“The New Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen”: Review and Notes

2024-07-07

I recently learned about “The New Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen,” a short guide designed for foreign electronic shoppers to navigate Shenzhen’s mesmerizing Huaqiangbei district, and an update to Andrew “bunnie” Huang’s original edition. It turns out the book, full of humorous yet insightful tips, is also an interesting read for Chinese readers.

The guide itself is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA, but the author decided not to offer an online version for practical and cautionary reasons. If you’re physically in Shenzhen, you can grab a copy at Stall #2955 in Huaqiangbei’s SEG Plaza for the cover price (35 USD or 258 CNY). The proprietor can also be contacted as IBERKIN-MJ on WeChat. Otherwise, it’s available for international shipping on its crowdfunding page for 30 USD (plus applicable s&h fees).

Here are my short review, followed by the notes taken while reading the guide, including direct quotes as well as summaries.

Review

An ebook advocate, I buy physical books only under three circumstances: when they have special binding designs, like the puzzle book/novel S. from many years ago; when the content is significantly better presented in print, like books on typography; or when I simply want to show support, such as for those frugal, independent “bookazines.”

The New Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen checks all three boxes. To give you a simple impression, it’s like yet another installment in the Lonely Planet series, only the destination is Huaqiangbei, China’s hub of electronics.

I stumbled upon this quirky work while browsing Hacker News. The snazzily red, spiral-bound guide looks almost like a notebook, and with the circuit board pattern embossed in gold on the cover, it is sure to pique any tech enthusiast’s curiosity. Then I learned that NEGES had just been successfully crowdfunded earlier this year, but the shipping costs to (back to, to be accurate) China were exorbitant. After some email inquiries, I eventually grabbed a copy right inside Huaqiangbei, out of a sea of Arduino accessories in a partner stall. (The cover price was 35 USD, and I was charged 258 RMB on the spot. Kinda pricey, but acceptable considering the pricing of hardcover books in the West and the overhead of independent publishing.)

The “New” in the title implies an “old” edition, written in 2016 by Andrew “bunnie” Huang, a second-generation Chinese American and well-known for his achievements in reverse engineering electronic products, particularly his early explorations of Xbox hacking. Understandably, in a rapidly changing industry like electronics, the past years have been enough to render the information outdated. The current second edition was updated last year by Naomi “SexyCyborg” Wu, a Chinese DIY maker and activist once active on YouTube.

It turns out that Wu’s revisions are far more than refreshing the existing information; she also significantly expanded the introductory sections. And these, in my opinion, are actually the most interesting part of the book, with humorous yet accurate descriptions of Shenzhen the city, insider tips on navigating Huaqiangbei, and even WeChat etiquette. They are so well done that even Chinese readers will find them amusing. You are learning that —

  • Shenzhen’s dress code is “decidedly business practical,” which means “almost anything in Uniqlo is appropriate.” The average English proficiency is concerning, but the locals make up for it with enthusiasm and patience.
  • Huaqiangbei operates on its own schedule: things don’t start hopping until around 11 a.m., and building managers drive people away after 6 p.m. Also, the two-hour lunch break between 12 and 2 p.m. is just “sacred.”
  • WeChat has become an integral part overlaying the physical marketplace. Learn to send hong bao but don’t overuse emojis. Be mindful of your Moments’ likability and never be a jerk, or you might end up screen-captured and “become famous both inside and outside of China.”

It’s also notable that Wu, being a woman and part of the LGBTQ+ community, brings additional attention to details such as travel safety, personal care, and cultural inclusiveness.

The signature part of NEGES starts around page thirty. This section is printed horizontally, with each page corresponding to a product selection scenario or a type of conversation. It features a dense array of blocks, like those on a periodic table, listing relevant terms and expressions in both Chinese and English. Wu has also kindly recorded pronunciation guides. This particular “point-to-translate” approach, according to the author, aims to help foreign readers negotiate with Huaqiangbei vendors by piecing together a complete request. (Think of the party game “Consequences,” where you create funny sentences by drawing random words.) Since the pinyin system doesn’t align with English phonetics, the reasoning goes, and Mandarin tones are even harder to master, it’s safer to rely on universally recognized Chinese characters.

The final part of NEGES provides a tour of Huaqiangbei. It divides the area, along Zhenhua Rd. and Shennan Rd., into core (SEG, Pacific, etc.), southern (Tongtiandi, Longsheng, etc.), and northern (Yuanwang, Manhar, etc.) areas, marked with alphanumeric codes and introductions. What follow are ten blank maps with, again, “pointable” prompts for asking locations and business cards. Returning to a vendor’s stall can be a formidable challenge, NEGES warns, so you’d fare better tearing out the maps for the vendor to mark and write down the stall number. Given the barren landscape of Google Maps in Huaqiangbei, I found recommending this low-tech approach to foreign visitors appropriate.

What impressed me most about NEGES, though, is its consistent pragmatism across a wide range of topics. While it isn’t shy about teasing Huaqiangbei’s quirkiness, it stays practical and avoids being judgmental — this is how things are, and if you want to get things done, learn to adapt. Buying ghost shifts or counterfeit items is fine, provided they are jellybean parts where the brand doesn’t matter, or you really know what you’re doing. You have every right to reject WeChat, but be aware that business in China is done on WeChat, and could you please consider your Chinese friends’ well-being. Dare you not say you are not hungry and suggest pushing through lunchtime, or try to be cheap when it comes to hong bao. Never haggle with corporate reps as though they were peddlers, or talk to stall owners in jargon like with engineers.

Admittedly, there are always ethical and systemic considerations worth discussing, but that’s out of the scope of a buyer’s guide. Unlike some literature, particularly in English, that attempts to found cultural criticism on a thin substance of facts, the field research of NEGES is more helpful for understanding the real Huaqiangbei. After reading it, you might as well find that Huaqiangbei is more than just a place with a group of vendors; it is also a phenomenon born out of its own ecosystem. Like it or not, it will remain yonder, neither defiled nor pure, neither created nor destroyed.

Chinese translation

作为电子书拥趸,我如今一般只在三种情况下买纸书:一是书有特殊的装帧设计,例如很多年前的解谜书 S.;二是书的内容在印刷介质上呈现效果显著更好,例如《西文字体》等字体排印类作品;三是纯粹想表达支持,例如死去活来又生死未卜的杂志书《离线》。

The New Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen(新版深圳电子必备指南)正好三种全占。简单说,这是一本《孤单星球》导览书,只不过目的地是华强北。

我是在 Hacker News 上闲逛时发现了这本设计古怪的《指南》。这本……小红书的装订仿佛一本线圈笔记,封面上烫金印着电路板图案,很难不引起数码爱好者的好奇。遂翻阅销售信息,得知这本书在年初刚刚众筹成功上架,但寄到(寄回?)国内的运费贵得离谱。经过邮件咨询,在华强北赛格广场二楼的角落找到了一个合作摊位,从一片 Arduino 配件的汪洋中捞出了它。(《指南》的封面价格是 35 美元,摊主收了我 258 人民币。参照欧美精装书的定价和小批量印刷的成本,勉强可以接受。)

既然叫做「新版」,那就有「旧版」。的确,《指南》的第一版Andrew “bunnie” Huang 完成于 2016 年,对于几个月就变个样的电子行业而言,七八年的时间足以让其中的信息变得过时。目前的第二版是国人 Naomi “SexyCyborg” Wu 在去年基于初版更新而来。(bunnie 是美籍华裔、第二代移民,在逆向工程电子产品方面成果丰富,特别是对于 Xbox 破解的早期探索。Naomi 是主要在 YouTube 上活跃的国内 DIY 创客;她的行动主义背景超出了本文的讨论范围。)

对比可以发现,Naomi 对《指南》的修订不只是更新信息,还大幅扩充了开篇的引言部分。这也是我觉得书中最有趣的一段,其中对于深圳市况、市场「门道」甚至微信礼仪诙谐而到位的描述,即使是国内读者也会觉得有趣。在《指南》的描绘中——

  • 深圳是一个被「实用商务装」支配的城市,「优衣库卖什么你就可以穿什么」;平均英语水平堪忧,但是胜在热情耐心。
  • 华强北有自己的时间表,十一点前基本没人,晚上六点开始赶人,两小时的午休更是「神圣不可侵犯」。
  • 微信已经成了实体卖场的另一半,学会发红包但别乱学发表情,注意朋友圈形象建设,特别是不要发疯,以免被截图上网,「驰名中外」。

新作者本人作为女性和性少数群体的身份也让新版关注到一些额外细节,出行安全、个人护理和文化包容度等问题都有简短提及。

不过,「正片」还要从第三十几页开始。这部分的印刷变成了横向,每页对应选购一种产品或者完成一类对话的场景,上面是元素周期表一样密密麻麻的方块,中英文对照着列出相关术语和表达;作者还录制了发音指南。这么设计的目的是让不通中文的读者可以拿着去和华强北摊主「纸上谈兵」,通过「指指点点」拼出一组完整的需求。(想象一下小时候玩的那种抽随机词语拼句子的搞笑游戏。)在作者看来,拼音系统并不符合英语拼读习惯,声调则更难掌握,因此与其试图教会发音,不如依靠全国通用、不受方言影响的汉字。

《指南》的最后一部分是华强北导览,它以振华路、深南路为界,将华强北一带分为核心区(赛格、太平洋等)、南区(通天地、龙胜等)和北区(远望、曼哈等),一一用字母数字标号并介绍。随后是十张留白的简图,旁边印着「我在哪」「你是谁」和「你在哪」之类的哲学问题。书中指出,在华强北重新找回一个摊位是件麻烦事,可以撕下地图让摊主标记,并写下摊位编号。鉴于谷歌地图在华强北的荒漠景观,向外国友人推荐这种低科技做法倒是可以理解。

不过,《指南》最令我印象深刻的特征还是它在庞杂话题中一以贯之的实用主义。尽管在描述「华强北特色」时不无揶揄,但这些描述始终是实用导向的,并不延伸到价值判断:情况就是这样,想办成事就学着做。是的,你可以买尾单、贴牌,前提是限于牌子无所谓的标准件,或者你真的知道自己在干什么。是的,你有权选择不用微信,但这里的生意就是在微信上做的,也拜托别给中国朋友节外生枝。暗示你到饭点了就别拖堂,该小费感谢就别抠门;别把厂商代表当成贩子讨价还价,也别把摊主当成工程师大秀技术名词。

诚然,这些现象的合理性和系统性成因值得讨论,但那不是一本淘货指南要做的事。与一些文本(尤见于英文)试图以寥寥数语的现象描述支撑文化批判不同,《指南》这种田野调查风格的事实陈述,反而更有助于理解一个真实的华强北。翻完《指南》,也许你也会感到华强北不只是一个场所、一群摊贩,也是一种现象、一个生态。你喜欢或者不喜欢,它就在那里,不垢不净,不生不灭。

Excerpts

Introduction

  • Why Point-to-Translate Instead of Phonetic Translation? Pronouncing pinyin is very tricky; a verbal phrase-book-style translation is not effective without at least a few hours of pinyin pronunciation training.

Shenzhen Basics

  • Weather and Clothing

    • The fashion in Shenzhen is decidedly “business practical.” Wear what is comfortable for the weather conditions outside without looking like a slob.
    • If you forget to pack something, almost anything in Uniqlo is appropriate.
    • If you need larger sizes, Decathlon, which looks a bit sporty, is really your only option unless you order online.
  • Eating: A good compromise, at least for the first few meals, is Chinese dining chain favorites that have very high standards of food preparation and good taste. They are as authentic as any place, more sanitary than most, and your stomach will thank you for the gentler introduction.

  • Taxis: You may see taxis with small bow decals, which indicate female drivers.

  • Medical Issues and Personal Care

    • Health care in China for people with vaginas leaves something to be desired. If you have an emergency, it’s best to either go to the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital or cross the border to Hong Kong.
    • Emergency contraception is over-the-counter and can be acquired at any pharmacy with no issue and no judgment. There will almost certainly be women pharmacists, and they will see to your needs discreetly.
    • Local convenience stores will carry pads but not tampons. Those can be found at specialty stores or online, but it’s best to bring what you need for a short trip.
  • LGBTQ+ Visitors: You will likely find locals curious but friendly. Atypical presentation may invite smiles, requests to take pictures with you, and even tactless questions, but at least for foreigners, hostility is almost unheard of.

  • English

    • Fluency in English is relatively uncommon in Shenzhen.
    • Often times, all that’s needed is to say exactly what you said before, but at a slower pace.
    • It is almost unheard of for Chinese to turn someone away or deny service because they cannot speak Chinese. In return, all you need to do is show the same level of patience.
  • Many of traders in the Huaqiangbei electronics markets are from the city of Chaozhou (潮州市) and so speak a common dialect.

  • What’s in the Market (And What’s Not)

    • Hard to find parts: analytical-grade sensors; FPGAs; microcontrollers; old and rare parts (e.g., vacuum tubes, audio JFETS).
    • Huaqiangbei is most effective for:
      • Sourcing “jellybean” parts (e.g., capacitors, resistors, and parts with non-critical specifications).
      • Finding cost-down alternatives to expensive switches and connectors. If there isn’t an exact replacement, there’s likely a functional equivalent at a tenth of the price.
      • Building an intuition for what’s hot in the market.
      • Getting inspiration for making new products and finding new business opportunities.
    • Huaqiangbei heavily skews toward electronics rather than electromechanical components (e.g., relays and motors).
  • Pricing the Market and Haggling

    • Vendors at the Huaqiangbei electronics district are mostly factories trying to connect with volume buyers; the representatives at the booths don’t find sport in haggling (although tourism is starting to change the market’s character).
    • The initial ask is typically reasonable, and usually the best way to improve pricing is to increase the volume — or at least portray the appearance or promise of higher volumes.
    • Serious-looking buyers will often receive initial samples for free, especially for relatively inexpensive components.
  • Is it fake?

    • Good: genuine product, but slightly off QA (e.g., 9.9k instead of 10k-resistor reels)
    • Likely good: genuine product, but overstocked
    • Good: genuine product, but overproduced
    • Likely bad: ghost shifts, i.e., extra lots (perhaps with lower QA) from an authorized line
    • Good for jellybean parts and bad for everything else: counterfeit
    • Good: products sold by a subcontractor
    • Bad: products with marked-up specs
    • Bad: rejects and unauthorized refurbs
    • Bad: refurbs with mixed guts
    • Likely bad: preproduction prototypes
    • Bad: products with fake trademarks
    • Bad: fancy packaged bargains
    • Good: products with marked-up pricetag (for reimbursements)
    • Likely bad: high-quality replica
  • Hours and When to Go

    • Regardless of the posted hours, the markets are pretty empty before 10:00 a.m. Stalls in lower-traffic areas will likely be shuttered. Things start hopping around 11:00 a.m.
    • Most of the markets are forced to close by around 6:00 p.m.
      • A few of the busier markets prop their doors open and continue to do business after hours; but
      • Building managers strongly discourage the practice by turning off most of the ceiling lights and the air-conditioning at the posted closing time.
  • Find Your Contacts

    • Shenzheners change jobs constantly. Someone who sells something you don’t need this month could be selling something you do need the next.
    • Focus on their competence as individuals, not just on what they can do for you right now. The reliable ones usually know the other reliable ones.
  • Do Not Burn Your Contacts

    • If disagreements arise, or if there is friction, politely distance yourself and move on.
      • Be aware that the difficulty will find its way back to the person who made the referral; you will probably not get to give your side of things.
    • Your reputation is generally more important than your anger or sense of injustice.
  • Meals

    • Mealtimes are serious business. Most Chinese have lunch and a nap from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. This time is practically sacred.
    • If you are visiting a factory and they want to take you to lunch, don’t say you are not hungry and suggest pushing through.
    • If you hire a translator, driver, or any assistance, keep regular mealtimes.
    • A safe way to start any online conversation is asking, “Have you eaten your lunch or dinner yet?”
  • Tea Culture

    • Kung fu tea is an important part of Chinese business culture in the South.
    • When you drink kung fu tea, boiling water is poured over all the cups to sterilize them, and a small amount of tea is poured to fill each little cup.
    • You never add milk or sugar. The tiny cup is not a shot; just sip and keep pace with your host.

Digital Etiquette

  • The markets of Huaqiangbei exist in two places at once—in the real world with buildings, floors, and stalls that you can spend days or weeks exploring, and in a corresponding, interconnected digital world that is overlaid on that.

  • Type It, Don’t Say It

    • To take advantage of WeChat’s built-in translation functions, type clearly and with good grammar.
    • Lengthy voice messages or transcribed speech-to-text messages are far harder to machine-translate.
    • If it’s your money on the line, type. If you want to be a good friend, speak slowly and clearly.
  • Avoid Emojis (For the First Few Weeks)

    • WeChat is full of emojis that seem cryptic to non-Chinese, and used inappropriately, they can cause significant confusion.
    • Until you see how your Chinese contacts use emojis or get the chance to ask what they mean, it’s best to stick with just text and a simple smiling face.
  • Cultivate Your Image

    • Populate your WeChat “Moments” with pictures of your spouse, family, pets, and vacations to build an image of a reliable, trustworthy person who would not waste their time.
    • No images at all can make it look as though you have something to hide or have a somewhat questionable character.
  • Hong Bao For the Win

    • Mastering the judicious use of hong bao will make you a Shenzhen power user.
    • For most minor information, 50 to 100 RMB is sufficient.
    • Small tasks that involve going and doing something may warrant 100 to 300 RMB. Being cheap does not pay when it comes to hong bao. It will cost you far, far more to try and do these things yourself through trial and error.
    • Serious, high-level sourcing of premium service providers is not a matter for hong bao. Often, a company’s only competitive advantage is its suppliers, and that information is jealously guarded. Acquiring these kinds of contacts requires you to do the legwork.
  • Privacy and Decorum

    • Chineses often have different views of privacy. Never send or say anything privately that you would not want to be seen publicly.
    • It is very easy to become famous both inside and outside of China in ways you would not prefer. Conduct yourself accordingly in all things, both online and off.

Point-to-Translate Guide

  • When specifying values, write them down. Vendors will understand the prefixes “K” and “M.” “m” is much more rare and therefore it’s recommended to write out values as, e.g., “0.01” instead of 10m Ohm.
  • Market traders are not engineers. Don’t expect them to know much about the technical details of a product. Best to come with a part number in hand, rather than a description.
  • In many cases transistors are basically classified by their English acronyms. However, it’s still helpful to show the letters because Mandarin speakers pronounce the English alphabet differently from native English speakers.
  • Connectors are a challenge to describe in any language. Thus, it is recommended to bring technical drawings or preferably samples of the connector to the market.
  • When buying top-up cards or SIM cards outside of official stores, be sure to activate or test the product in front of the person who sold the card. After leaving, the dealer will typically not honor any refunds or exchanges, and it’s not unheard of to find fake or relabeled cards.

Getting To Shenzhen, and Back Again

  • Before You Come to Shenzhen

    • If you have concerns about privacy and security, you can install these apps on a second phone.
    • Do not expect all Chinese to be willing to accommodate you with email, SMS messages, or cash payments instead. Business in China is done on WeChat, and you will get very little done without it.
    • You also may want to temporarily disable all services that might try to synchronize with blacklisted servers outside of China. Otherwise, your phone’s battery will drain very quickly while these services try to contact servers that will never respond.
    • Roaming data service on your cell phone will usually bypass the firewall since roaming phones are assigned an IP address from the home country of the subscriber’s carrier, but it’s an expensive option. Prices vary depending on the carrier.
    • Consider Chinese friends’ well-being as well as your own privacy concerns and try to use WeChat for communication.
  • Leaving

    • On the way out of China, it’s typically duty-free to export reasonable quantities of electronic goods.
    • However, customs is cracking down on the exportation of “fake” goods. They will seize any goods that improperly use trademarked brands, and they may interrogate you about who makes the products you’re bringing out.
    • If you are traveling with a large number of samples produced by your own factory, you may be asked to show proof that you work with or own a hardware manufacturing business bearing the trademark of the goods you are trying to export.

Maps

  • Part of the diminishing reliance on foot traffic means vendors selling similar goods are no longer clustered together as closely as they were.
  • Because the market owners are accustomed to being able to charge a premium for stalls on the first few floors or close to entrances, which vendors no longer need, you may find markets that have many unoccupied stalls on the lower levels but are nearly full on the upper levels.
  • These days, you can get more done by visiting fewer buildings, but the density of potential information and products in those buildings is far higher than it once was, so the market is every bit the time-consuming, exploratory adventure it always has been.
  • Returning to a vendor’s stall can be a formidable challenge, given the dearth of English signage. Be sure to make note of your vendors’ stall numbers.

Locations

  • SEG Plaza (赛格广场): A central landmark with the first two floors dedicated to electronic components and tools, while upper floors offer consumer products. Explore the first ten floors to get a feel for the market before venturing further.
  • SEGCOM (赛格通信市场): A series of interconnected markets north of SEG Plaza, with areas dedicated to (1) cell phone accessories, (2) Chinese market phones, export accessories, tools, and cameras, and (3) smaller electronics, wearables, and MedTech with a focus on upcoming trends.
  • Shipping Alley (East of SEGCOM): Find domestic and international shipping companies, discounted bulk air freight brokers, and packaging supplies.
  • Pacific Security Market (太平洋安防专业市场): Specializes in CCTV, IP cameras, security products, fingerprint readers, and access control systems.
  • Huaqiang Plaza Hotel (华强广场酒店): A distinctive landmark hotel with a Starbucks on the ground floor, offering convenient accommodation.
  • Huaqiang Electronic World and HQ-Mart LED Store 1 (华强电子世界): Features components, accessories, consumer electronics, and specializes in LED lighting on the fifth and sixth floors. Connects to HQ-Mart Store 2.
  • Duhui Electronic City (都会电子城): The third floor is a haven for tools, soldering equipment, test equipment, and cases.
  • Huaqiang Electronics World and HQ-Mart Store 2 (华强电子世界): It offers more LEDs on the fifth floor, while lower floors have photography gear, consumer electronics, and components.
  • Loto (乐淘里地下商业街): An underground mall with quality Chinese restaurant chains, ideal for trying local cuisine.
  • Century Place Shopping Mall (世纪汇): Features a food court, coffee shops, and retail stores. Connects to the Dreams-On malls.
  • Dreams-On Malls (君尚百货): Offers Western brands, diverse dining options, and a comfortable environment for those less interested in electronics.
  • Fun Do Land (反斗乐园): A large video game arcade located on the fifth floor of Dreams-On mall, Area A.
  • Tongtiandi (通天地通讯市场) and Longsheng Communications Markets (龙胜通讯市场): Massive mobile phone and parts markets, with repair services, but be aware that most items are refurbished or overstock.
  • Qing Chuang Communications Market: An electronics recycling hub where you can find interesting parts and observe the inner workings of hardware recycling.
  • Sundan (顺电): The place to buy brand-name consumer electronics if you want to avoid fakes, although more expensive than other options.
  • Yuanwang Digital Mall (远望数码商城): A mobile phone commodity exchange with spot prices and new releases, but photography is strictly prohibited.
  • The Area Behind Yuanwang: Offers mobile phone repair, accessories, and shipping services.
  • Manhar Digital Plaza (曼哈数码广场): Features locally produced phones, secondhand phones, and impressive brand-name phone replicas.
  • Wanshang Electronics City (万商电脑城): Currently under construction, but the third and fourth floors house high-end audio products.