By Jonathan Oxer

If you have any interest in electronics at either a professional or hobbyist level, there is one city in the world that you should make it your mission to visit at least once in your life: the amazing city of Shenzhen.

Imagine a city where you can walk down the main street in the center of town, and unlike any other city in the world you don't see ads for big brands of clothing or jewellery or cars or perfume. Instead, every single ad is somehow related to electronics. Walk into a random shop right at the centre of the CBD, and it's not a handbag store. Instead, it's selling pick-and-place machines. It's like an alternate reality nirvana distilled from the most grandiose daydreams of an electronics engineer, then dialled up to 11.

We all know that China is an electronics manufacturing powerhouse. It dominates the global electronics industry with its ability to build huge quantities of product very fast and at very low cost, but to westerners it can be a bit of a mystery how it all happens. A visit to Shenzhen will be an eye-opening experience that will leave you stunned and excited at the same time.

You'll probably also end up with an extra suitcase full of electronic parts, tools, and gadgets to bring home! Prepare yourself for excess baggage charges.

History and Location, or: "how did such an incredible place come to exist?"

In the 1970s China was wrestling with the question of its role on the world stage: how to participate in an increasingly global economy without throwing its doors wide open to the West. One idea was to define "Special Economic Zones", or SEZs, where Western approaches to business could be tested in small controlled regions like little self-contained science experiments. The fishing village of Shenzhen (pronounced "Shen-jen": the "zh" is like a soft "j") was chosen as the site of the first SEZ. In late 1979 it was separated off from the rest of China as a restricted area, and the experiment began.

The result was a wild, crazy, booming success.

The combination of a cheap local workforce and its location just 40km from Hong Kong with its associated tech companies and Western trading links resulted in runaway economic growth and made it the ideal mainland location for high-tech companies to build manufacturing facilities. As many electronics companies moved their operations to Shenzhen through the 1980s and 90s it formed a critical mass in the region and the effect snowballed: companies moved there because that's where everyone else in the electronics industry was doing business, which made it even more important to be represented there, and so on.

Shenzhen today is a very modern city of 14 million people and is one of the richest cities in the world, with the highest per-capita income in China. And the vast majority of that money comes from the electronics industry.

Looking south from the city at night you can see the glow of the lights of Hong Kong over the top of the rolling green hills shown below. That's how close the two cities are.

If you have bought any electronic device in the last few decades, at least some of your money has probably ended up in Shenzhen.

When To Visit

The climate of Shenzhen is sub-tropical, so it can get pretty hot from May through to September with the temperature in the thirties and very high humidity. The sudden downpours don't make it any cooler: they just make it more steamy! Be prepared to head back to your hotel for a quick freshen-up shower during the day if you visit in the middle of the year and you're not accustomed to a very hot, very crowded city.

A good time to visit is October to December, when the weather is mild.

Getting Into China

China is a very closed country, so you need to make sure your visa paperwork is all in order before you try to enter.

There are two ways to get a visa for access to mainland China. The long-winded way is to plan ahead and post your passport to the Chinese consulate with an application form about a month before you want to travel, wait a couple of weeks, and they send it back to you along with the visa documentation. Then you can fly straight into China without a problem.

However, there is a quicker and much more fun way.

Hong Kong is generally considered the gateway to China, sitting in an unusual political position that makes it not-quite-China, not-quite-independent. In many ways it operates as part of China, but it also keeps itself separate from mainland China with a strictly enforced border and Customs checkpoints that are run as if they are two separate countries. It's also much easier to access for a westerner: Australians can jump on a plane and fly to Hong Kong with no visa required. You can just turn up, show your Aussie passport, and they'll welcome you with open arms. You certainly can't do that flying directly to mainland China.

UPDATE: in 2014 the visa process described below has been changed and they are no longer issued same-day in Hong Kong, so you need to apply for a visa before arriving.

Even better, Hong Kong airport has a rapid-turnaround visa service for the mainland. Inside the main terminal is a little booth right alongside the booths for local limo services and hotel pickups, only about 25m from the big train ticket booth. Walk up with your passport, fill in some paperwork and pay a nominal fee, and they take your passport away from you (it's ok, they'll give it back later!) and take your photo. If you submit your paperwork by 10am they'll have your visa approved and ready to pick up along with your passport by 2pm.

So if you time it right, you can fly in overnight and land in Hong Kong in time for breakfast, submit your visa paperwork, and a few hours later you're all cleared to enter mainland China. Hong Kong efficiency at its finest! Or, better still, add a day to the start of your trip and spend it in the Hong Kong markets.

Then you can travel either by car or train over the border to the mainland. Train is cheapest, but the trains don't travel across the Hong Kong / China border crossing itself so you need to cross it some other way. A taxi from Hong Kong airport to Kowloon Tong station is a good option.

However, for the ultimate in convenience you can travel like a king and take a limo service that picks you up at the Hong Kong airport, helps you through the Customs checkpoint, and delivers you safely to your hotel in Shenzhen about 1.5 to 2 hours later. For around AU$220 to AU$500 (depending on car type) it's not the cheapest option, but they can often carry up to 6 people so if you're travelling with a group it may even end up cheaper than public transport. It's also a big weight off your mind because the driver will take care of everything, and you'll arrive exactly where you need to go in airconditioned comfort with no chance of getting lost. Just sit back and let it happen.

You usually don't even need to get out of the car at the Customs checkpoint, they just look at you through the window and compare you to your passport photo:

The same process applies in reverse when you're leaving Shenzhen via Hong Kong.

Where To Stay

Around the outside of Shenzhen are the suburbs and the large manufacturers, then as you move progressively closer to the middle you also get closer to the action, to where the electronics parts markets and the frenetic trading takes place. The epicentre of it all, the bullseye in the middle of the target, is called Huaqiang Bei - pronounced "Why Chung Bay". Huaqiang North Road in the Futian district is to the electronics industry what New York's Wall Street is to finance: it's not just the centre of the global industry, it's the centre of the centre.

That's where you want to be.

Anything less is like a financier visiting New York, and not bothering to visit Wall Street!

If you really want an intense, immersive Shenzhen experience, stay at a hotel right on Huaqiang North Road so that you can walk straight out the front door and be in the middle of the action. Our favorite is the Huaqiang Plaza Hotel at 1019 Huaqiang North Road. Hotel reception is on the 23rd floor with all the rooms on floors above that, so jump in an elevator and head on up. There's a Starbucks at ground level, and a well stocked MOI boutique supermarket and McDonalds (both underground) about 100m north of the front door, so westerners have easy options for familiar food nearby. The glass elevators give you a spectacular view of the city each time you arrive and depart.

There is another major advantage to staying at Huaqiang Plaza Hotel: it's very tall, and it's a strange oval shape with a big logo near the top. That makes it really easy to find on Google Maps because it stands out visually, and it also means if you ever get lost walking around town you can just look up and around, and you'll probably be able to spot it and find your way home.

If you're wondering how an entire city of 14 million people could be built in just a few decades, the photo above is a good explanation. Basically, they just don't stop! As you can see from this photo taken in June 2013 from the Huaqiang Plaza elevator, the middle of Huaqiang North Road is currently being ripped up to build a light rail system down the middle. During the trip when that photo was taken, we could look down from the hotel at midnight and see the bright sparkle of welders hard at work all down the road. When the Chinese want to do something, they go for it, no holds barred. Shenzhen is a city that is growing right in front of your eyes.

Chinese Money

Chinese currency is formally known as "Renminbi" (pronounced "Ren Min Bee"), which means "People's Money" and is typically abbreviated RMB.

The base unit of the RMB is the Yuan, which is essentially the Chinese equivalent of a dollar and often has a $ symbol when printed on price tags. When talking about prices, you'll generally say the number and the initials RMB, like "this phone is 500 Arr Emm Bee". You can also say "500 renminbi" or "500 yuan" if you prefer.

Conversion Rates

Because the RMB is currently at about AU$1 = 5.5 RMB (give or take) you'll see prices that at first make you go "what the hell?". Everything looks ridiculously expensive ("that can of drink is $2.50?!!") until you do the arithmetic and realise that the $2.50 can of drink is actually about AU$0.44c, and you can afford to drink it after all.

If you're not so good at dividing by 5.5 in your head there are some tricks. The obvious one is to use your phone as a calculator, or even to use an app like the OANDA currency converter which is even quicker to use than a calculator. Just start typing in the amount in one currency and it updates the equivalent amount in the other selected currency dynamically while you're typing each digit. Nice. Or if you prefer to do things in your head, work on the basis that for every 100 RMB it's about the equivalent of AU$17. Look at how many hundreds of RMB there are, and add up 17, 34, 51, 68, etc. The rounding errors get worse with bigger numbers, but it will give you some concept of how much something is in your currency. Add or remove zeros for cheap or expensive things and use the same principle.

Cash Is King

In the electronics markets everything is done with cash. Good luck collecting expense receipts: very few vendors will give you any paperwork with your purchases, so be prepared to take a good amount of cash with you and track your expenses as best you can. Trying to keep receipts for all transactions to be reimbursed by your company later is a game you'll never win.

Getting Cash

You can of course convert funds to RMB before travelling to China, but if you have an EFTPOS card you really don't need to. There are ATMs to be found in many places, with a whole row of them just outside the Huaqiang Plaza lobby on the South side near the entrance to the Sunning Plaza. The ATMs have a per-transaction limit of 3000 RMB (about AU$500) but unlike ATMs in Australia the limit is not enforced per day: you can withdraw 3000 RMB, put your card right back in, and withdraw another 3000.

If you're making large purchases and need significant amounts of money you're probably best with a currency exchange service, but for most things you're likely to buy in the markets the ATMs will do just fine.

One warning though: make sure you know your PIN before you go! If you're like me, you probably type your PIN subconsciously based on the pattern on the keypad. The first time I walked up to a Chinese ATM and tried to enter my PIN, I had the horrible realisation that I only remembered the pattern, not the number, and because the ATM had the numbers arranged differently I couldn't type it in. I had to go back to my hotel, draw a Western style ATM keypad on a piece of paper, clear my mind, and try to type it on the paper reflexively so I could figure out what the digits were! For a few minutes I thought I was totally stuffed and I'd be stuck without cash, but I eventually worked it out. Don't make the same mistake: ensure you know your PIN (not just the pattern) before you travel.

Connectivity: Phones And Internet

If you're a westerner working in tech, you're probably about as reliant on Internet connectivity as you are on breathing. You're probably about as conscious of it, too: you don't think about breathing, and you don't think about having access to email, web, maps, Skype, and about a bajillion apps whenever you pull your smartphone out of your pocket. You just assume that connectivity is always there, with any online system and any information you want just a swipe away.

If that's you, be prepared for a shock the first time you visit China.


Chinese censorship is real, it's unpredictable in what it touches, and it generally makes the Internet suck even when a site isn't being blocked outright. You can probably get to GMail, but most other Google services are blocked so you won't be able to access Google Docs, Search, or pretty much anything else that the candy coloured company offers. Bing is the usual fallback search engine for westerners, but its results are filtered in China so you can't find many things that the Chinese authorities would prefer to keep quiet. Whatever packet inspection / filtering they do really stomps on the international network links, because when non-Chinese websites load they often have terrible performance, or load in fits and starts. Some sites will work one day, then not work the next. Other things are just weird, like you can use Skype just fine if you already have it installed, but probably can't install it while you're in China without resorting to roundabout backdoor manual installation methods. Make sure you have Skype installed before you go if you plan to use it to keep in touch while in China.

Basically, if you need your Internet fix, you'll get frustrated and want to throw your phone / laptop / tablet at the wall before long. Take a deep breath, and just accept that it's the way it is.

If you have the opportunity to set up your own VPN server back in your home country before you travel to China, do it. It may be the only thing that lets you get access to services you discover you desperately need, like your Internet banking. There are third-party VPN providers around the place for just this purpose, but they seem to appear and disappear daily as the Great Firewall of China blocks them and then they move to another IP address. It's a great big game of whack-a-mole, and you're the mole.

Buying A SIM Card

You could set up international roaming with your normal phone provider and use your regular phone in China, but it usually works out to be ridiculously expensive. The solution we use is to take along our normal phones (with our regular Australian SIM cards so we can send / receive SMS etc on our usual numbers) but disable all data access on those phones so we don't accidentally incur the insane $/kb global roaming data rate, and also carry a second phone with a domestic Chinese SIM card on a prepaid plan.

Either take a spare phone with you if you already have one, or you can buy one from the market when you arrive for $CHEAP. And by $CHEAP, I mean a really nice brand new smartphone running Android 4 for the equivalent of AU$100, bought outright and unlocked. Or if you just want a basic non-smartphone to do voice and SMS, you can buy one new for about AU$20. With two batteries. And a charger. In a nice retail box. See what I mean about $CHEAP?

Once you have a phone, you need a Chinese SIM card. There are two major domestic phone companies, and the one you want is called China Unicom. They have little shops all over the place that are really easy to spot. They're bright orange, and they have a distinctive logo that looks like a stylised "wo" like on this flier I grabbed from a store:

Their 3G coverage is decent and they have cheap prepaid plans that suit short term Western visitors perfectly. They even have WiFi access points all over the city, so a lot of the time your phone can be on their WiFi network even while walking down the street. Take your phone along with you to the shop, tell them you want a SIM and prepaid plan, and they'll sort it out.

Just like in other countries you'll be shown a list of available numbers and asked to pick one. In Australia we simply pick numbers based on how easy they are to remember, but numbers have great significance in Chinese culture so they tend to pick phone numbers that have certain combinations of digits that have meanings while avoiding certain digits. For example, the number 4 when spoken sounds almost identical to the Mandarin word for "death", so nobody wants a phone number with a 4 in it. Many people pay extra for premium numbers that have only good digits, but if you're a westerner who doesn't care about such things you can pick any number they show you.

You'll need to pay a setup fee for the SIM (200 RMB, about AU$35) plus a top-up pack to give yourself some credit to get started with. There are a bunch of pre-paid packs to choose from, with three different profiles (A, B, and C) depending on whether your usage is slanted toward voice or data. If you're data-heavy, choose one of the "A" packs. If you're voice-heavy, choose a "B" pack. For example, this flier shows their "A" packs:

The first column is the price in RMB, then the plan type, then the number of included minutes of voice, then included MB of data. If you're only staying in China for a little while and you just need to be able to get online from your phone to look up maps or search Bing while wandering around the city, the cheapest pack at the top of the list for 96 RMB (about AU$17) gets you 240 minutes of voice and 300MB of data which should be enough to get by.

So for a total of 296 RMB (about AU$52) you'll have a China Unicom SIM, your own Chinese phone number, and enough minutes and 3G data to last you for a typical visit.

If you run out of credit, topping up your SIM is easy. You can buy vouchers in many stores and from street vendors that display the orange "wo" sign, then just SMS the voucher code to a special number. Or of course you can walk into one of the dozens of China Unicom stores and they'll sort it out on the spot. You're not tied to a specific pre-paid pack, they're just convenient ways to buy a bundle of minutes and MB so you can choose a different pack next time you recharge.

When you leave China, take your SIM with you. If you come back (and you'll want to!) you can put more credit on it and away you go.

The Language Barrier

If you look foreign, vendors will generally assume that you don't speak any Mandarin or Cantonese so how they react to you will largely depend on their confidence speaking English. Many Chinese vendors who don't speak English will simply ignore you or keep their distance from you while those who do (or are just willing to give it a red hot try!) will come right up to you or call you over to their booth. Some Chinese want to improve their spoken English but don't have many opportunities to converse with native English speakers, so they'll take your presence as a great opportunity to have a chat.

Communication By Calculator

When discussing a purchase with a vendor there are two numbers that matter: "price", and "pieces", or number of units. Even if the vendor speaks no English at all you can still communicate those numbers just fine using what Marc calls "communication by calculator".

Every single vendor, without fail, will have a big desktop calculator in easy reach. If you show interest in buying something they'll rapid-fire type up the price on the calculator and show it to you. If the price is for multiple pieces, they'll hold the calculator so that you can see it and type the per-unit price, then times, then the number of units, then times, then an arbitrary discount amount (like "0.8") so it looks like they're offering you a special 20% discount.

In the regular street markets like in Hong Kong and the Foreign Market in Shenzhen, that's a cue for you to start haggling on price. In the electronics parts markets, it's generally not. You can haggle if you feel like it (particularly for finished goods or tools, not so much for parts) but the parts vendors aren't there to haggle over a $5 sale of a few samples, it's not worth their time. What they want is the big follow-on sale of 100,000 units if you design their samples into a product so they don't begin with a massively inflated starting price like in most other markets.

The important thing is to communicate what you want. Use the word "pieces" for quantity, and "RMB" for price. By sticking to numbers on the calculator, nodding or shaking your head, and the words "pieces" and "RMB", you'll find you can get by surprisingly well.

One Chinese term to remember (and use frequently) is "xie xie", which means "thankyou". It's pronounced similar to "sh-yeh sh-yeh", sort of half way between a sibilant "s" and a soft "sh".

Exchanging Contact Details

Chinese vendors usually have business cards, which they call "name cards". If you see items you're interested in, ask for their name card. Chinese tend to hand over any important documents (including name cards) with two hands to indicate respect / significance.

Vendors will often ask for your name card if you haven't offered it, but they won't be offended if you say you don't have one. You have to decide if you want to give them your details, because you can guarantee that if you give it to them, they will politely but persistently follow up with you. A lot.

If a vendor asks something like "what is your sky-pee?", they're not asking about your bodily functions, they want to know your Skype username. Skype text chat is the preferred communications method for many vendors, and once again you have to decide if you want to give it to them. If you do, you'll probably get "hi, are you ready to place an order?" messages in Skype every few days. If you want to politely withhold your Skype details just say "sorry, I don't use Skype".

Matching Vendors To Samples

After a busy day in the markets you'll get back to your hotel with bags full of parts and a pile of name cards. Keeping them matched up can be a pain, so a good trick is to photograph each vendor's name card next to the samples right when you buy them. Even if you don't buy something but want to follow up later, just hold the card near whatever they sell and take a photo. Later you can scan back through your pictures and find the vendor you want.

Where To Go

So you've arrived in Shenzhen, checked into a convenient hotel in the Huaqiang Bei area, withdrawn a huge wad of cash from a handy ATM, you've installed a China Unicom SIM in your spare phone, you have your currency conversion app ready, and you're all ready to go shopping for electronics bargains. Where to begin?

First, pause and take a breath. Your first experience of the electronics markets is likely to be overwhelming, even if you're mentally prepared for it. You'll probably spend the first day walking around with your mouth open and pointing, while saying intelligent things like "wha? how much? what? I've never seen... huh? is that real? woah! huh?" with your head spinning, not knowing what to look at next. My advice is to spend the first day getting a feel for where everything is, just walking around and taking it in. Buy some things if you want to of course, but be prepared to write off the first day just getting over your shock at the amazing new world that has been laid out in front of you. You'll probably feel like a kid let loose in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, but don't worry, you don't have to taste every single type of chocolate on the first day. Start with a general overview of the area before settling in to any particular building or shop and you'll experience more in the long run, and you'll know which parts you want to revisit and which don't really interest you.

The Vendor Hierarchy

The vendors you see will make much more sense if you understand the hierarchy and the cooperative way in which they work. It'll also help you decide what part of the food chain you're most interested in.

In Shenzhen you can buy anything electronic, or electronic related, from the simplest individual components all the way to the most complex finished goods, and anything in between, plus the tools to do it yourself or the services to have other people do it for you. Let me explain.

At the streetfront level you'll see many small shops selling finished goods, fully retail packaged. Take CCTV security cameras as an example. You can walk up to a shop and buy a nicely presented, retail packaged security camera. However, that shop is just the last step in a long sequence. They probably bought the cameras fully assembled from some other vendor that is just back inside the same building somewhere, probably within 100m of where you are standing, and combined it with retail packaging bought from another vendor represented in another nearby building to produce the retail boxed product. So if you don't care about the retail finish, you can sidestep the retail vendor and proceed back along the supply chain to the camera vendor inside the building and buy direct from them and walk away with your camera unboxed in a plastic bag.

But the camera vendor didn't make the whole camera. They assembled it (probably 5 minutes before you walked up) using a case, a camera module, and an IR illuminator module, all of which they bought from other vendors that are probably right around you in plain sight. Look around and you'll probably find a tiny stand selling nothing but IR illuminator modules, in every shape and size, supplying dozens of camera assemblers in the same or adjacent buildings.

But of course that vendor had to get their LEDs from somewhere, and it's likely they bought them from an LED vendor that is also somewhere in the building, or maybe over the road and up a couple of levels where the low-level electronics parts suppliers are. And that LED vendor is probably an agent or representative of a big factory based on the outskirts of Shenzhen, which make the actual LEDs themselves.

The markets are a constant hothouse of this sort of multi-level recombination and value-adding, all the way along the supply chain starting from the smallest resistor and flowing right through to the most complex finished product. Product development and iteration flows rapidly through the chain: if the LED factories start producing slightly brighter LEDs, a few days later the IR illuminator vendor will be selling brighter units, and a day or two after that the brighter illuminators will start appearing in complete camera assemblies in retail boxes and being sold to retail customers. It flows through the system at breakneck pace, sometimes exposed in unexpected ways such as when Marc and I bought Android phones and discovered that the kernel in them had been compiled for that hardware only 5 days before. Everything isn't just new, it's so new that the paint isn't even dry yet, yet by tomorrow it'll be obsolete.

So what the various vendors are selling is access to their particular level of value-add within the supply chain, and you can choose what level of the supply chain you want to interact with.

The security camera vendor probably buys all his parts from suppliers located within 100m of his shop, and there's nothing stopping you walking up and buying directly from them too. But if you just want a security camera you probably won't do that, you'll simply buy from the camera vendor because he has the solution you need all packaged ready to go. Or if he doesn't have a solution that the market wants, people will buy from someone else and he'll go out of business.

It's like a big experiment in cooperative innovation, played out fast-forward right there in front of you where you can see all the moving parts of the system interacting with each other and constantly adjusting their symbiotic balance.

Vendor Concentration

Notice that I just told you the various parts in the supply chain of production of a complex finished product may all be within 100m of each other, from resistor suppliers to final retailer. That's totally different to the way Western companies are accustomed to operating, so if you walk in with a Western mindset you may not fully grasp what is laid out in front of you. It may look like a bunch of amateur-hour market stalls, but don't let looks deceive you.

In the West we're used to interacting with suppliers at a slow, remote, one-to-one level. If we want to talk to vendors of a particular type of part they may be scattered all over the city. Visiting a vendor involves making an appointment, driving across town, having them make you coffee and exchange business cards, small talk, watching painful Powerpoint presentations, and so on. Before you know it half a day is gone just to visit one particular potential supplier. If you want to investigate multiple vendors and negotiate prices, it can take days or weeks. That's considered the "professional" way to do it in the West. It's slow and inefficient, and that's one of the reasons the West is having its arse kicked by the East in many industries including electronics.

In contrast, the electronics markets of Shenzhen are trading floors that bring together the representatives and agents of many companies into one tightly packed little space, bringing maximum convenience to buyers. The closest analogy for Western visitors is a permanent, city-wide trade show. The market buildings typically contain hundreds of little booths on every floor, like this:

Each of the coloured panels is a separate booth, so there are four vendors represented just in that little stretch of counter. The closest booth represents a switch manufacturer, and Marc is happily rummaging through a big pile of switches, looking for interesting styles that may suit projects we want to work on. If you want samples from a vendor you can just buy them on the spot, anything from single units to hundreds at a time if they happen to have enough there on the day. We bought about 250 samples from that particular vendor, covering dozens of different styles that are handy to have on hand for future prototyping.

Buying samples from suppliers like this gives us a wide range of options right at our fingertips next time we design a product. Instead of spending hours looking through websites or printed catalogues, we can go straight to our sample stock and find one that suits our needs.

But what brings these companies into the Shenzhen markets isn't selling a few dozen samples here or there for a couple of bucks. It's the hope that engineers like Marc will like one of their designs and incorporate it into a future product. It's the follow-up sales in the quantities of tens or hundreds of thousands, or even millions of units, that keep these companies going. A little stand with one or two people manning it wearing jeans and a t-shirt (possibly with an infant child hanging around if they're not old enough for school yet) may be just the visible tip of a company with a thousand staff working on the outskirts of Shenzhen somewhere, or perhaps somewhere else in the country entirely.

In Shenzhen you can go from seeing a sample for the first time, to liking it, to comparing it with hundreds of others, to making a decision and placing an order in the time that a Western sales agent would still be making smalltalk and finding out how you like your coffee.

The Major Buildings

Different buildings in the Huaqiang Bei area each form a market of their own, typically with many floors in each. The various markets each have a distinct product focus, and the larger ones can have different areas for different types of product. There's a lot of crossover though, so it's common to see a mobile phone vendor in the middle of a parts market, or a power supply company in a toy market. There's also a lot of duplication so don't be surprised to see the exact same thing (or a copy so close it's indistinguishable) from many vendors.

The major buildings you're likely to want to visit are:

SEG Electronics Market

The grand-daddy of them all, many floors of all sorts of gadgets including a whole floor dedicated to tools.

Zhongdian Digital Market

MP4 players, USB devices, OEM PSP parts and accessories. Earphones, headphones, and speakers on floors 3 to 6.

Foreign Trade Wholesale Center

Gaokede Communication Market

Phone batteries on the second floor.

Longsheng Mobile Phone Market

Mobile phones, batteries, cases, parts, accessories, memory cards, bling ... you name it.

SED Electronic Communication Market

Phones, transceivers.

International Electronic Market

SEG Communication Market

Pacific Security and Protection Market

Professional CCTV equipment. Cameras, illuminators, wall mounts, pan/tilt bases, multi-channel digital video recorders, coaxial cable, UTP cable, video-over-UTP adapters, motion detectors, RFID readers, tasers and personal protection devices. No, don't bother even trying to get tasers home through Customs!

Tongtiandi Communication Market

Phones, transceivers.

Sangda Building

OEM Chinese tablets.

Mini Digital Harbour

Electronic gadgets.

Mingtong Market

Mobile phones.

Huaqiang Electronic World

Laptop parts. Floor 6: LEDs.

Huitong Market

First floor: small gadgets.

Sega Building

Floors 1 and 2: ICs and tools. Floors 3, 5, and 6: electronic gadgets. Floors 7 and up: computer accessory factory outlets.

Pangyuan Communication Market

Phone internal parts.

Duhui Electronic Building

Floor 2 and above: test gear and tools.


To westerners there are a few things about Shenzhen (and China in general) that may catch you unaware, or even shock you depending on your sensibilities! However, forewarned is forearmed, so if you know it's coming you probably won't freak out the first time you see it.


Your first day in Shenzhen you'll probably end up buying a drink or a snack from a little stall. When you've finished eating, you'll dutifully carry the wrapper around until you find a rubbish bin to drop it in. Except two hours later you'll suddenly realise you're still walking around holding the wrapper and it's getting damned annoying, and you'll think "where the hell have they hidden all the rubbish bins?"

The answer is there aren't any bins. Anywhere.

Instead, there are people employed to go around the city picking up rubbish wherever they find it. You'll often see them pushing carts around, collecting wrappers and drink bottles from the footpath. So if you want to get rid of rubbish, the answer is simple. Just put it down, wherever you are, and walk away. In a few minutes it'll have been magicked away by a friendly cleaner. To a westerner it feels fundamentally wrong and at first you'll feel guilty about it and worry that a policeman will tap you on the shoulder and fine you for littering, but it's just the way things are done in China.

The result is that there is a somewhat constant presence of small trash lying around the place, but it never stays there long enough to build up significantly.


In just about any situation, either social or business, it's considered totally acceptable to hock up a lurgy and spit it out. Once I even saw an immaculately dressed receptionist at a very nice hotel do it while standing behind the reception counter, with guests present, and nobody batted an eyelid.

It's disgusting, but once again that's just the way it is. Act like you didn't even see it.

To a westerner, spitting is probably the most obvious thing but it's really just one aspect of the general acceptance of bodily functions in China. Pretty much anything is considered acceptable in public: farting, burping, picking your nose, whatever.

The Lunchtime Zombie Apocalypse

At lunchtime it looks like the zombie apocalypse struck down half the population while you weren't paying attention. Workers find a convenient place and just lie down on the ground for a rest, even on the footpath. Walk down a side street at lunch time and you'll see bodies everywhere! Don't worry, they all come back to life as soon as lunch break is over.

The "Byow Byow Byow" Women

Walking down the street you'll sometimes come across women standing near an intersection or some other busy place periodically calling out "byow byow byow" to nobody in particular, and everyone ignoring them. The first time you see one you'll probably just assume it's a one-off nutcase. Then you'll see another, and another, and another, until you think you're losing your mind. However, there is a sensible explanation. They are offering a service to provide tax paperwork in exchange for purchase credits, or something like that. Company purchasing agents use their services after making deals in the electronics markets. Don't worry, you're not crazy, and neither are they. It's just another little bit of local colour that makes Shenzhen such an interesting place.


In Australia we're lucky that smoking has fallen so far out of social acceptance (and is outright banned in most public places) that it's becoming increasingly rare to even see someone smoking. In China, it's still quite common for people to smoke in public, in shops, in hotel rooms, even in restaurants. Unless you've managed to get a specifically non-smoking hotel room, it's quite likely that your room will still carry the aroma of previous guests' smoking habits. Luckily smoking is not as prevalent as in some parts of Europe though.

Toilets And Tissues

If you limit yourself to places that specifically cater to western tourists you'll probably only ever see normal (to us) sit-down toilets. Everywhere else, though, squat toilets are the norm. Making it even more interesting, they don't usually supply toilet paper - it's up to you to bring your own. Most restaurants etc sell little travel packs of tissues for just this reason, but if you don't want to be caught out, prepare yourself by keeping a small pack of tissues with you at all times.

As if that's not interesting enough, the usual routine with squat toilets is that you don't put your used tissues down the toilet. Instead you put them in a little bucket or bin that's provided in the corner. Eeewwww!

Also, public toilets often have a fee of 0.5 RMB to 1 RMB (about AU10c to 20c) so having some change with you can be useful.


If your only experience of Chinese food so far has been Chinese restaurants in Australia, you're about to learn that you've been lied to your whole life. Food in China is nothing like the simplified, westernised facsimile we see in our Chinese restaurants. It's amazingly varied, incredibly tasty, and most of the time you won't have the faintest idea what you're eating or drinking.

Oh, and if you're vegetarian, you're going to have to work really hard to find things you can eat. The concept of not eating meat just doesn't seem to register as a valid life choice in China. Below are two of the few meat-free dishes I've seen. The top left are like baked hot-pockets filled with mashed onion, and the slices are deep-fried corn kernels and peas, topped with pink and white cake sprinkles and drizzled with mayonnaise.

The corn slices are surprisingly delicious! Nothing I've ever seen on the menu in an Australian Chinese restaurant though.

However, if you find the local food overwhelming there are options that will make westerners feel right at home. There are Starbucks scattered around Shenzhen, along with the usual fast food outlets like McDonalds. One little oddity though is that if you walk up to a McDonalds counter and look western, they'll assume you don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese and whip out a laminated menu card with pictures of all the food items on it. You can order just by pointing at what you want and indicating how many with your fingers.

There are also supermarkets that cater well to the western palate, such as the underground supermarket right near the corner of Huaqiang North Rd and Zhenhua Rd.

Personal Space

There is none. Get used to it. In a city with this many people, there is no imaginary sphere around you that people will avoid out of politeness. If you want to get through a crowded space, don't wait for people to subtly move aside and let you through, because you'll be waiting all day. Just do what the Chinese do, move in the direction you want to go and keep moving, slipping past each other on the way. In fact your hotel room is likely to be the only place where you manage to get more than a couple of meters away from all other human beings. If that does your head in, you may not last long in Shenzhen!

Other Resources

"China: How It Is" is a very informative series of YouTube videos by a British South-African named Winston who lives in Shenzhen. Each video covers some aspect of life in China, seen through his eyes. Start with the intro and see what Winston has to say about a variety of topics. Spending a couple of hours watching his videos will give you an excellent preview of what your China experience will be like:

This video shows snippets from my June 2013 trip to Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shenzhen:


Posted by Jonathan Oxer