Shenzhen – The wild frontier no more?


My relationship with Shenzhen dates back a decade or so. I first visited here in the early 2000s which was back before the Chinese Olympics. Back then it was a city that  was exploding almost out of control of the government, and was a pretty wild place.

For those who are unfamiliar with Shenzhen, it is a hotbed of trade and manufacturing that was set up by the Chinese government as an experiment in the late 1970’s. It turned out to be the seed that grew the modern China that we know of today. Pull out your iPhone or equivalent Android device from your pocket. This is a product that wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for Shenzhen. Things like your cheap printer and along with the LEDs that fill almost everything around us these days. Your cheap digital watch, keyboard, cheap desk fan and Alarm clock have also all come from Shenzhen. That $4 umbrella that you have at the bottom of your bag, that tickle-me-elmo like toy that your kids are playing with. Your laptop, flash drive, iPad, DSLR – all Shenzhen.

Shenzhen is what big business in the west often demands and wishes for in a community. Despite being in a communist country, it is an experiment in unbridled capitalism that has ‘market forces’ driving almost every aspect of life in the region. It is both fascinating and ugly at the same time, yet surprisingly revealing humanity.

The Visit.

I hadn’t been to Shenzhen since 2004. I was eager to visit on this occasion as I’ve been working on story set in the Shenzhen of the not-too distant future. Certain it would have changed in the last decade I wanted to return and have a good look at the city and see how much it has changed in that time. To be frank, it was a major part of why I wanted to re-visit Hong Kong, as I wanted to do some research for my project.

And has it ever so changed. China started to ‘clean up’ the city prior to the 2008 Olympics, and today it looks and feels as safe as any other city in the world to walk around. Blandly so. Ten years ago however, things were different. I have memories of partially demolished buildings that were making way for what has turned out to be a massive new rail network. The depilated shells were filled with people squatting and trying to make a living any way they could. Much of which was through petty crime or begging. I remember being approached by a street-walkers as I walked out of a McDonalds having just eaten lunch. Moments later and 20 meters away a man threw an empty wallet onto the ground in front of me which he had pick-pocketed from someone. The Triad owned real-estate, and I have a very long and somewhat embarrassing tale to tell of when I accidentally wandered into a complex they owned on one occasion. I even had my employer howl warnings down the phone later that night for visiting Shenzhen alone.

I’ve had chairs thrown at me, been ushered into tiny dodgy back rooms to conduct trade out of the view of prying eyes, and I’ve been followed by street gangs.

But in 2015, it almost seems like a memory of an entirely different city now.


Getting into Shenzhen from Hong Kong is easy… if you’re Australian, Russian, Italian, Greek or British. You take a train from Kowloon to Lo Wu station, pass through Hong Kong immigration and head up an escalator to a Chinese immigration office, where you fill out a form, hand over your passport for a moment while they do ‘official-ish’ stuff and then pay your nominal visa money. You then just walk through immigration again and into China. Sorry Americans, this isn’t so simple or cheap for you. This is one of the advantages that we Australians have that came from the Whitlam government officially recognising the Chinese government in the early 70’s.

The Louhu Commercial City.

As Jane and I crossed the border Jane noticed something unusual on the import restriction signs. Amongst the quantity regulated items such as alcohol and cigars, there was a restriction on the amount of baby formula that could be brought into the country. Since the 2008 milk scandal, people have been trying to bring in large amounts of formula from Hong Kong due to the miss-trust of the state-sponsored milk manufacturers in China. As such the import of it is now as heavily regulated as alcohol.

It isn’t the only thing that China has attempted to regulate around the border. Once you get into China it is impossible to miss the giant building that sits to the right of the exit from the train station. This is the Louhu city – a major reason many people cross the border from Hong Kong into China. It is a massive shopping centre that uses its proximity to the station and its close ties to the massive manufacturing operations in Shenzhen to sell ultra-cheap consumer products to day visitors. Back in 2004 this was an amazing mecca of shopping that was where you could pretty much get anything you wanted. Due to the lower restrictions of Shenzhen this was the place to buy copy products of almost anything you dreamed of, but never wanted to hand over the cash to buy. As such tens of thousands of people come from HK every day here to shop.

Or at least they used to. Today they city isn’t quite the same. The dodgy copy DVD sellers have been killed off by the accessibility of torrented files on the internet. The Jade trade that used to be here has been replaced by row upon row of cheap ‘almost copies’ clothing stalls. While copy hand bags and shoes are everywhere, copy watches are now hidden in drawers and they only show you them if you show an interest and the seller is certain that you’re not with the authorities that may shut down your store.

I kinda miss the dodgy DVD sellers though. It used to be a highlight of any visit to Shenzhen for myself and a former employer when we cam back with an arm-load of DVDs with cloned cases that had hilariously bad english. I still remember the copy of ‘Planet apes’ we had, which according to the blurb was about a father that was desperately trying to find his son after he had been kidnapped from the Great barrier reef. Yeah huh!

Inside of the Commercial City.

Inside of the Commercial City emperor Christmas reins. 

Shoes and bags are everywhere in the city. There’s even a smattering of crappy electronics, but they are only little gimmick items that you could easy have sent to your home cheaply thanks to eBay. The rows and rows of watch sellers that used to be here are now gone. But then again that industry was failing way back in 2004 anyway if I recall. I remember having a chair thrown at me when I didn’t buy a watch after a seller attempted to sell me everything but what I was actually looking for, for about 20 minutes. Today the centre is filled with sellers that walked around stalking both Jane any myself – begging for us to buy from one of their stores. They often gave us stories about how poor trade had been since the GFC, and that they needed us to buy from their stores.

Copies of an existing fashions.

Copies of an existing fashions.

Copies of an existing fashions.

Copies of an existing fashions.

Jane’s curly hair made this all the harder for us to shake off these stalkers in the crowd as she is too distinctive around the local Chinese, and whenever we lost one they invariably found us again relative ease. What used to be a great place to shop has now becoming a painful experience, and Jane and I left mostly empty-handed and in frustration despite having only explored a part of centre.

The Shenzhen Metro.

One of the biggest things to change in Shenzhen since I was here last was the development of the train network. This meant that I no longer had to rely on buses and chaotic taxi drivers to get around the city. And when I say chaotic taxi drivers, I mean it. I really don’t trust them here. I was taking a photo back in 2003 of a billboard when a man attempted to cross the street in front of me. Just as I took the photo a taxi raced round the corner and ran down the man – right in front of me. I still have that photo of the billboard, and it features the taxi just a moment away from striking the man.

These tokens are pretty cool. They have a little RFID in them that holds their value.

These tokens are pretty cool. They have a little RFID in them that holds their value.

The rail network as a direct copy of Hong-Kong’s underground MTR network, except visitors don’t need to by a temporary swipe card to get around. Instead visitors buy coin tokens that then can drop into the gates to get them through. Select which token to buy based on how far you wish to travel from your current location. Something I thought was pretty cool. The network is shiny new and clean, and heavily patrolled by police – who now have real stations instead of umbrellas. There’s a very strong police presence almost everywhere now. That said I did still get approached by a beggar. It was a one armed man that appeared to have lost his harm in an industrial accident. I unloaded some coin onto him and then headed to the train – only to be told off by a transit policeman on the gate who had seen what happened.

The Notorious S.E.G.


Welcome to the SEG towers.


Are you into electronics? Not just goods… but producing your own electronics. Is the smell of solder and flux your thing? Do you get excited by multi-function logic testers? Is the smell of a shop filled with new – or second hand computers stacked to the ceiling your thing? You need to go to the SEG.

What makes Shenzhen such an economic powerhouse in electronics that you can’t replicate anywhere else, is that the city lives and breathes electronic components. Whereas we only see such things at our local radio-shack or such-like store if we really, really try, the lower floors of the SEG are filled with tables upon tables of people selling tiny components from their specialist manufacturing works. Sellers are allocated a tiny market stall sized space of about 1.8x.18 meters – or less, and sellers stack their tables up with goods and just… wait.

A view from above of one of the many floors where the component sellers can be found.

A view from above of one of the many floors where the component sellers can be found.

This place isn’t a market stall. The idea is you go an find a supplier of a particular component and you ask them their price by the quantity you want. They aren’t there to negotiate price on a handful of pieces, but rather they give you their lowest price right away, based on the quantity you want to buy. This has created an incredibly industry where you can produce large amounts of any electronic product you design with an incredibly fast turn-around in time. Say for example you want to create a copy of the brand new iPhone that just came out 2 hours ago. It is possible to source and have a copy constructed and in mass production within 12 hours.

Life in the stalls however isn’t exactly how many of us would like to work and trade. There’s oceans of them in there just waiting for buyers that look for their LED, or IC or whatnot. The sellers mostly just sit at their desk all day and do very little. It isn’t unusually to find people sleeping over the top of their goods.

It's more the back-breaking work than the technology that has made Shenzhen.

It’s more the back-breaking work than the technology that has made Shenzhen.

It isn’t until you get into the upper floors that things get interesting. This is where you start to find cheap computers and bulk components like hard-drives etc. And as you go further up you find yourself in second hand computers and repair centres. Floors and floors of parts machine sellers can be found here. And then you go up into the smaller products in the next floors – such as cables, headphones and earpieces dongles, dangles and anythings small that hangs off your machines.

It was here that I picked up another little tool for use in my typewriter repair/collecting. It is a microscope that connects into my USB port – something of a major upgrade on the on-phone microscope that I’ve featured on my blog previously.

Because nothing says 'fake Samsung shop full of cloned Samsung products' like a one-armed sax playing Santa.

Because nothing says ‘fake Samsung shop full of cloned Samsung products’ like a one-armed sax playing Santa.

Exit SEG building and have a bit of a look around, and you’ll find that there’s actually more buildings involved in the complex. a LOT more. Many more are filled with  oceans of component sellers, and there’s buildings that specialise in specific completed products. Like many other parts of Shenzhen you can find copy versions of many of the brand-name electronics.I walked over to a building that was filled with clone mobile phone sellers where you can find copies of the latest iPhone and Samsung products. They aren’t functionally the same, but they look identical. However when you power up an ‘iPhone’ and find that it is running a version of android that looks sort of like IOS, you quickly know that it isn’t the real thing.

Remember my hypothetical of copying the latest iPhone in less than 12 hours of release? Well, that wasn’t hypothetical. 12 hours after the iPhone 6 was released, near exact copies began appearing on the shelves in the stores in the SEG. The same goes for copies of the Macbook, iPad and many other apple products.

My new 'cool tool', a USB connected microscope.

My new ‘cool tool’, a USB connected microscope.

Leaving the SEZ.

What do you do in first class? Ignore the scenery and play on your phone.

What do you do in first class? Ignore the scenery and play on your phone.

In 2004 I was in Guangzhou when the bird-flu crisis in the area began. As the news unfolded that cases had been reported in the area, people seemed to pull face masks out of no-where and started wearing them while out and about. That day I travelled back into Hong Kong through a Shenzhen border that was full of personal that were already very nervous about the spread  communicable diseases due to the SARS outbreak in Guangdong in 2002. As such at the Shenzhen to HK border  immigration had installed temperature sensors above every passport checkpoint that scanned you from head to toe while you trying to pass across the border. On this occasion I was wearing a suit on a very hot day and was sweating a lot. I felt hot… Very hot, even though it was winter. As I waited in line to get back across the border, I watched as people were pulled from the checkpoint desks by armed officials and people that looked like medical personnel and led into a room off to the side of the hall.

I became increasingly nervous at this point. I felt hot, and I even began to sweat more with my anxiety. I stepped up to the scanner and watched the read-out screen for my temperature. To my surprise I read almost 2 degrees less than pretty much everyone that passed through in front of me. I had sweated myself into coolness.

Today those sensors are gone, and the gates are a clinical only in their procedural blandness. Going through the border there seems to be little more than a light attempt on China’s side to monitor what is going out of the country. I guess as Hong Kong is likely to be keeping an eye on what comes back into their territory themselves, the Chinese don’t really need to care. As such you through your gear through an X-ray scanner that I wasn’t even sure was even scanning. It appeared to be more of a conveyer belt that ran through a box that a very bored woman attend while obviously not really caring about the supposed screen in front of her.

There’s warnings about bringing copy goods over the border – specifically DVDs, which seems to almost be anachronistic now. But not one seems to really care. They know it isn’t drugs or illicit substances, so border security appears to be more interested in making sure you are the person that your passport says you are, than what you might be carrying with you. And to that end – don’t mess with the Chinese officials on the gate they are more than happy to yell at you if you don’t hold your head up and look them in the eye while passing through the gate. Something that happened when I got momentarily distracted and turned to look at Jane going through the gate next to me.

We got back on the train to Kowloon and decided to take the slightly more expensive (like… $au4.5) first class seats for the less than 40 minute trip. We sat in comfort as we rolled past the Hong Kong ‘countryside’ for… oh, less time that it usually takes me to get a train into the city from home here in Australia. The border is THAT close.I

I didn’t get to stay as long as I wanted to do all the research I intended to, but that’s just life when you’re travelling with another person. But I did get enough to get some great ideas for my book. Now… perhaps I should blog a little less and get to work properly on that. However, it is interesting to see what has become of Shenzhen as the experiment continues. In a lot of ways this is the digital age equivalent of an industrial revolution city of the early 1900s. If this is what kind of world ‘market forces’ will deliver to us, then I feel that we need to question who exactly wants this kind of world and why. But the thing about having a large amount of exploited people all in the one place, is that things can often change dramatically. I think this city will be a very different place again in another 10 years.

The working title for my story: Epiphany.

The working title for my story: Epiphany.


6 thoughts on “Shenzhen – The wild frontier no more?

  1. Its worth noting that it was the West who introduced hard core capitalism and industrial warfare to the East. The British and American and European Captains of Industry in the 19th century – like Carnegie, Rockefeller etc.. were just as ruthless and exploitative as the ones in Asia today.


    • I absolutely agree. It wasn’t a cultural practice of the region to be so driven by exploitation and money. After all, the wars that the British and Americans have gone to with China over trade has shown exactly how determined they were to push their methods into China.


  2. So that’s what Ebay looks like when you’re not looking at the screen! Shenzhen is where a lot of my friends order their components. Nice too see it in picture once.

    Too bad though about the curse of the curly hair. It’s pretty ofcourse, but to stalk someone over it? That’s just plain weird!


    • If you buy a lot from here, you’d be fascinated to see what happens in this city. I wish I could write so much more on it. It’s pretty incredible.


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