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Shenzhen trip report – visiting the world's manufacturing ecosystem (ito.com)
203 points by sadfaceunread on Sept 1, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments

One anecdotal story: One summer I went back to Shenzhen and decided to get a PlayStation 2 with a mod chip installed so I can play pirated games (I was a poor student).

Now, there was this one mod chip that was really good but requires a bit of soldering work to get it installed right, and me, being an EE student, was no stranger to a soldering iron, so I planned to do it myself after buying the chip.

So I bought a brand new PS2/mod chip combo from this small electronics store and the shirtless owner actually offered to solder it for me for free. I took up on the offer since I get to test the chip on the spot as well.

He opened up the PS2 case, with one hand took up a soldering iron, while the other hand holding a cigarette, started working. I nervously watched him tapping around my brand new PS2's motherboard with just one hand while paying most of the attention to the live soccer game on TV at the time. 5 minutes later he was finished and 8 years later that PS2 is still working and reads all pirated discs with absolutely no problems.

Throughout college I've never met anyone who's as good at soldering as this shirtless electronics shop owner I met in Shenzhen.

You can find these people everywhere in China, even Beijing. Weirdly enough, many of them here are Uighers.

One possible conclusion I drew from your anecdote is fascinating me : that if governments formulate the right policies to create powerful new industries and demand for them, even those who aren't formally educated in those industries are capable of making themselves just as skilled, if not more, simply by repeatedly practising those skills and driven by the profit motive (I'm assuming that this shop owner is not formally educated in EE).

> In an interesting twist, the factory boss suggested that we could build the precision molding tools in China and then send these tools to a US shop for running production.

> This role reversal is an indicator of how the technology, trade, and know-how for injection molding has shifted to Shenzhen. Even if US has the manufacturing capacity, key parts of the knowledge ecosystem currently exist only in Shenzhen.

This is what really saddens me about outsourcing manufacturing from America, is that we lose the knowledge about manufacturing technology. Although we may be at the forefront of software development, in many areas of manufacturing technology the cutting edge development happens in China now.

I'd really like if we could bring about a revival in manufacturing engineering in the US. Other than the ecosystem effect, the main way that China has an advantage is labor cost, so I propose that we could build up a "Shenzhen of America" in the San Diego / Tijuana free trade zone. The repetitive work that takes a lot of hours would be done on the Mexico side, where labor is now almost as cheap as China. The manufacturing engineering and tool-making would both happen on the American side, bringing these jobs back to the USA from China.

San Diego / Tijuana are shipping ports on the Pacific, facilitating importing electronic components from China, Japan, and Korea, and then we could do all of the PCB fab, PCB assembly, injection molding, and final device assembly (as well as all tooling for all of these processes) over here in the Americas.

I'm very supportive of China's development but competition is good and as American citizens we can't just throw in the towel, we have to build our manufacturing knowledgebase back up and be willing to actually compete.

>...we have to build our manufacturing knowledgebase back up and be willing to actually compete.

Some days I think this, other days not. There’s an old expression “box a wrestler, and wrestle a boxer”. Basically don’t compete on their strengths if you can avoid it. Better to fight a shark on land than to start taking swimming lessons:-)

The thing is- as huge as America's manufacturing gap with Mainland China is, the creativity gap is equally large. That’s a result of our much maligned Western educational system.

Art class in Mainland China is the teacher draws a bird on the board, all the students copy that bird. I'm not passing judgement on that- it's just a different system. When I was a kid in New York Public School- the teacher said “draw a bird” and we had birds in the park, Godzilla size birds destroying the city, robot birds- no two were alike. In China it's very much a color-inside-the-lines affair. There is a little movement here, but it’s very slow and only with very well educated Chinese parents who see the advantage: http://www.dddyin.com/portal.php?mod=view&aid=2580

Before a project with the scale and ambition of bringing back American manufacturing was launched, I’d like to see how this existing high value attribute could better be monetize and scaled. It will take a long time before we can ever hope to make things as well as the Chinese now do- but we can design better things now. The problem is profiting from that without stifling domestic innovation.

You're definitely right - why not both? I'd like us to succeed in all areas. To use a very cliché word, there's a big "synergy" if we have both creativity and manufacturing in this country. For example, the product I work on is a pair of smart glasses with a computer inside. The idea is not unique, it's our innovations in engineering and manufacturing that let us make our product much smaller and more stylish than competitors. Our creativity is applied in solving these technical and manufacturing problems.

To make a metaphor with cofounders at a software startup: right now, the USA buying from China is like the USA is an "idea guy" / "business guy" who has an idea and access to capital, but no ability to implement the tech, and China is like an outsourced coder. But this duo is a little disfunctional, I wouldn't want to be either one of those characters. I'd much rather be the best of both worlds: a smart and creative technical founder who can have the ideas AND implement them. That guy's company will run circles around the other duo... As an example, SpaceX, by having both the ideas (reusable rocket) AND owning the factory, SpaceX can make rockets much more cheaply than competitors who design in the USA but outsource e.g. the engine production (ULA Atlas V rocket uses Russian-built engines)

Some capital owners may prefer to use online labor marketplaces (e.g. 99designs, fiverr) to commoditize global creativity, drive down prices and avoid labor law obligations that apply to full-time employees.

That would probably require a revival of Americans actually having the motivation to go to trade-school to be a machinist, carpenter, electronics manufacturing technician, etc.

On the other hand the US is steeped in an omnipresent push toward the value of a '4-year degree' no matter the discipline.

Until there is a serious motivational shift toward technical-trade, America's workforce will continue to atrophy it's industrial knowledge base.

How are these jobs perceived in America?

I've found that if people even have any idea about what e.g. a machinist does, they tend to see it as a dirty low-paying blue collar job for dumb people. Which can be true, but it doesn't have to be this way. The problem in .fi is the divide between smart students (who go to high school and then pursue higher education, which means no skilled trades) and vocational education which is for the rest of the students, who don't get good grades or just don't care about studying, etc.

But there's a lot of cool tech involved in machining & fabrication, and if there was a programme that maintained the academic level suitable for the better students and combined the trade with e.g. mechanical engineering or mechatronics, I'd see a lot more people getting into it. I've also heard that in some countries there are high schools during which you also learn a vocation or two.

I think I lived through high school without ever hearing the word "machinist" or even knowing what it really meant. And I suspect this is the case for the other students I knew.

Today, I'm going to spend around seven hours playing with a CNC lathe. In the evening, I'll be attending another school to study machine & fab tech (it's an engineering degree). So far, I'm loving it :-)

I got thrown into a machine shop as part of my engineering degree at a university-in-name-but-practically-a-polytechnic in Canada and in retrospect I am super glad. It was an excellent widening of perspective and gave me appreciation for physical side of the work (feasibility, implementability, etc). It is true I didn't give it much thought before.

Agreed 100% perception is a "big issue". At my engineering program we had the "ITLL" (Integrated Technology Learning Lab) which had a cross-discipline set of tools and laboratories (Machine shop, 3d Printers, Fluids Lab, Electronic workbenches, etc.)

Pretty much the only thing it lacked that I thought it should have had was a bio-engineering and/or chemistry laboratory, but there were those in the specific programs.

Even doing Computer Science, the exposure to using an a lathe and a 3D printer, was very eye-opening, and fortunately for the engineers, and imop one of the most useful learning tools at the entire major university.

It was the first time I actually felt like my engineering degree (or any 4-year degree from my University) was actually touching the real-world. It's a shame only a small subset of disciplines in engineering spent any real time there (and it was mostly introductory classes)

I grew up in Milwaukee, and my mother worked at the local technical college, so I heard about tool-and-die making and machining and so on growing up.

But the last 30 years or so haven't been kind to skilled manufacturing workers in the Upper Midwest, and on account of that I think most people who had other options avoided the field. I know one classmate's older brother became a welder, and he's spent a lot of time unemployed in the past few years.

Practical skills are certainly seen as seperate from design. It is amazing how many engineers can't even use AutoCAD! What this article is saying is that in Shenzhen people with practical skills can also be creative.

Yes, being here in Hong Kong now, I'm going to try to find an opportunity to spent some more time in Shenzhen and def. want to look into some of these exploratory incubators!

A lot of what you are suggesting is quite feasible today. I work for a company that does its PCBA's and final assembly here in North America. PCBA assembly is so automated that there is actually not much benefit to making them overseas and has a lot of added flexibility. Exactly the reason we are able to do that is because we are located close to a major shipping port.

Tool making is such a labourious process (even with all the CNC machines available) that I don't see it coming back to North America unless wages significantly increase in Asia. Other countries like Mexico or Malaysia definitely can or are providing competition with China on these fronts too.

Good point about the tool-making being labor intensive, I guess I really mean the tool design should happen in the USA so we learn that knowledge. Ideally a corporate campus could straddle the USA/Mex border and have some buildings on each side that are just a walk apart.

Forget about America, think about Germany. Many of their small/medium sized companies produce factory tools, and they still have great business in China, but that could change quickly.

Isn't that what a maquiladora [1] is?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maquiladora

Yes! Although the term Maquiladora may have a connotation of low-tech work, e.g. textiles rather than high-tech electronics.

Much of this is the result of a single- or limited-iteration analysis of the manufacturing ecosystem by decision makers and policy analysts. Elsewhere in this thread, there are comments about how "blue collar" jobs are looked down upon by "white collar" workers. This excerpt puts the lie to that notion:

They had access to the factories, but more importantly, they had access to the trade skills (and secrets) of all of the big brand phone manufacturers whose schematics could be found for sale in shops. These schematics and the engineers in the factories knew the state of the art and could apply this know-how to their own scrappy designs that could be more experimental and crazy. In fact many new technologies had been invented by these "pirates" such as the dual sim card phone....There is a very low cost chipset that bunnie talks about that seems to be driving these phones which is not available outside of China, but they appear to do quad-band GSM, bluetooth, SMS, etc. on a chip that costs about $2. The retail price of the cheapest full featured phone is about $9. Yes. $9. This could not be designed in the US -- this could only be designed by engineers with tooling grease under their fingernails who knew the manufacturing equipment inside and out, as well as the state of the art of high-end mobile phones.

What happened was decision makers and policy analysts took a snapshot in time of the ecosystem throughout the 1950-70's, and decided that certain activities would be "low value" for all time, ever more, amen, period, end of story. What is ironic is that the same strata of high priests today are banging the drum of "innovation". You even see the hanging of the West's future hat on innovation in this thread.

While in software we deplore leaky abstractions, it turns out having leaky abstractions in that high priest strata would have been A Good Thing. Airtight abstraction of what the manufacturing sector actually does caused them to miss how the chaotic, unruly, boisterous activity they characterized as "low value" is evolution in action. More importantly, that activity enables a continuous Cambrian explosion of small, Fail Fast projects to take place in the interstices of the ecosystem in a positive feedback loop of constant improvement working hand-in-glove with design activities that cannot be matched by a top-down, centralized command-and-control system that separates design from manufacturing. The sheer economic inefficiencies strangle the top-down approach in a near "because physics" set piece explanation.

If you expect to innovate your way to economic success through design-heavy activities without a correspondingly massive, vibrant manufacturing ecosystem that surrounds the design/sales/marketing/management ecosystems, then you're gonna have a bad time.

For China to "win", that does not mean America has to "lose". For America to also "win" in the future in this landscape will take the kind of massive mindset change that is rarely seen in history. But if I had to bet money on any nation making that kind of change, it would be America. It might not happen soon enough for many people's tastes, but that's pretty par for the course for America.

I’ve lived in Shenzhen for almost 10 years (native New Yorker).

This article was a bit better than most for Shenzhen- it was at least willing to speculate that a lot of Shenzhen’s advantage now comes from talent and infrastructure. It’s still pretty common for people to attribute it entirely to lower labor costs- which is just not the case.

Shenzhen, like New York is an immigrant city. People come from all over China to get ahead, and get rich. Unlike New York it’s only a bit over 30 years old- and back then it was basically a fishing village. This is important because of the Hukou system: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hukou_system It’s a bit long to go into (check the link) but basically it ties people to their birthplace and gives them a significant “home field” advantage.

If you are in Shanghai or Beijing and have a local Hukou you have access to the best education system, the highest paid jobs in both the public and private sector, and often a large network of friends and family members in local government. People from Shanghai or Beijing rarely immigrate to Shenzhen because they lose that advantage and are forced to compete with what they would consider the rabble. People from other provinces can rarely compete on even ground with locals- both for legal and cultural reasons. The rivalry is less like US States and more like countries within the EU- but worse.

A “local” in Shanghai may feel perfectly entitled to cut to the front of a line if those people are "Waidiren” (outer province people- 外地人). It’s considered perfectly reasonable for migrant children not to get the same healthcare or schooling. The local dialog about them in every city is a familiar one- basically “damned dirty immigrants taking our jobs and committing crimes”. Needless to say the Central Government is quite keen to keep the provinces deeply prejudiced against each other- because it distracts their attention from the real culprits.

Shenzhen on the other hand is by far the most egalitarian city in China. The city is so young that no one really has an "Uncle" etc. in local government willing to “investigate” competitors or send some easy government contracts their way. There is little difference between those few born in Shenzhen and those who came a few years ago. There is no local dialect that is used to subtly determine who’s “local”- everyone basically speaks Mandarin.

So for people in relatively poor provinces (Hunan, Hubei etc), with brains and education but little in the way of prospects due to their Hukou, Shenzhen represents the best possible opportunity to compete in a first tier city almost purely on merit. Success here is based largely on hustle, brains and hard work- while in other cities at least 50% is simple corruption (well placed relatives in banking and government). Most Chinese would place the number even higher.

So Shenzhen gets a lot of China’s best and brightest, but also those who are inherently ambitious- because they were willing to leave their hometowns and family (a much bigger deal here). A huge amount of the slow grinding machinery of legacy corruption does not exist here (massive numbers of bureaucrats given comfortable jobs doing basically nothing as a form of social welfare). It happens occasional sure- but not to the point that it does in other cities where merit and hard work is almost meaningless next to the right connections.

The result is a giant magnet for talent and a massive, well funded playing field where that talent competes with significant rewards reserved for the most skilled, clever and hardworking.

There are a lot of incredibly smart highly motivated people here- and that, more than just simple labor costs is responsible for Shenzhen’s market position.

I've found that corruption can decrease the farther one gets away from Beijing. Some cities like Hangzhou, Kunming, and even Guangzhou are run much better than the capital. This only applies to a point: there are some pretty awfully run cities out there (like say Changsha).

It must be said that Shenzhen is also China's LGBT capital, for mostly the same reasons you listed above (parents and even spouses are often far away).

Edit: however, Beijing, being a seat of power, as a lot of waidi ren. The only Beijingers I meet often with hukou are taxi drivers, and even these people come from the more rural suburbs (some new grad hires are eligible for hukou, but even that has been cut recently). The hukou situation still sucks compared to Shenzhen. On the other hand, the police are absolutely terrified of enforcing traffic laws: you can never tell who knows who; residency isn't a good indicator of guangxi (and is probably inversely correlated).

Source: 7 years in Beijing.

How comfortable is it to live in Shenzen as an expat? I spent half a year in Changsha and Shanghai as an undergrad and absolutely fell in love with the country in ways I never did for Japan. I found that feeling odd since I spent years studying Japanese and ultimately wound up teaching English in Hokkaido for a year.

I'll probably spend another two or three years stateside with my family, but ultimately I am disdainful of American materialism. I can't come to grips with the price of rent, the long commutes, and the costs associated with living here. Maybe I'm just too frugal. I grew up an only child honestly having more than I needed, and as a consequence I don't want to accumulate anything material that is just superfluous. I'd love to live in a capsule hotel with just my laptop and bike. I suppose I'm getting way off topic...

My Mandarin is pretty bad as I only studied it off and on for six months or so. Do you see a late 20-something white software engineer as being capable of making a living in Shenzhen? Or is this a pipe dream? What recommendations could you make?

>How comfortable is it to live in Shenzen as an expat?

A lot more comfortable in the past few years. For example the things you see in stories about China- line cutting, spitting and pooping in the street. These are nearly unheard of now (in Shenzhen, rest of China it still happens). Up until three years ago if you wanted service in a restaurant you would bellow fúwùyuán in their general direction, they would stare at you blankly, have a shoving contest with their co-workers to see who had to deal with the foreigner and eventually someone would come over. Now a discreet US style hand gesture usually is all that is needed.

As a very loose comparison with Hong Kong I would stay there is less English in Shenzhen, but in terms of modernity and cleanliness it is now equal. I actually find Shenzhen locals to be more polite in recent years, although it is far easier to find foreign goods in Hong Kong. You can get basically anything on Taobao now though it’s not a huge problem. Shenzhen changes fast- so this is all a recent development.

>Do you see a late 20-something white software engineer as being capable of making a living in Shenzhen? Or is this a pipe dream? What recommendations could you make?

Just living here is easy but there are a lot of expats who live here and are desperately unhappy (see r/China). Most of the people I know that live here and are actually happy do not work for Chinese companies. The differences in corporate culture are significant.

I’d suggest working online as a freelancer or for a foreign company. Chinese companies pay programmers very poorly. Best case would be to build a small clientele before you come.

>My Mandarin is pretty bad as I only studied it off and on for six months or so.

Survival Mandarin only takes a few months and is more then sufficient to get around. How much you decide to learn after that depends on you but fluency is certainly not a requirement. You can come here with zero Mandarin and do just fine- just be creative with a dictionary. Chinese are very patient about these things.

It is possible to make big bucks at Chinese companies, at least in Beijing. You need management or specialty skills, 100K/month is not unheard of. You might not last more than a few months though, those positions can be brutal, especially if you are the only foreigner.

There's still positions like that- but yup, brutal.

> I’d suggest working online as a freelancer or for a foreign company. Chinese companies pay programmers very poorly.

Well, how would you be allowed to stay in China then?

>Well, how would you be allowed to stay in China then?

Only work for a foreign company in China if they can get you a legitimate work visa, but for just working online from home an M visa is fine (at least this year, until they change the rules again).

I'm not an expat, I grew up in Shanghai and came to the U.S. for highschool and college, so I don't really know much about the life of an expat.

But as far as foreigner go, it's really rare seeing them taking engineering roles in China. As far as I can see, China is just every bit as materialistic as U.S., if not more so.

I know plenty of foreigner engineers, most of my friends actually. It's not that rare at all, at least in zhongguancun.

Materialism abounds in China, but the average middle-class lifestyle is frugal by American standards.

There are a handful of small, expat-owned software agencies in the major Chinese cities. These are your best bet for getting the type of job you want. Chinese firms in general will underpay and overwork their software engineers. Most of the computer science grads are focused on learning enterprise-y stuff like Java and .Net because that's what big companies want.

If you want to live a non-materialistic life in the USA it is very well possible. Just move into the Rockies, there are plenty of people there living a life that you would probably feel very comfortable with.

> ultimately I am disdainful of American materialism

Then you might not want to try Chinese materialism...

> Do you see a late 20-something white software engineer as being capable of making a living in Shenzhen?

As an American, you'd likely be much better off doing contract work for US clients than working for local companies (this is almost universally true for any country you'd be in).


I'm living in Shenzhen for almost 10 months now, after moving from Beijing after three years. I can only correlate living in Shenzhen with living in Beijing for an expat. My Chinese is only basic too. Ok here were go with plus sides first:

- being smaller city, Shenzhen still have the "wow" factor for foreigners. It's easier to find better paid (compared to Chinese counterparts) job, easier to handle things, easier to survive by being "lost expat"

- if you get tired of China (and many of us do), HK is just 1h away and you instantly have different experience. It might sound silly but it's very valuable

- cheaper than bigger counterparts

- Shenzhen is ~35 years old, build with grow in mind. That means that subway is great, traffic is great. Notion of traffic jam here is very very small compared to other big cities. If you drive, or, very probably, if you use taxi, almost no traffic jams is amazing (there still are, but its way less than what I experienced in other big cities)

- Shenzhen is one of the cleanest cities in China in terms of pollution. Some people say wearing a pollution mask in Beijing every day is like living in future, but not for me :)

- if you like warm, you will like weather here

- taobao - no, really, you can find almost anything there and it's a great asset to consider when thinking about China :)

Now, for the bad things:

- for IT software, I found it very lacking compared to Beijing. There's not that much talent (yet), not many startups. There's even no coworkers space available. Similar with Hong Kong, where I'm guessing cost of living is prohibitive for having a startup -> IT just goes towards big banks etc. On the other hand, if you treat work as a paycheck thing, check the positive point above, you could find boring, not demanding work in Chinese company just to be "white face". Overtimes are happening, but afaik here expats are more often excluded

- unless you are willing to travel to HK, foreigner things are harder to get by. If you like to cook especially. Taobao gets you covered in most cases but some specifics are harder to find

- food and available cousines are terrible. I like Chinese food, but what you can find here is disappointing. I do miss Beijing range of tasty restaurants

- good english speaking Chinese are much rarer, thus (until you learn good Chinese) learning about their culture, way of life etc from natives (compared to reading some post on internet, cough ;) ) is harder

Now, to answer your specific question: yes, I think it's very easy to make a living in Shenzhen for software engineer. I would recommend two things:

- making sure that company that you start with gives you a proper visa as now gov is cracking down on illegal or wrong type of visas

- if you would like to learn more Chinese, do not surround yourself only with expats.

I hope this helped you a little bit, I don't have experience with sharing this kind of information with people

My biggest takeaway from china is that people are generally ambitious. There's a vibe of wanting to achieve something, and the discipline to achieve it. Most of the people in the city are young (below 30).

I can confirm on the visa part. Get the right visa. If you are there to work (ie. get a paycheck), you will need a 'work visa', not a three month business/intern visa, as I happened to have.

Shenzhen<->HK travel will count as an enter/exit the country, so if you plan to do this regularly you will need a multi-entry visa.

Other than that, Shenzhen is great. And if you don't want to learn chinese, there's always then shenzhenstuff website.

-There's even no coworkers space available.

Little bit of progress here- check out 3W: http://www.weibo.com/sz3wcoffee They also host the Startup-Grind events: http://www.meetup.com/StartupGrindSZ/

Co-working for Chinese is someone complex due to requirements for business registration (this is why 3W labels itself as a café even though the second floor is all office space).

I've been to 3w coffee in June, and I thought coworkers space moved out of there. Guys who were running [1] now rent small space for themselves in Shekou. My feelings there were similar to [2], that is it's a coffee shop feeling with a lot of power plugs.

(difference between coworkers space and working from coffee shops is that I pay a month/day fee and don't need to worry about buying coffee/eating to not feel guilty of taking their space :) )

There's one more place trying to open but their location is really far even for Shenzhen standards :) (Bao'an)

[1] http://szteam.com/ [2] http://www.coworkplanet.com/coworking-in-shenzhen-3w-coffee/

Slightly off-topic question but do Shenzhen's wealthy citizens seek to "escape" China or have a backup plan involving obtaining residency/citizenship in a western country like US/Canada/Australia the same way that their counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai do?

SZ has more hardware jobs. My wife wanted to me to consider it (many UX design jobs for her), but at my level BJ and maybe shanghai are the only options.

Well written.

I first passed thru ShenZhen in 1985, when it indeed was a sleepy fishing village of 10,000 people. At that time I continued on to attend 北京大学 (Beijing University), living in 中关村 (ZhongGuanCun), where many high-tech HQ's (such as BaiDu, Sina Weibo) are now.

ShenZhen has grown overnight to the 4th largest city in China, and your description of it is superb.

Joi Ito hits the nail on the head, as do you.

Great answer but I think you are overselling the importance of HuKou. For one, HuKou certainly doesn't get you "the highest paid jobs in both the public and private sector". Your degree/profile/experience are the deciding factors in big cities like Beijing/Shanghai. That along with many other factors are the reason why tens of millions of "Waidiren" chose to live those two cities. As for "often a large network of friends and family members in local government", I think you are mistaken HuKou with Guanxi (network). Having a Hukou doesn't grant you the pass to people in local government. You still need to know the right people.

What HuKou means to the general public is more about access to local education system and better healthcare. Most of the time it really doesn't mean much when you try to get a job, especially in the private companies.


In the US, dealing with Chinese who have that 'Houkou' system can also be very difficult, as they've established significant connections with the local native population.

The only thing Shenzhen appears it has going for it is its youth. The dominant cultural deficits of Chinese culture will eventually erode the advantages of Shenzhen's youth and it will become just another Chinese city mired in the infamous thousands of years old Chinese bureaucracy.

If Shenzhen does succeed, it could change the more able thinkers in China's enormous bureaucratic system capable of implementing change. However pivoting a bureaucratic system that is over centuries old is doubtful.

Interesting to learn those details.

What brought you to Shenzhen? How were the first years there?

Would be happy to read a blog post on this :)

We've just been here for a few months, but we're writing about our experience here: http://formdevices.com/blog/Shenzhen-Calling.html

I've also been living in Shenzhen for a while (~5 years, in Luohu/Futian/Longhua districts). Contact info in profile if anyone wants to get in touch. I've met a few HNers here and it's always nice to meet new ones as the overwhelming majority of expats here are in the trading/logistics/english teaching business.

Yep, this is pretty true. I've been working at an electronics company here in Shenzhen for almost 5 years and this is a pretty good description.

Hey you may want to put your contact details in your profile in case anyone would want to meet up with you while in Shenzhen.

Added a throwaway, always fun to meet up with people.

I'm a new here (only reading for long time), how can we contact in HN? I'd love to meet some people in Shenzhen that follow hacker news.

Just check my profile for an email, I think an HN in Shenzhen meetup would be cool. Anyone interested just let me know...

Hope to meet with you one day at SZ, I am running a small embedded system firm there and visit SZ frequently.

Visiting Shenzhen is highly recommended if you have any interest in electronics at all --- I'd say it's definitely an eye-opening experience, and can change your perspective on the manufacturing costs of all the things we usually take for granted.

bunnie has organised another trip there near the end of this month, if you're interested: http://www.bunniestudios.com/blog/?p=4087

I would love to do more factory/production tours but in many countries it seems that insurance and legal issues have made them too difficult. Brewery tours are common (the Budvar one in the Czech Republic is great) but I'd be just as interested in car manufacture, electronics, furniture, clothing, almost anything.

Are there any formal tours in China? I don't mean the sort of tour where you are driven around in a bus visiting factories, but an index of factories that are willing to take an appointment to visit for a fee, just out of curiosity.

In the UK most factory tours seem to involve either a) people related in some way by business (clients here for a meeting, why not take them round the factory), b) student groups, c) family/friends or d) the local members group for professional institutions (eg in the UK the institute of mechanical engineers). I'd imagine your best bet is to see what the latter groups are doing (although whether or not you can attend without having the right degree is probably fairly dependent on local policies and how many other people want to attend).

In the USA at least, a lot of factories can give tours if you have a friend who works there. For example, you could tour the SpaceX rocket factory in Hawthorne, CA, which is AWESOME.

I guess this is the case, as they like to wow suppliers/customers or use it as a way to keep a trucker/customer to wait X minutes until the order is actually done without complaining too much.

The "tour for a friend" is probably seen as an opportunity to practice the tour when it doesn't really matter, test new things, etc.

I got to tour a sulphuric acid plant. It was fun. The friend worked in the closest equivalent to hell that I've ever seen (well, the cauldron part anyway). I love walking by a X000 fahrenheit tank with the guide saying as you have to crouch around to get around it "Don't go near, hot!".

There's an abandoned blast furnace (Carrie Furnace) outside Pittsburgh that offers occasional tours, and also doesn't have any meaningful security.

I'd second this. I've been there a couple times and it is quite the experience. I only visited one electronics factory, and the rest were other types of factories that make mechanical components (injection molding, die casting, sheet metal, silicone molding, etc.) but they were all fascinating and I have a lot better understanding about the supply chain now.

I'll third it too. I visited earlier this year with a UK trade mission for the Maker Faire and to meet suppliers. I visited several factories, both with the trade mission and independently, and it was one of the most fascinating weeks of my life. One place that I'd definitely suggest visiting, if only for the contrast with most other manufacturers, is Seeed Studios. Really cool place, and totally unlike any other place I visited. It's also very well set up for tours.

As an embedded linux hacker I am very happy to see articles like this. I just opened my small firm in Shenzhen to do hardware and embedded linux software. The ecosystem there is just unbeatable and the willingness of engineers there to get job done is hard to find here at US at the moment.

USA, by all means, is under attack in this regard. Unless one day the kids here put education first, I somehow feel the future is hopeless.

The most interesting thing to me about China's capitalism is the massive amount of small firms. I think there's a tendency among western firms to use cheap financial capital to acquire smaller firms. I'm not sure if this is the case in China where the government is more directly involved in directing lending and not focused on mergers and acquisitions.

Capitalism is pretty new to China. Check back in 20-50 years.

If anyone is interested in the aspects of reuse and recycle touched on in this article, I highly recommend Junkyard Plant, a book about recycling largely but not exclusively focused on China. There are a couple of chapters on electronics and Shenzhen, as well as other chapters ranging from paper & cotton, steel, plastics, aluminium, etc, and the entire sourcing chain.


This is a great write-up about a world into which I normally have no visibility. I didn't realize on a that manufacturing capabilities for small-scale operations had advanced that much.

Actually, due to China government policy change and labor shortage, more and more major electronic manufacturers and their suppliers have moved their operations to Eastern China, such as Suzhou in the past 10-15 years and now even inland cities like Chongqing and Zhengzhou. Many of my friends have already moved out of Shenzhen.

if some people are interested in a little bit more details than a reverse culture chock blog post, there is a bunch of interesting videos here about the link Shenzen/Hong Kong, shipping your product, finding your factory etc: https://www.youtube.com/user/iantube/videos

I'm curious, someone mentioned me about the (lot of ) empty buildings in china (or big cities).

Banks lend to people with the right connections (it's otherwhise impossible), they get an easy loan with the building as insurance.

They invest 25% of the money, leave with 75%. The bank takes the building back and no one can live in it.

Is that right (asking to the ones living there)

> someone mentioned me about the (lot of ) empty buildings in china (or big cities).

In some smaller cities, yes. The demand is always higher than supply in the big cities like Shanghai/Beijing/Guangzhou/Shenzhen.

> Banks lend to people with the right connections (it's otherwhise impossible), they get an easy loan with the building as insurance.

Having the right connections will make your bank loan a lot easier, but if you are qualified, you certainly can still get one without connections.

"What's great about AQS is that, with the help of bunnie, they have started working closely with startups and other projects that previously would have had a very hard time finding a partner in China because of the small volume"

So I guess that is the secret to getting AQS to respond to your request for an assembly quote.

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