Huaqiangbei in Shenzhen, China27 Nov 2017
Huaqiangbei (pronounced hoo-wah-chang-bay) is a place for makers of electronics, robotics, and anything tech-related. This prototyper’s paradise within Shenzhen was the primary reason for my visit to China in November 2017.
Imagine an IKEA-sized store filled with electronics instead of furniture. Not just cell phones and laptops, but the parts we use to build our digital devices: solid state components, ICs, circuit boards, and all the tools needed for assembly and repair. Double the size of the store in your mind. And then fill a neighborhood with buildings just like it. That’s Huaqiangbei.
Shenzhen in One Hour
Wired Magazine published a 1-hour video about Shenzhen and Huaqiangbei in July 2016.
Key points from the video:
- Twenty years ago, Shenzhen was a tiny 30,000-person fishing village. Today, roughly 12 million people call Shenzhen home.
- The government of China created a deliberate plan for Shenzhen’s focus on technology. Growth like this does not happen by accident.
- Shenzhen has evolved larger and faster than the central planners predicted.
- Moore’s Law and the global demand for electronics played a role in the growth of Shenzhen.
- Most vendors at Huaqiangbei prefer to deal in volume.
- Some of the goods sold in Shenzhen are counterfeit. Caveat emptor.
- Shenzhen is not just about marketplaces. There are meetups, startup incubators, and accelerators for entrepreneurs who are ready to collaborate with others and grow.
- Hardware prototypes in Shenzhen can be created in record time. Faster prototyping yields faster iterations and faster learning. In the end, customers get better products.
- Consumer electronics products hit Huaqiangbei a few years before they make it to the USA.
Globalization is Good
Another reason why Shenzhen is so exciting: Globalization is good. Opportunities in tech are too large for one nation to play a monopoly role.
The Wired video tells you what to expect once you get to Shenzhen. This post will tell you how to prepare for the trip, along with a few gotchas that I encountered along the way.
Passports and Visas
US citizens need a passport and a visa to visit mainland China. As of this writing, it’s possible to visit Shenzhen for up to six days without a visa, but a visa is needed if you want to go outside the city. A service like Travisa can get you a ten-year multiple entry visa for less than $200, and they’ll manage the application process for you.
Flights and Hotels
Priceline has consistently given me great deals on flights and hotels all over the world. I used Priceline for my Shenzhen flights and hotels. They delivered well.
Mandarin for English Speakers
If you already speak Mandarin, you will navigate well in Shenzhen. I am not fluent in Mandarin, so I relied on a few crutches:
- Google Translate, available for iOS and Android. This tool rocks. I had several conversations with people speaking Mandarin where we both ran Google translate on our phones in order to communicate.
- ShaoLan Hsueh gave a TED talk on the most frequently used Chinese characters, and how to recognize them. She created a course called Chineasy to teach her techniques.
Astute readers will note that Google’s tools are blocked by the Great Firewall. You will need a VPN to use them.
Bonus: Visit Hong Kong
If you make it to Shenzhen, consider a bonus trip to Hong Kong as well. The two cities are only a short train ride apart, like riding from Midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn. US citizens can travel to Hong Kong without a visa, but you’ll still need to go through customs.
If you visit Hong Kong, be sure to buy an Octapus card when you arrive. The Octopus card can be puchased at any train station. You can pay for almost anything via Octopus including public transporation and Starbucks coffee.
Some people might recommend WeChat for payments in China and Hong Kong. In my experience, WeChat works fine for text communications, but for payments it’s a pain in the neck. The VPayFast service offers help for non-Chinese citizens who want to use WeChat, but the service did not work for me. Maybe I’m spoiled by the seamless convenience of M-Pesa in Kenya.
If you are enthusiastic about open source hardware, IoT, or related areas, you will enjoy Shenzhen. Ping me when you go. Maybe we can collaborate on something!