MAKE it in China: Hacking Shenzhen

MAKE it in China: Hacking Shenzhen

Shenzhen completely shell-shocks with its technological splendor. My co-founders and I had never seen an electronics market that expanded for blocks with every kind of electrical and technical component known to man the way it does in Hua Qiang Bei. It is like being Neo in the scene in the Matrix where you get to choose your weapons and they zoom out in organized shelves, except it’s not so organized. We got to live out our most demanding and out-of-reach maker fantasies by living in this town where parts, supply chain, and manufacturing are deeply accessible.

When we first arrived at the hardware accelerator program Haxlr8r, we saw motorcycles take shortcuts on the sidewalk, homeless performers make their own speakers, and children with LED throwies in their mouths (OK that was us).

It became obvious that this is a city full of hackers and the truth is, you will not have a productive time in this town unless you do as the locals do. Below are some pro tips to survive at least three months in Shenzhen to explore its technological treasures.

General Hacks:

*All prices can be negotiated, even in seemingly upscale places. Always ask if you can “da zhe” which means if you can get a discount. Usually electronics can be discounted by 5 percent straight up and up to 40 pecent if you buy in volume. Typically up to 10 percent can be taken off of your meal if you say you will relinquish your “fa piao” (receipt) for a “da zhe.”

*Get your money (RMB) for China before you travel.

*Pack all your favorite pharmaceuticals. The chances of you getting sick from traveling is high and the last thing you want to do when ill is pantomime what you need to a bewildered drug store clerk.

*Always carry a pack of tissues wherever you go. There is usually no toilet paper in restrooms.

*Be agreeable and always smile. If you don’t, prepare for some nasty friction in your daily interactions.


Shenzhen has a great and new subway system that takes you to all of the hubs (and the hubs China wants to make happen). The Luobao line takes you delightful places like Window of the World which is an amusement park with miniaturized world famous natural and man-made wonders. There is a mall adjacent to the park with an ice skating rink and it has really classy restaurants on the top floor. While these places are fun and worthwhile to check out, if you want to get to work, buy a green Shenzhen metrocard and go to Hua Qiang Road on the Loubao line.

Taxis are fast and cheap, but you should go in prepped with a map in Chinese. To hail a cab, scream “DA DI!”and extend your pointer finger in the air. Never take cars that are not marked as a taxi if you want to live.


If you’re missing someone to speak English to don’t go to Shekou (the infamous ex-pat area), head to Coco Park (Shopping Park metro station). There is a theater there, and across the street is a series of bars/restaurants filled with foreigners. Or if you have time, take the Loubao line to Hong Kong. Everybody speaks English in Hong Kong and that place is seriously fun. To avoid facing an enormous line, you should go on a weekday or go through Luohu where non-Chinese foreigners have a separate line at HK customs.


Don’t buy groceries, buy snacks, and always eat out. It costs you less money to eat out than to spend time picking out groceries and then cooking. For example, a filling breakfast of bao (meat or veggie filled buns) and fresh soy milk is 3 quai (USD $0.50), and a piping hot bowl of beef noodles is 9 quai ($1.50).

Hot pot is best enjoyed with a group of people. Cheap and delicious!

The good news is most restaurants have menus that have pictures and you can always point at what the person next to you is having. If you are a vegetarian, be careful, pork is almost considered a vegetable in China. A sign of a good vegetarian restaurant is if it’s filled with monks. Our favorite is Fullness Vegetarian Restaurant. As the name suggests, it is filling and delicious enough for meat-eaters, and they have a lot of vegan options!

Phone and Internet:

You can get a cheap 300 quai phone at the Hua Qiang electronics market and designate it as your official China phone. How cool is that? Make sure to test the phone at the stall before purchasing. Next, buy a China Mobile SIM card, people in China are quite particular about their numbers and the person selling you the card will ask you to chose a number, you’ll want to choose a number that has as many 8s in it as possible for this is fortuitous.

Next, the internet. It’s a miracle! Your apartment hotel will have internet as well as many coffee shops. Getting wifi is not hard, but you will encounter the great firewall of China. To get around it, get a subscription to a virtual private network or VPN. I will not directly link to the one we use because I don’t want it to be shut down, but it is mentioned in this Lifehacker article.


You should get a suit while you’re in China. Abe got a bespoke tuxedo that he wore at our wedding at Louhu for 300 RMB (USD $50). There are also many other treasures at Louhu including knock-offs of every brand on earth. However, I don’t recommend you buy the iPad 7, the amazing purchase to make would be a garment made just for you to fit you in exactly the fabric you love. The top floor of the Louhu shopping mall is covered wall to wall with any textile you can dream of and is a delight to browse. If you are going to purchase something that is not bespoke it is safe to say the first price they give you is usually twice the amount they actually want to sell it for, if you have it in you, haggle, and you will walk away with an amazing deal.

OK, now you look like a million bucks, but you ran out of toothpaste. There are two trusted chains you should seek out, the Ren Ren Le or the Carrefour (pronounced in Chinese “jia la fo”). Mannings is a convenient alternative, but it is more expensive and not nearly as comprehensive as the former stores.


Don’t be a n00b and stay at an expensive western name brand hotel. Instead, stay at an apartment hotel! They are cheap, convenient, and cleaner than a hostel. Whenever we have an extended stay in Shenzhen we always live at the She and He Apartment Hotel next to Window of the World. Remember to always keep all of your receipts in order to get your deposit back.

We have rented apartments in Shenzhen before and it is an extremely hairy business. In Haxlr8r we had problems with mold, internet, mysterious bills and fees, people getting kicked out, strange smells, deposit snatching, and more. Every interaction involved hours of discussion in Mandarin at full volume. If you have your heart set on renting an apartment, you’re going to need a Shenzhen friend to help you. They need to be on the ground and check the apartment for mold which is common and hazardous in this humid part of China.


Haggling at the electronics market. Photo credit: Bob Baddeley
Haggling at the electronics market. Photo credit: Bob Baddeley

You can get a seemingly infinite number of diverse electrical components at Hua Qiang Bei, but going in cold will overwhelm you. Before you make your trip go over your entire BOM (bill of materials) and attain part numbers for each component you’re trying to source along with detailed drawings. There are tons of stalls and many sell identical parts, go from stall to stall to find the best price. After I had developed a relationship with a vendor they gave me samples to test for free! It’s very rare you’ll be able to haggle prices. While at other marketplaces it’s easy to take the price down by half, if you use that tactic to bargain at Hua Qiang Bei you’re going to get your butt kicked. It’s usually only reasonable to take one RMB off if you buy in five components or more. Once you’re buying in the thousands you will

13 thoughts on “MAKE it in China: Hacking Shenzhen

  1. rndm(mod) » Make it in China: Hacking Shenzhen says:

    […] Read the full article on MAKE […]

  2. agogo22 says:

    Reblogged this on msamba.

  3. Jeannine Huffman says:

    …sounds like they live and breathe it, we have to catch up!

  4. Brian Barrett says:

    I’ve been living in Shenzhen for the betteer part of 6 months and have to disagree with a few things. 1. Don’t buy RMB outside of China or Hong Kong. The exchange rate you get will be horrible. The airport is better in HK and that’s saying something. The best rate in SZ is on the first floor of the SEG building in one of the back stalls, but outside around door 3 is a decent exchange place. The bank is just a pain and will refuse bills with any marks or small tears so avoid that. This applies only to USD, bring USD to exchange (cnd, Euros and pounds have nbad rates for cash). Next phone cards, get China Unicom (3G service) China mobile doesn’t have 3G. When you buy a sim card, they show you a list of tons of numbers. Pick the cheapest! The more expensive number have more 8’s (lucky) and no 4’s. Basically who cares. I paid $50 for my number thinking it was the amount of credit, but no I just have no 4’s and bunch of 8’s. I setup my lab in my hotel room complete with scope, SMD solder (hot plate and hot air), light meters, power supply, logic analyzer… the works for about $600. Yeah hacking in SZ is awesome, it’s a manufacturing dream. I’m not pretending to be an expert, I just showed up and fumbled my way to where I am. I just wanted to tip about the currency exchange and phone cards.

    1. Lisa Q. Fetterman says:

      Your blog about China is delight! “Women’s clothes and tape. Lots of tape.” made me lolz.

      1. Brian Barrett says:

        I’m glad you enjoyed the blog! I haven’t been doing any blogging lately just working a lot. Are you still in SZ? I didn’t know there was a hackerspace in town (not that I’ve ever been to one). I just assumed I had to buy my equipment and prices here are amazing for electronics. Good article, and you sure are right about big name hotels. A nice long term rental is the way to go.

        1. Lisa Q. Fetterman says:

          I’m always in China some time or other. Currently I’m in SF though.

          1. Brian Barrett says:

            Best of luck with your hacking and product development! Thanks for the great article.

  5. Lisa Q. Fetterman says:

    Good tips Brian! I have found mixed results when converting RMB. I think when you first get to China it’s cost effective (time wise) to avoid the headache that is the bank. I also did not notice numbers with “8s” in them were actually more expensive, I have a ridiculous 8 filled number and it delights me to give it out to other Chinese folks. “4” in Chinese means death so if you’re going to be sourcing and meeting factory bosses they may be skeeved out by your phone number—- or they’ll just give you the benefit of the doubt since you’re American, still every bit helps to build relationships.

  6. Ben says:

    How easy would it be for someone who doesn’t speak or read Chinese to navigate the subway system (or whatever other public transit is available)?

  7. Sous Vide Device Co-Inventor Lisa Q. Fetterman Headed to White House Maker Faire | MAKE says:

    […] of Nomiku, and it was from this experience that Lisa learned how to spot a good factory and tips and tricks for a successful trip to manufacturing metropolis Shenzhen. Lisa also gave a talk at MakerCon in May on “How to Fund Your Maker […]

  8. VPN Service says:

    very nice post thanks lot.

  9. Innovated In China, A Let’s Build Resource | The Arts Mechanical says:

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Lisa is a Maker Pro and the CEO of the hardware start-up Nomiku. She's currently manufacturing the first batch of Kickstarter backed WiFi immersion circulators in the Bay Area with her co-founders Abe and Bam.

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