China is Awesome

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:

A Shenzhen electronics market!

Overwhelming

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.

The Shop

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:

But which Apple store is the real Apple store?!

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.

No driver, no manual, no brand. NOTHING.

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.

The Loot

I did manage to buy a few neat things though in the short amount of time I had.

Geek Stuff

I got some solderless breadboards which were about $1 a piece as well as some perf-board, tweezer probes, and tiny little LED matrices.

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.

Second Sun

Price: about $30.  This badass mofo runs off of 2 Ultrafire 18650 batteries (yay!).  Came with two batteries and a charger.

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:

And it feels really solid in the hand.

Death Beam

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.

It's a class 4 laser which puts its output anywhere between 500mW and 8000mW.  What this really means is that they definitely should not have sold it to me.

The beam can be clearly seen at night:

And can do some damage to anything that absorbs a fair amount of blue light:

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.

I'll be sure to share whatever I find with you!

UPDATE:

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.

This market was a lot smaller than the last.  It was only two floors though the floors were very large.

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.

65 thoughts on “China is Awesome

  1. Pingback: A visit to the Shenzhen Electronics Market! « adafruit industries blog

  2. Dude! Shenzhen is awesome.... as a hacker and engineer, this is the best place I've ever lived. There are markets just like the electronics, but for building materials, raw materials, etc. If you're going to be around for longer, hit me up... 186-xxxx-7069.

    The language part is tough, but once you get the hang of it, you can go a long way with a little mandarin.

    • Hey man, hope you don't mind, but I blurred out part of your phone number (not exactly a private website).

      Thanks for the offer though! We're actually leaving tomorrow, but maybe I'll call you up when I come back!

  3. haha, Im a Chinese designer, just search some articles about EL wire for my interactive installation, so find this post, your electronic knowledge is awesome, welcome to China again :)

  4. We have this TV series in the UK: "Australian Border Patrol" or some similar name, which shows all the stuff people try to smuggle into Australia and/or NZ and/or UK (depending on what time of day or night it is).

    Anyway, a high power laser pointer was one of these things that got confiscated. Buyer beware I guess :)

    Have fun with your laser and be safe! aka "Do not stare into laser beam with remaining eye"

  5. "I guess a lot of the value in the parts we buy in the States must be added by shipping costs."

    Every so often, connected with my work, I check things like the cost per DVD player of shipping a DVD player from China to Europe by sea. It's on the order of twenty to fifty pence, which is well under one US dollar. Someone's making out like a bandit on selling the same parts in the US, but it isn't the ship.

  6. Pingback: [ch00ftech] Visits a Shenzhen Market - Hack a Day

  7. Pingback: Indagadores |Seguridad informatica |Seguridad en internet » [Ch00ftech] Visitar un mercado de Shenzhen

  8. Shenzhen, which is just over the border from liberal Hong Kong, is in China proper & normally requires a full Chinese visa to enter. This is usually organised back in your home country, BUT it is possible to get them on the fly in Hong Kong.

    However a special "5 day Shenzhen ONLY visa" is available to SOME nationalities at the border (which is about an hour from down town Hong Kong). Do NOT just turn up however without checking their "flavour of the month", as some nationalities are often refused this 5 day special ! Note- be VERY focused as a pedestrian on the traffic in each place . HK still drives -British style- on the left, while Shenzhen (& the rest of China) is on the right.

  9. We have the same kind of "electronic wonderland" in Bangkok, Thailand. It's in Chinatown, it's called the Ban Moh district. I've been going there regularly for the last 10 years. Not necessarily because I needed something but mostly because it's always inspiring for a hacker to have all these cheap electronics surrounding you rather than browsing a website. Most salers don't have a clue what they're selling and very few provide any schematic or datasheet but for small electronics who cares...just buy a few extras in case you blow them up!

  10. It's not shipping costs, it's price discrimination. Essentially, things are more expensive in the US because people in the US can afford to pay more, nothing else. Same reason why students get discounts, why there are coupons, etc.

  11. Pingback: Visita al mercado Shenzhen de electrónica en China

  12. that laser (is/may be) powerful enough to bounce it off of a reflector on the moon and it still be visible when it arrives back on earth if pumped up to its max 80000mW

    • Well, the laser is at a fixed power, so even though it's in the same safety class as 8000mW lasers, its output power is probably closer to 1000mW.

      Also, even when scientists use the Moon's reflectors with their high-power laser, only a few photons make it all the way back, and without the right equipment, it's impossible to detect. 240,000 miles is a really long distance and the laser has to traverse that twice!

      • Sorry for being pedantic, but I think you mean 240,000 miles, not 240,000,000 miles.

        I'd love to visit ShenZhen, but it would probably be too hot for me! Anyhow I have the next best thing - a friend in Shanghai who is able to reliably source (i.e no fakes) from a place similar to this most of the electronic components I use (ARM CPUs, SDRAM, FPGAs, microcontrollers etc) at about 1/3 the price I'd pay here in Europe.

    • Sorry man, our organizer was just dragging us around, I never really stopped to look around. I know it was near a large Starbucks if that narrows it down at all.

      Ha.

      • There's a starbucks at about every corner in Beijing and Shanghai, and I'm assuming Shenzhen too.

        For Beijing:
        - Find the HAIDIANHUANGZHUAN Subway station.
        - When you exit, there will be a Theatre and a McDonalds.
        - On one of the other corners of the intersection, there are several buildings jampacked with electronics.
        Note: China's biggest consumer electronics mall is just 500 meters away. Its worth checking out if you want to buy back door logitec merchandise for cheap.

        For Shanghai.
        - Tell the cab driver you're looking for replacement parts for your motorbike, and ask him to drive your to the place with the most stores for that.
        - Ask for the electronic components store.
        - You'll find a building with 6 huge floors of electronic goodness.
        Note: In the same area, you can also buy electric motors, tools, laboratory equipment, et cetera. It's like heaven, but with solenoids.

        • I've been to the electronic markets in ZhongGuanCun, Beijing (near the HaiDianHuangZhuang station), and I must say. --It was totally awesome! It's just like you said in your article Michael, everything was extremely cheap and the service was amazing! They even replaced my laptop's lcd screen, involving a complete teardown and rebuild of my computer, for no extra charge!
          Awesome China, just awesome.

  13. I'm not sure if it applies to the blue laser, but I know that buying green lasers from china is very dangerous!
    to make a green laser, you have to use a process that involves spitting off a ton of infrared light. this requires a (relatively) expensive infrared filter built into the laser.
    this can easily damage your eyes without you immediately knowing. since it's china, many of them have no filter.

    now i'm not sure what the deal with the blue laser is as my only qualifications is reading a big warning on a chinese import site, but i thought it might be worth sharing

    • You have good reason to be worried. Until recently, most green lasers were made using an infra-red laser diode and a "frequency doubler" that would move the primary frequency into the visible spectrum. Some IR light would still remain in the beam, however, and a lot of safety glasses made for green/blue lasers (like my red-tinted shades) will not block out this IR light.

      I've been told that one way to test if your laser is emitting IR light is the "soy sauce test". Soy sauce blocks out visible light (it's black), but it passes IR light. To check for IR, you just need to shine the green laser through a packet of soy sauce. If you can see IR coming out the other side (with the help of an IR sensitive camera like a crappy webcam), then you know that you need to be extra careful.

      Even still, the optics in a green laser are designed for green laser light, so they won't focus IR light very well mitigating the danger.

  14. Awesome! I visited some Computer centers in Shanghai. It was like heaven of electronics, but they did'nt have so many elementary parts.

  15. I've been saying that exact phrase, "China is awesome" for some time now. Not because I've had the pleasure of visiting a place like this yet but aliexpress and alibaba.com are almost as good without even having to leave home. postage delay is the only downer.

    • i live in hk and spend lots of time in shenzhen, can tell u alibaba is generally more exp than visiting the shop booths at SEG.. also samples are easier to buy face to face

  16. Price marked up is common everywhere not just China especially in tourist attraction areas.
    In the Shenzhen electronic market, you always could get a better deal when you purchase in larger quantities.

    Hong Kong is no match with the Shenzhen market size. The place with shops and street stalls selling electronic goods is Ap Liu Street in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon , Hong Kong.
    The Golden Computer Centre at Fuk Wah Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, Hong Kong is selling all kinds of computer products, parts. Mobile phone accessories are also available in these two places. Intellectual property enforcement is strict in Hong Kong right now so do not expect to get pirate goods around the corner.

  17. Nice, I'll have to go there at some point.

    About the pre-cut pieces of wire: That's not necessarily a prototyping item, that exact type of cables is used for example in the industrial production of electro-motors, and quite possibly a bunch of other stuff. A robot winds up the coils, and these are used for connecting the coils to the connector. The wires are pre-cut to exactly the length needed, so production is a lot faster. I once had a summer job on the assembly line of those damned things. Always thought the cables were made on-site, but this seems to be not the case :)

  18. Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Thank
    you, However I am going through problems with your RSS.
    I don't know why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody having the same RSS problems? Anyone that knows the answer will you kindly respond? Thanx!! regards Propolis

    • Thanks!

      Odd that you're having trouble. Have you tried ch00ftech.com/feed/? If you can't get it to work, you can also follow my twitter feed where you'll get notice of all new blog articles along with some bonus information/images.

  19. Awsome. I just came back home from China (Shanghai) today. Sadly i didn't found such a great place like you. But this maybe results from the fact, that i was traveling together with 4 women :)

    • You missed out. The place in shanghai almost had me techgasm, and I only saw it by accident. It's somewhere close to the Bund.

  20. Pingback: Links of the Week « BrendanAndrade.com

  21. great article, you should arrange a travel group for hackers and geeks and visit this place, that would be cool, and you would get a free trip.

  22. Pingback: Bringing a Car Battery Back from the Dead: A Ch00ftech Halloween Tale | ch00ftech Industries

  23. Wow dude, that's really awesome,
    me and my colleague will visit Shenzen next week for a business trip,
    so we hope we can give a visit to there. and we also want to buy some components that are rare in my country ( indonesia ).
    btw, is it open every day? i mean, even on weekend? because we only have one free day on sunday. and is there any interesting place in shenzhen you would recommend to me?

    Thanks,

    • We were there on a Sunday (it was our one day off too), so you should be in good shape. They do close a little early though (I think around 6pm).

  24. Since a few people are referencing the similar market in Shanghai, but don't know where it is... It is on Beijing Road, crossing Fujian Road.

    For some reason, Google Maps isn't synchronized between Satellite and Map mode. In the link below, the "A" needle points to the market in Satellite, and "B" points to it in Map mode.

    The biggest downside; Not open 24/7, in fact not even 7 days a week, and not very late in the day. Not sure when they close, but probably around 6PM.

    https://maps.google.com/maps?saddr=%E5%8C%97%E8%8B%8F%E5%B7%9E%E8%B7%AF&daddr=Unknown+road&hl=en&ie=UTF8&sll=31.240536,121.474049&sspn=0.009283,0.015954&geocode=FdOz3AEdxIg9Bw%3BFc6s3AEdnJs9Bw&mra=prev&t=m&z=17

  25. Pingback: Diez enclaves tecnológicos alrededor del mundo para unas vacaciones 'geek' - Cooking Ideas

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