Just back from a week in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Shenzhen is the capital of the Chinese electronics market. If you buy components on ebay, chances are they’ll be shipped from Shenzhen, and through Hong Kong.
Shenzhen is a large and sprawling city. There’s an awful lot of new construction going on. Every time we went to see a supplier, we went past dozens of new blocks of flats/apartments being built. And we’re talking skyscrapers, each and every one of them. It was a really busy time there and I didn’t get many pictures, but here’s one shot with my phone from the hotel window. We were on the 25th floor. Nothing but tall buildings all around.
Some of our taxi rides to visit suppliers took over an hour. We probably didn’t travel more than 20 miles, but a lot of Shenzhen is relatively new and the taxi drivers often don’t know where to go. The tactic is to get the hotel staff to write the address in Chinese and get the taxi driver to phone the people you’re going to visit. It still ends up being quite traumatic sometimes – like on the last day. I think the driver was swearing pretty hard by the end of that journey. We were too ;)
A lot of the people we met had their home towns “20 hours train journey” or “12 hours train journey” away. Most didn’t know the distance in miles or kilometres, but in hours travelling. It didn’t seem to matter to them what the actual distance was.
A lot of them had also only been in Shenzhen a few months. You got the impression there are large numbers of people moving to the cities from the country to earn money.
The first time we went out to eat with a prospective supplier, they apologised that all the posh restaurants were closed as it was after 2pm. They took us to what was more like a cafe in an area of town where there were no English letters on any of the signs. I loved it. Real Chinese food, in China, with Chinese people for the first time in my life.
We were each provided with a shrink-wrapped set of crockery. It was a small plate, a small drinking bowl and a larger eating bowl. The first thing our hosts did was pour hot tea into the drinking bowl. We both thought we were supposed to drink it, but decided to wait and copy instead. We were glad we did.
The tea was used to clean the crockery, which although shrink-wrapped, was not considered clean and safe to eat from. So we dutifully copied what they did and vigorously stirred our tea with the chopsticks, then poured that out into the larger bowl to clean that. Then the larger bowl was emptied into a very large bowl in the centre of the table.
After that, tea was poured again into the small drinking bowls and we drank it, giggling to ourselves, afterwards, that we’d both thought we were supposed to drink the first lot.
There was some really nice food provided. I’ve never seen prawns so large before (15cm). They were split lengthways. You pick the split prawn up with the chopsticks, hold the shell with one hand and rip out the flesh from one side in one piece. It goes straight in your mouth. Delicious.
The only gruesome looking part was the red snapper’s eye which had popped out of its socket while being cooked. It looked like an alien with eyes on the end of stalks. But one of our hosts quickly grabbed it with his chopsticks and it disappeared into his mouth.
We had another meal the next day with Sunny, our man on the street in Shenzhen, after he took us round the electronics market.
The Chinese have some very nice customs. One of them is that you give and receive things with both hands. It’s one of those little social niceties which I really enjoy in other cultures.
I wasn’t aware of us committing any grievous social faux-pas, but there was one occasion when we were both shocked by what happened.
We were in a taxi, in an industrial part of town, looking for the place where we were supposed to meet an LCD supplier. The taxi driver wanted to ask for instructions, so stopped by the side of the road near where a 20-something girl was standing. He called out to her, and we were amazed to see that she ran away as if her life was under threat. This happened twice.
We later figured out that they must have interpreted a taxi containing two Western men in their 40s would only be stopping to talk to a youngish girl for one reason. It’s funny now, but it was quite shocking at the time.
Mental Taxi Drivers
A large part of our time in Shenzhen was spent in taxis. On day 3 we spent over four hours in the car. The traffic is horrendous and so is the smog. The taxi drivers are absolutely nuts. Dave was in fear for his life on several occasions. I’m a bit more used to the Polish style of driving, but there were occasions when I was concerned too. The worst one for me was when our driver had overshot on a dual-carriageway and decided to reverse slowly back along it. There was car coming up very fast behind us, and it didn’t look like they’d seen each other. But it worked out OK in the end.
On one occasion the taxi driver stopped under a bridge, opened the door and got out. He said “sorry”. We had no idea what was going on. He ran over to some bushes and relieved himself in the undergrowth. That was slightly alarming, since we were still waiting on the road. But we saw other taxi drivers do that later on, so it’s obviously “the done thing”.
They are truly mental drivers but they do their idiotically dangerous maneouvres very slowly and there seem to be very few accidents. The people with nice cars give way to the taxi drivers, who clearly don’t seem to care. The Hong Kong taxi drivers look like pansies in comparison. But the Hong Kong drivers are still nutters compared to UK taxi drivers.
Huge Electronics Market
In the centre of Shenzhen there is an enormous electronics market. There are several multi-level buildings full of shops and stalls selling electronic components, electronic goods, products accessories etc. We saw quite a few novelties that haven’t hit the UK market yet.
Here’s a shot Dave took of me buying some USB ports. These guys were really interested in the life-size Raspberry Pi on my t-shirt. Actually I saw quite a few people looking at it. The Pi seems relatively unknown in China. None of our suppliers knew about it.
What we did was scope out what we wanted, tell Sunny and he would get us a good price. This place was awesome. It was like being “inside ebay”. All the electronics stuff you can buy cheaply on ebay and then wait 2-5 weeks for, was within arm’s reach and even cheaper than on ebay. If you can find a good excuse to go there, it’s well worth a visit.
Apart from my USB ports, I ended up buying a load of battery packs for 90p each, some USB leads and a car mount for my phone. Dave bought stacks of iPhone covers. Some larger quantities of samples of other bits will be sent over soon by DHL. We both came back with bulging suitcases, much heavier than we took with us.
The Jet-Lag Experience
Hong Kong/Shenzhen is 8 hours ahead of UK time. As I write this, at around midday UK time, my body is telling me that it’s time for beer and bed. Whereas my wife is telling me that it’s time for lunch.
We arrived in Hong Kong having had breakfast on the plane about an hour before landing. An hour later, it was dark. For the first few days, you get into a 2-day cycle. One night you wake up at 3am and your body refuses to go to sleep again. You struggle through the next day. At the end of it you’re so exhausted that you sleep through (beer-assisted).
Next day, you wake up feeling fine. Good night’s sleep. “Great! I’ve adjusted quickly!” You go to bed that night and “wham!” Awake at 3am again. The next night you sleep well and by then you’ve pretty much adjusted. But it messes with all your body cycles (won’t go into details).
I would say people who travel regularly on business have it rough. It’s up there with shift-work, in my opinion. We did get the week-end to do some sight-seeing in Hong Kong and enjoy the 22 C weather, seeing butterflies and dragonflies in December.
It was a very busy, intense trip, but some good business was done. More on that in another post, another day. I’m tired and I’ve written a lot already.