a ton of stuff for 11.11, and as usual there are loads of problems with the stuff I’m receiving. Also lots of BS from sellers in my communications with them, which makes me want to fly to Shenzhen (where I actually go occasionally, since my wife is from Guangzhou) and knock a few heads together.

      I figure I have about a 20% final failure rate on AliExpress, even after my best attempts to get problems fixed (sometimes having my wife call sellers and chew them out in colorful Cantonese). But there are lots of projects that I wouldn’t even attempt if I had to pay much higher prices for the components, so I keep going back. Hard on the blood pressure, though.

  8. You beat me to it.
    I want something without lead paint, no counterfeit parts and is based on their own original work/design. But then again I imagine EpiPens would be a good buy since they probably work as well and are being sold just above cost.

  9. I personally would like to have more affordable and obtainable LiFePo4 batteries with SMBus (I2C) output in decent size ranges. I had to scour the earth to get the ones I have now, and the source was in China– “O’Cell Technologies”. On the plus side, they work really well and I’m very happy with them.

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