Just like in a cafe, we talk about everything. Nothing heavy. Just talk over a cup of coffee.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


Endless electronics. Photo credit: Bob Baddeley.Shenzhen completely shell-shocks with its technological splendor. My co-founders and I had never seen an electronics market that expanded for blocks with every kind of electrical and technical component known to man the way it does in Hua Qiang Bei. It is like being Neo in the scene in the Matrix where you get to choose your weapons and they zoom out in organized shelves, except it’s not so organized. We got to live out our most demanding and out-of-reach maker fantasies by living in this town where parts, supply chain, and manufacturing are deeply accessible.

When we first arrived at the hardware accelerator program Haxlr8r, we saw motorcycles take shortcuts on the sidewalk, homeless performers make their own speakers, and children with LED throwies in their mouths (OK that was us).

It became obvious that this is a city full of hackers and the truth is, you will not have a productive time in this town unless you do as the locals do. Below are some pro tips to survive at least three months in Shenzhen to explore its technological treasures.

General Hacks:

*All prices can be negotiated, even in seemingly upscale places. Always ask if you can “da zhe” which means if you can get a discount. Usually electronics can be discounted by 5 percent straight up and up to 40 pecent if you buy in volume. Typically up to 10 percent can be taken off of your meal if you say you will relinquish your “fa piao” (receipt) for a “da zhe.”

*Get your money (RMB) for China before you travel.

*Pack all your favorite pharmaceuticals. The chances of you getting sick from traveling is high and the last thing you want to do when ill is pantomime what you need to a bewildered drug store clerk.

*Always carry a pack of tissues wherever you go. There is usually no toilet paper in restrooms.

*Be agreeable and always smile. If you don’t, prepare for some nasty friction in your daily interactions.


Shenzhen has a great and new subway system that takes you to all of the hubs (and the hubs China wants to make happen). The Luobao line takes you delightful places like Window of the World which is an amusement park with miniaturized world famous natural and man-made wonders. There is a mall adjacent to the park with an ice skating rink and it has really classy restaurants on the top floor. While these places are fun and worthwhile to check out, if you want to get to work, buy a green Shenzhen metrocard and go to Hua Qiang Road on the Loubao line.

Taxis are fast and cheap, but you should to go in prepped with a map in Chinese. To hail a cab, scream “DA DI!”and extend your pointer finger in the air. Never take cars that are not marked as a taxi if you want to live.


If you’re missing someone to speak English to don’t go to Shekou (the infamous ex-pat area), head to Coco Park (Shopping Park metro station). There is a theater there, and across the street is a series of bars/restaurants filled with foreigners. Or if you have time, take the Loubao line to Hong Kong. Everybody speaks English in Hong Kong and that place is seriously fun. To avoid facing an enormous line, you should go on a weekday or go through Luohu where non-Chinese foreigners have a separate line at HK customs.


Don’t buy groceries, buy snacks, and always eat out. It costs you less money to eat out than to spend time picking out groceries and then cooking. For example, a filling breakfast of bao (meat or veggie filled buns) and fresh soy milk is 3 quai (USD $0.50), and a piping hot bowl of beef noodles is 9 quai ($1.50).

The good news is most restaurants have menus that have pictures and you can always point at what the person next to you is having. If you are a vegetarian, be careful, pork is almost considered a vegetable in China. A sign of a good vegetarian restaurant is if it’s filled with monks. Our favorite is Fullness Vegetarian Restaurant. As the name suggests, it is filling and delicious enough for meat-eaters, and they have a lot of vegan options!

Phone and Internet:

You can get a cheap 300 quai phone at the Hua Qiang electronics market and designate it as your official China phone. How cool is that? Make sure to test the phone at the stall before purchasing. Next, buy a China Mobile SIM card, people in China are quite particular about their numbers and the person selling you the card will ask you to chose a number, you’ll want to choose a number that has as many 8s in it as possible for this is fortuitous.

Next, the internet. It’s a miracle! Your apartment hotel will have internet as well as many coffee shops. Getting wifi is not hard, but you will encounter the great firewall of China. To get around it, get a subscription to a virtual private network or VPN. I will not directly link to the one we use because I don’t want it to be shut down, but it is mentioned in this Lifehacker article.


You should get a suit while you’re in China. Abe got a bespoke tuxedo that he wore at our wedding at Louhu for 300 RMB (USD $50). There are also many other treasures at Louhu including knock-offs of every brand on earth. However, I don’t recommend you buy the iPad 7, the amazing purchase to make would be a garment made just for you to fit you in exactly the fabric you love. The top floor of the Louhu shopping mall is covered wall to wall with any textile you can dream of and is a delight to browse. If you are going to purchase something that is not bespoke it is safe to say the first price they give you is usually twice the amount they actually want to sell it for, if you have it in you, haggle, and you will walk away with an amazing deal.

OK, now you look like a million bucks, but you ran out of toothpaste. There are two trusted chains you should seek out, the Ren Ren Le or the Carrefour (pronounced in Chinese “jia la fo”). Mannings is a convenient alternative, but it is more expensive and not nearly as comprehensive as the former stores.


Don’t be a n00b and stay at an expensive western name brand hotel. Instead, stay at an apartment hotel! They are cheap, convenient, and cleaner than a hostel. Whenever we have an extended stay in Shenzhen we always live at the She and He Apartment Hotel next to Window of the World. Remember to always keep all of your receipts in order to get your deposit back.

We have rented apartments in Shenzhen before and it is an extremely hairy business. In Haxlr8r we had problems with mold, internet, mysterious bills and fees, people getting kicked out, strange smells, deposit snatching, and more. Every interaction involved hours of discussion in Mandarin at full volume. If you have your heart set on renting an apartment, you’re going to need a Shenzhen friend to help you. They need to be on the ground and check the apartment for mold which is common and hazardous in this humid part of China.


Haggling at the electronics market. Photo credit: Bob Baddeley
You can get a seemingly infinite number of diverse electrical components at Hua Qiang Bei, but going in cold will overwhelm you. Before you make your trip go over your entire BOM (bill of materials) and attain part numbers for each component you’re trying to source along with detailed drawings. There are tons of stalls and many sell identical parts, go from stall to stall to find the best price. After I had developed a relationship with a vendor they gave me samples to test for free! It’s very rare you’ll be able to haggle prices. While at other marketplaces it’s easy to take the price down by half, if you use that tactic to bargain at Hua Qiang Bei you’re going to get your butt kicked. It’s usually only reasonable to take one RMB off if you buy in five components or more. Once you’re buying in the thousands you will be able to get a better deal.

Don’t spend too much at one stall without first testing everything you get. For example, you can get “3 TB” flash drives for a few dollars, which will read as 3TB in your computer, but if you’re lucky it will store one or two pictures. Prices also aren’t especially good on phones or other consumer electronics–if you have some high quality tools, you’ll want to bring them with you.

Now that you’ve got your parts— head to the hackerspace! A great place to start is Chai Huo hackerspace. While it wasn’t as well equipped as many hackerspaces I’ve been to in the states, it does gets visits from great makers who will lead you in the right direction.

It’s very clever and absolutely essential to make prototypes of your product out of office supplies, but when you want to take it to the next level you can take your idea to Shenzhen manufacturing’s biggest secret: Alex Murawski. He’s a fast talking German engineer who’s helped us with countless prototyping and mass manufacturing needs. An alumni of the Haxlr8r program, he has remained in China and has formed a pretty powerful prototyping outfit in Shenzhen— buy him a drink!

There you go, you intrepid globe-trotting maker. You’re now equipped with what you need to know to step forth into Shenzhen like you’re going into grandma’s backyard. Oh, and don’t eat the sushi.

Lisa Q. Fetterman is the CEO of the hardware start-up Nomiku. She’s currently manufacturing the first batch of Kickstarter-backed immersion circulators in the south of China with her co-founders Abe and Bam.


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