I’m currently residing in the lovely industrial town of Guangzhou, China here on a business trip to visit a few factories. Yesterday, I had the joy of visiting what I think is the coolest damn place on the planet:
I was warned about this place a few weeks before coming out. I was told to bring a boatload of cash and some comfortable shoes as it’s pretty easy to spend 5+ hours here and still want more.
Unfortunately, due to some scheduling mishaps, we only got to spend maybe an hour and a half browsing around. I really wish I had more time not only for shopping, but also for just photographing how amazing this place is.
I spent the entire time in one building full of ten stories of crazy shops. This is only one of many similar buildings on the city block that sell anything from video cards to “Rolex” watches. There’s a lot of knocking off going on in fact:
In the building we were in, there were hundreds of little kiosks that sold anything from $1000 AMD FireGL graphics cards, to individual LEDs and IC components. It was really odd to see a whole tray of ICs on display with little hand-written signs displaying their part numbers.
I was told by our coordinator that this place functions as both a shopping mall and major distribution outlet. Those crappy phone covers you see in your local mall? They probably come from a place like this. You can walk up and buy anywhere between 1 and 10,000 of an item you like.
Everything here is sold entirely OEM. When I purchased a set of LED matrix displays, the guy took out a box cutter and cut up a giant block of styrofoam that was holding the displays to get the 10 I wanted. He proceeded to throw the extra styrofoam piece at the end on to the floor where it was promptly swept up by one of the passing cleaning persons.
When I say OEM, I really mean OEM.
There were a few “name brands” there, but they were a little bit questionable.
I was surprised to find a brand that I recognized:
The typical transaction goes something like this: You point to the item you want and the guy (who doesn’t know any English) looks up from his laptop/portable media device to type a price into a calculator and show it to you (some of them don’t even look up). If the price is fair, you hand over some cash, and they hand you the item. You’re lucky if they give you a plastic bag. You’re supposed to haggle, but I didn’t bother because everything was so cheap already, and I was in a hurry.
I was also surprised to see a number of PC modders walking around toting their cases. There were a number of legitimate PC parts for sale. The customers would bring their PCs and install the new parts in the shop to make sure that they worked correctly. It’s not like there would be any return policy or warranty once they left.
I really don’t think my photos are even coming close to capturing the absurdity and enormity of this place. Ten stories of tons of little kiosks selling all kinds of junk. You spend so much time walking around looking at the wares, that you completely forget where you are. That’s not usually a problem until you want to go back to purchase an item you remembered seeing.
I might be making another trip to China later this year, and I definitely want to hit this place up again.
I did manage to buy a few neat things though in the short amount of time I had.
I bought the perf boards because the breadboard guy didn’t have enough cash on hand to give me change, so he asked me to buy more stuff. At 30 cents a pop, I couldn’t complain.
The LED displays were about $1 a piece as well. I didn’t bother trying to ask the guy what color they were, but I found out later that they’re red. I might have to find a way to use them in an upcoming project.
OEM RFID Reader
I got this one for a friend:Price: about $10. The guy even threw in the card for free. No manual, no datasheet, no part number. Just a gray box with six wires hanging out. I’m going to let my friend do all the reverse-engineering on this one.
I found out after purchasing it that it has a few modes that can be set by partially depressing its on-off switch. The modes include: ungodly-bright, godly-bright, bright, slow-strobe, and instant seizure.
It lights up my hotel room pretty well though:
So this was a complete impulse buy. I saw a place that sold all kinds of laser pointers, and I really wanted to pick up a good blue one. I purchased a cheap blue laser pointer off Amazon for $10, but I was disappointed with how poorly the beam was focused. From 20 feet away, the beam was already a few inches in diameter. Well, I saw a blue laser that I wanted, and pointed to it, but the shop keeper informed me that it was broken, but they had a bigger one that wasn’t (uh huh…suuuure). Well, you can tell where this story ends:
Price: about $120. This thing is INSANE. It came with its own case and a pair of laser safety goggles which it turns out are very important and I’ve since ordered a few more pairs that should be waiting on my doorstep when I get home.
I didn’t realize how dangerous this thing was until I left the shop and started playing with it outside. The dot is clearly visible in broad daylight and keeps its focus very well. I tried pointing it at my hand and within about 2 seconds felt enough pain to pull my hand away by reflex. At this point I decided to look at the warning label.
The beam can be clearly seen at night:
I am seriously terrified of this thing. I am confident that it could do permanent retinal damage in milliseconds if it were aimed at anyone’s eyes and it can do some damage to just about anything you point it at. I’m afraid to keep it on for more than a second at a time for fear of starting a forest fire in another state.
The safety goggles are pretty cool though. They’re designed to filter out the wavelength of light commonly found in blue and green lasers. As such, they reduce a blinding blue beam to a tiny little dot that’s just bright enough to see where you’re aiming. It’s really cool to watch it burn through paper in this way.
I’m Going Back
I really don’t think I could ever grow tired of this electronic discount wonderland, and I will definitely be returning at some point in the future. I’ll make sure to take tons of pictures next time and to give myself enough time to really shop around. I’m willing to bet my friends and family will have some special requests, so I might be bringing a few shopping lists with me.
So I was lucky enough to be sent back to a similar electronics market with a mission: our team needed some components for some last-minute changes to our project. Though I couldn’t spend too much time shopping around, I did take the opportunity to take some more photos.
It had the same familiar layout with hundreds of glass counter tops. Some of these shop keepers more or less live in their shops. A lot of them were parents who looked after their kids while working. It would be incredibly ignorant of me to say that I wish I grew up in a shop like this, but it would be pretty cool.Check out the size of those LED lights at the bottom. They’re like 30 diodes to a chip!
What really amazes me about this place is how knowledgeable the staff are about their products. Back in the States, only the real electronics geeks know anything about resistors or capacitors, but here, some very normal looking people will know a lot about what they’re selling. Imagine asking the teenager at Radio Shack if they have any 7805 voltage regulators in a TO-92 package and not only getting a straight answer but having that answer be “how many do you need?”.
We were looking for a 5V relay, so we approached a middle-aged woman running a relay shop. There was a bit of confusion as she started showing us a particular model of 12V relay, but it was explained to me that they had the same model in a 5V version and wanted to make sure it was okay before she bothered to dig it out. She also gave us the display models of a similar version for free because the part was obsolete.
The shopkeeper knew this off the top of her head. No inventory software needed.
Later, we were looking for an RS-232 serial cable connector housing. After our interpreter described what we needed, the shopkeeper (this time, a woman in her 20s) ran off to go get it. A few minutes later she returned with the exact item we needed.
It was explained to me later that she probably ran off to go to a different shop to borrow some components. Some of the shops are owned by the same people, so she can sell products out of other stores. It still surprised me how far she was willing to go to sell a few plastic connectors.
The same could be said for a number of transactions. Often after a few minutes of deliberation and among these piles of components, the shop keeper and I would be staring at my purchase which consisted of something like 5 red LEDs and 5 green LEDs before settling on a price. The fact that anyone would take the time to sell something so little at such a great price is puzzling. How much could they possibly make off such a transaction?
There was one guy who wouldn’t sell us just a few LEDs only because his were already packaged into bags of 1,000. He ended up giving us a few of his display units.
Though the shopkeepers were always helpful when you wanted to purchase something, it amazed me how completely apathetic they were to passers by. Unless you specifically seek them out, they make no attempt to sell you anything. I guess it’s hard to try to sell something as specific as a serial cable adapter to someone unless it’s exactly what they came for. I just wish the folks at the Verizon booth would figure this out.
A lot of shops were selling these stacks of pre-cut lengths of wire. We weren’t quite sure what they were for, but if I had to guess, I would say it’s for some kind of prototyping system. There were a lot of shops focusing on prototyping or testing. A lot of them sold “pogo-pins” which are spring-loaded metal pins often used to make contact with test points on a circuit board inside a test fixture. My guess is that a lot of their customers were engineers from factories nearby.
I still can’t believe how incredibly cheap everything was. I would pay anything to have a market like this near my home just so I could get some parts same-day, and yet here are all the parts I could ever need for prices that I can hardly believe. We purchased four micro-switches along with two rocker and two momentary push-button switches, and the bill ran us about $2 USD. Just one of the micro-switches on Digikey would have run us almost half that.
I guess a lot of the value in the parts we buy in the States must be added by shipping costs.
We realized entering the store that we needed a multimeter. This was both to help us back at the factory (where they apparently don’t have any multimeters) as well as at the shop so we could test components before we bought them. I saw a shop selling anything from AC current probes to SPL and IR temperature meters.
I pointed to the meter I wanted (a modest voltage/current/resistance meter), and the shopkeeper took it out of the display. He then opened it up, installed a 9V battery, found the box for it, and re-assembled the whole package. This wasn’t a display model. This was the product. He had just taken it out of the box to make it more appealing. I think it was the only one of that kind he had in stock.
I had a really interesting encounter at the shop pictured above. I needed a few diodes for the circuit, and the shopkeeper asked what kind. I guess it was easier for her to pull out a specific model rather than try to show me a selection. The display pictured above was by no means complete.
Speaking slowly and indicating with my fingers, I said “four-one-four-eight”. She promptly nodded, ran off, and came back with a box full of 1N4148 diodes. I guess electronics is the universal language. She even gave me a few extra because she thought I was cute. It’s not like anyone would notice. She didn’t exactly have any inventory tracking or point-of-sale software. Nothing was bar-coded. What are a few diodes among friends?
It’s always great fun going to these markets, and if you have the means, I recommend trying to find your way to Shenzhen just to experience them. It’s really cool being in a building that you know houses all of the components you’d need to create something really unique and at prices that are better than Digikey.
Also, here’s a bonus photo of four people riding a motorcycle.