The Huaqiangbei International Maker Center, in the heart of China’s Silicon Valley. A small office in Trouble Maker, a maker space on the seventh floor: this is where I am.

Every floor below specializes in a particular component; each stall represents a local factory. Walking through this building is both an experience in vastness, and a meditation upon the minuscule. There is a cosmos of tiny, and not so tiny, things here.

For example: lunch time. I’ll get off the escalator on the fifth floor and walk for about a minute to reach the cheerful ladies who make great curry rice. In the aisles will be boxes full of filaments, wires and sockets of all sizes. I’ll pass at least one stall that only sells plant “grow lights”. Some stalls sell light switches, some sell light shades. Halogen lights. Multicolored LEDS are everywhere, spelling out words and Chinese characters. Tungsten lights. Here and there spinning “3D light discs” form images of things like Huawei logos, maps of Earth, pink peonies, Super Mario, and loops of martinis being poured. The beige, polished floor softly reflects the blinking lights on the ceiling and walls.

Original photography by Stephen Black for Maker Mag.

Yes, the path to lunch is illuminating. Strings of Christmas tree lights, Hello Kitty chandeliers, and gray cardboard trays half-full of fluorescent lights the size of pencils. In a corner, a white wall vivid with a spectrum made of colored lights, complete with color temperature data. Frosted lights for dental equipment, techno lights for discos. Sculptural metallic light stands, pen lights, black lights, and photographer’s strobe lights. I don’t see any neon, but there must be some here somewhere.

While eating, one can look into the open interior and see the specialties of the other floors: 3D printers, power supplies, hard drives, computers, memory, cameras, motherboards, and all kinds of components and accessories. The huge glass entrance frames other buildings full of electronic goods, as well as the pedestrian boulevard.

Original photography by Stephen Black for Maker Mag.

Huaqiangbei is a destination for makers, fashionistas and tourists. HQB, as it is abbreviated, also makes for an interesting comparison with Tiananmen Square. In Tiananmen a visitor can immediately feel the connection with Chinese history and culture. In contrast, HQB is lined with Burger Kings and Starbucks, its generic buildings covered with LED signs for trendy products. Tiananmen can hold more than half a million people and was built during the Qing dynasty over six hundred years ago. HQB is five blocks long, and like 99% of Shenzhen, was farmland less than forty years ago. Tiananmen Square is Tiananmen Square, Shenzhen is the factory of the world.

I’m standing outside Trouble Maker. Because my fingerprint has not been registered as a “key”, I cannot open the door. The cleaning lady is inside and may pass by soon, maybe not. Someone could arrive, but maybe not. It’s 7:15 AM , and most people get  here around 9. Inside I see a small white Christmas tree and Styrofoam snowmen, all in a little field of cotton snow. Next to the copy machine and water cooler are two tricycles for adults; prototypes. Painted on the floor are three celestial bodies: Venus, Saturn and the Sun. The glass door on the other side of the lobby is open.

Should I wait here? Or, do I take the elevator down, walk around the building, take the elevator up and walk in the other door? However, there is a chance that someone will close that door before I arrive.

Perhaps it seems mundane, but this door situation is symbolic of entrepreneurship:

  • The goal is visible.
  • The way to the goal is both open and locked.
  • Help cannot be expected.
  • There are no experts or references to consult.
  • A decision must be made immediately; time cannot be wasted.

I take the elevators and the back door is still open. Beneath a mural of the solar system, I sit and open my breakfast: a Styrofoam box of noodles. They look like very soft pieces of twisted white licorice. Cost: 4 yuan, which is 58 cents. The space in which I eat was where the Fresh Hacker Night was held. Pizza dough was rolled, ingredients were added and the results were put in the barbecue by Hans, the omnipresent German. Hans is usually in the laboratory, on his hoverboard, in the 3D printing room or in front of a monitor: his or someone else’s. Often he’s assisting or explaining. Listening.

Original photography by Stephen Black for Maker Mag.

Cecile was another of the many guests, pouring samples of Bordeaux as she talked about her AR sommelier/self-portrait wine suggestion project. Scotty, from the Strange Parts Youtube show, also was there. Scotty once went on a shopping spree for parts in HQB, and then made his own iPhone. The episode has 17 million views, and counting.

More food-related memories from the past three months:

  • Everyone in Shenzhen using phones to capture QR codes to pay for food. The first time I saw this was from the side and I thought the person behind the cash register was being photographed.
  • The false rumors that vegetarian/Shenzhen resident Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, Barack Obama’s brother, owned a chain of barbecue restaurants.  
  • Tess’s  homemade, very good chocolate chip cookies. We ate them outside, in what Henk calls “The Garden of Eden”.
  • The mooncakes in Henk’s office: no one liked them but me.
  • Henk’s coffee beans from Mexico and the conversations I’ve had while enjoying them.
  • The GOSH birthday cake, GOSH being the Gathering of Open Source Hackers. Talks about DIY microscopes, DNA sequencing, and the SIM card we brought for Saad.
  • The nearby dining hall. The stall closest to the boulevard has stinky tofu, coconuts, and fried snacks. Beneath a small portrait of Mao, the chef grills sticks of squid, each hand moving a bundle in time to techno music. He is flamboyant. On the other end of the hall is the Muslim place with its great soup made of lamb meat and pita bread. In between these two are Chinese foods from different provinces, people eating at tables, and delivery men zipping through on electric scooters or pulling trolleys.

Liu and Anton show up almost at the same time. As is often the case, Anton has a bag and coffee from McDonald’s and Liu is softly singing the Chinese song he often sings. The song’s title translates as “The Light of Friendship”. Both product designers, they are two of those who regularly show up early. Trouble Maker is the base for a variety of individuals, startups and small companies and the  Chinese “996” approach to work doesn’t seem to apply.

996 means staff work from 9AM to 9PM, six days a week. As for me, I am usually 727. I am planning both an AR startup, and a crowdfunding campaign for an AR workshop/speaking tour of America, that also features mangos. Also, my partner Sayuri and I are researching Shenzhen’s food for a book, which will “be written” by Bubiko Foodtour, one of our AR characters. And I am concluding another book, Alphabet Spikes, which is about our two years of being digital nomads in Southeast Asia.

There is a sandbox in front of the office I pass when I walk to my desk. Taped to the window, next to the sandbox, is this sign:

Value: Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment.

That is the first of Bob Berg’s Five Laws of the Go-Giver. The sandbox uses projected light to “augment reality”, the result being 3D, sand-based topographic maps that change in real time. Saulo, an oceanographer from Brazil explained it to me, though I first heard about this open source project from Ludovic at Hong Kong Polytechnic. The color of the projected light changes according to the height of the sand, the blue of water being the base. Children love it.

The office next to the sandbox has a name: Comet West. The desk nearest the door is Henk’s. Before I move on to my desk, another of the signs catches my eye:

Authenticity: The most valuable gift you have to offer is yourself.

These cell phones were not crude forgeries but multifunctional, stylish, and as good as or better than the originals. Shanzhai has since spread into other parts of Chinese life, with shanzhai books, shanzhai politicians, shanzhai stars. There is a shanzhai Harry Potter: Harry Potter and the Porcelain Doll, in which Harry takes on his nemesis Yandomort. In the West, this would be seen as piracy, or even desecration, but in Chinese culture, originals are continually transformed, deconstructed. – from the Introduction to Shanzhai, a book by Byung-Chul Han, and published by MIT.

The literal translation of Shanzhai is “mountain hideout”. In actual usage, it means counterfeit; cheap and of poor quality. However, products like ‘Samsong’ and ‘Nokai’ phones are not always just thoughtless counterfeits. Shanzhai is, on one level, hacking with business savvy; open source combined with market research.

Original photography by Stephen Black for Maker Mag.

Very often a shanzhai product has features not found in the original. A common practice is to create prototypes with several variations, and see which sells. The best-selling variation will be put into production as quickly as possible, maximizing profits before it, in turn, is copied and modified. Apple’s recent dual SIM card iPhones are said to be inspired by shanzhai hackers who started making them a decade ago.

Shanzhai, once notorious, is becoming legit. As designers and makers continue to understand the power of the shanzhai network of small factories, more innovations are happening. The days of the Chinese being copycats making cheap products are over. There will always be trendy gadgets like selfie sticks, fidget spinners and hoverboards; so called “hardware memes.” But both Chinese and foreigners are using Shenzhen’s hardware and software capabilities to shake up the world.

Original photography by Stephen Black for Maker Mag.

Now, at night, in the view before me, is the Shenzhen Electronic Goods building, considered to be the home of shanzhai. The SEG building was once a few stalls;  now it’s a seventy story landmark topped with a helicopter landing pad. From top to bottom it is covered with thin red lines of lights that contrast with white illuminated Chinese characters. From here, the programmed red lights look like red water beneath a gentle breeze.

Behind me is the 53 story Plaza Hotel, covered with a grid of blue lights. Not far away the Bank of Communication building, sparkling with gold colored lights. This “Garden of Eden” glows with a soft, bluish magenta light. Beneath the palm tree, listening to only the faint sounds of traffic, I reflect on the day’s events and the work that I have to do.

Suddenly, the lights are off. Ten o’clock. The traffic sounds seem to stop. I look up and a single cloud begins to hide the full moon.

This is part 1 of a multi-part series of articles about HQB. Subscribe to our newsletter to be informed when the next one is published.

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