Shenzhen, China 2017

Huaqiangbei Building

As the final stop of my South China field trip1, I visited Shenzhen for the second time (in addition to several flight transfers) in June. To be honest, this Chinese city did not give me a very positive impression during my previous sojourns. There wasn’t as many skyscrapers two years ago, and cafés and shopping malls weren’t fancy at all by Shanghai or Hong Kong standards. Yet my recent visit somehow altered my perception, and frankly speaking, I even felt like moving there at some point of my life.

Following the thriving stories of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, there’s been a zillion myths about Shenzhen from the perspective of a Western tech pundit. Especially after the success of DJI, the world’s leading consumer drone manufacturer, the western impression of Shenzhen gradually shifted from “the hub of shanzhai (copycats)” to “the Asian center of innovations.” Narrated by Andrew “bunnie” Huang, WIRED even made a documentary about the city, Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of Hardware. While the film portrayed Shenzhen as a fantasy, the depiction was, to some extent, a hype. Jason Li did an analysis on it, and I think it’s a good read if you’ve ever watched the original video.

I myself also had perplexing feelings about Shenzhen. On one hand, I simply felt the shanzhai culture was distasteful, and copy-and-paste business models shouldn’t be justified; be that as it may, the originalities in Shenzhen I had seen so far were quite impressive (a lot of noteworthy Kickstarter projects were from Shenzhen-based startups). As a side note, the name of Shenzhen seems to be quite baffling to many folks, since most of my friends back in the USA would simply refer to Shenzhen as the Chinese industrial city next to Hong Kong.

If you’ve never been to Shenzhen, and curious what this mysterious Huaqiangbei looks like, here’s a snap of what you’d expect to see there:

Huaqiangbei Building
Inside Huaqiangbei Building

Basically, you can get all kinds of hardware parts, from the CPUs to cables to aluminum outer cases to label printers — almost everything you would need to manufacture a tech gadget.

A vendor selling tech hardware parts
A Huaqiangbei vendor selling electronic parts
A stall vending label printers

The WIRED documentary interpreted shanzhai culture as some sort of open source spirit, and I could hardly agree with that construal. Open source means you create something that can be reused by others under a certain agreement, not selling something by stealing a copyrighted design or technology and putting your own label on it.

Fake DJI drones spotted near Huaqiangbei

Be that as it may, Shenzhen’s shaizhai culture did help foster an innovation-friendly atmosphere. With all these resources at Huaqiangbei (originally made for shaizhai products) and factories all over the city’s outskirt, it takes a considerably short amount of time to build up a hardware product. Let’s say if you come up with the idea of designing the world’s first fidget spinner. In Silicon Valley it would probably take weeks to order the parts, and you might need to replace them if the colors are not satisfying enough, in Shenzhen all you need is to spend an afternoon at Huaqiangbei and your product is ready to go!

All kinds of fidget spinners for 25 RMB (3.7 USD) each. Could have bargained ; (

At the end of the day, the “miracles” of Shenzhen are more or less exaggerated. But when you come to Shenzhen, it wouldn’t be a stretch to actually feel what’s going on here, as well as the “Shenzhen speed”.

If you want to explore Huaqiangbei and other tech-related locations in Shenzhen, the Shenzhen Map for Makers by Seeed Studio is a good resource for reference.

On a personal note, the reason I really like Shenzhen is that the people here are mostly migrants. Beijing makes it really hard for non-locals to settle down, and migrants without hukou are subject to discriminatory policies and regulations (can’t purchase apartments, cars, etc.). In Shenzhen that’s not really a thing, and it employs a rather ideal approach of meritocracy and you hear all kinds of dialects here. It takes only about an hour to pass the border and travel to Hong Kong from Shenzhen, so pretty much you are able to enjoy the benefits of both systems (and fly from HKIA!).

Skyscrapers emerging in Nanshan District, Shenzhen
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Does Racial Identity Matter: From the US to China

While I am not a Caucasian immigrant in China, I happened to resonate greatly with Dr. Daniel A. Bell as I was reading his Wall Street Journal article Why Anyone Can Be ChineseAs a person who was born in China, and lived as a nomad between the U.S. and China since the age of 14, my identity struggle has been like a bad tooth: I would never intentionally bring it up, but when I eat, when I talk, or when I introduce myself to others, it whines hoarsely deep in my soul.

Earlier this year, I was at a conference for Asian-American youths, where most of the attendees were students or faculty from private prep schools in the New England area. When I walked to my seat in the venue and sat next to my friends, the chaperone from another school, who was the only Caucasian person in her row, came over to us, and attempted to start a conversation. “Hey, how are you,” and without allowing me to politely reply to her, she literally threw the question that would have triggered every single person in that arena, “where are you from — China?” Well, I am from China, but if she had known me, talked to me, or at least heard my accent, it would be a fairly reasonable assumption. Yet all she might had noticed was my ethnicity, as well as the pinyin-ed full name appeared on my name tag. I was not denying my Chinese identity — I have always been proud to tell people about my heritage and my life in China, and willing to explore its culture and politics so enthusiastically that I still consider myself a part of it — but an individual with my appearance could also be from San Francisco, Boston or Minnesota.

However, these rules would apply rather dissimilarly to a Caucasian individual. When one encounters a person on a random street, one would more likely assume that the Asian person is from China than postulating that the Caucasian person is from Germany or Italy. Even though the Asian-American passer-by might be a third or fourth-generation American, and the White person might simply be a tourist from France and doesn’t even speak fluent English, these stereotypes are purely based on racial identities which do not usually resemble our true selves. Racial microaggressions which Asian Americans are subject to all the time can hardly be comprehended by the American public or even our own people who have never exposed themselves to multiracial milieux.

As I fly to China every year, my identity crisis transforms: being a Han Chinese, my perspective as an American ethnic minority changes into that of a Chinese ethnic majority. I am an atheist who looks Chinese and speaks Mandarin without an apparent accent. I am expected to behave and think like a Chinese and embrace the worldly and conventional social norms. In Hong Kong, restaurant attendants insisted on taking my order in Cantonese, which I do not at all speak, while my friend’s order in English because he is white, albeit Cantonese is his native tone. In Hangzhou, a taxi driver complained to me about how he hated the U.S. — my adoptive country — and demanded me to stand with the Communist Party of China under all circumstances; I shrugged. It is also uneasy for an ethnic Chinese from an English-speaking country, or a native who has returned from overseas, to convince the parents of Chinese students that they are not any less competent as an English teacher compared to those who have a more “exotic” skin color.

The racial prejudice in China is merely a miniature of the country’s homogeneous consciousness. White people are often privileged in China, receive better service, and enjoy a considerable amount of immunities and benefits. The local joke “the best way to find your lost bike is to let a foreigner report it to the police” is, unfortunately, a quotidian scenario. But when we ponder over the definition of discrimination, it originally means “to distinguish between.” These privileges that “expats” enjoy, have also made them perpetual foreigners in this country. Journalist Didi Kirsten Tatlow shared her story at a New York Times event in Beijing, about how she could never be recognized as a Chinese due to her race, despite the fact that she was born and bred in Hong Kong. At this point, I think immigrants like Didi, Dr. Bell and me, all somehow share the identical struggles although we were from unidentical backgrounds.

I sometimes wonder, why do our racial identities matter? All these stereotypical anticipations imposed upon us, as individuals, can hardly define who we are. When skin colors and last names are seen as the labels for others assuming our true identities, the cultures and spirits we embrace by choice are frequently neglected.

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