Touring China With Alibaba

With only a laptop to my name I spent five days touring Shenzhen through connections made exclusively on Alibaba

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With five days to kill in Shenzhen and a serious lack of tourist attractions, I decided I would take a new approach to exploring the city. If you are not familiar with the city, it is considered the ‘silicon valley of hardware’ and is home to the factories manufacturing products as diverse as iPhones and pool floats. More than 12.5 million people call the city home, making it intimidating at times to foreigners.

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Day One

My first full day in Shenzhen was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Although I was technically there to visit my cousin Liam, his internship kept him rather busy during the day, so we started each day with breakfast before parting ways. My first stop, after the bakery of course, was Huaqiangbei — the electronics markets district. Dozens of factories stretch for miles along a large promenade, offering everything from finished electronic goods to microscopic chip components. Nerding out, I explored for hours, finally purchasing a bluetooth speaker and soldering iron to take it apart back in the hotel. Continuing further, I found a stall selling lithium-ion batteries in bulk, so I purchased a small one. A few mobile phone component stalls later I had the lightning connector component for iPhones and a few LED lights.

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After a day full of exploring and making purchases, I returned to the room to start playing around with my new wares. After some soldering, I was able to create a portable iPhone charger attached to a speaker.

For dinner, I took the subway to Dongmen Pedestrian Street, where a bustling night market boasted spicy street food, counterfeit luxury clothing, and various souvenir stands. I bought a few chicken skewers and a cup of mango, then cracked open a cold lychee juice to wash it all down. Overall, a successful day.

Day Two

Enthralled in the idea of bulk manufacturing from my experience the first day, I was determined to visit at least one factory before leaving the city. Without hesitation, I created an account on Alibaba and started searching items filtering only factories located in Shenzhen. Within an hour, I had two responses: a 3D printer factory and a bluetooth speaker factory. After a quick introduction, I asked to tour their factories out of interest in their industries. I offered my perspectives as an American business student and prepared pitches to see where that would get me. The bluetooth speaker factory representative invited me to visit that same day, and gave public transport instructions. After a quick breakfast, I boarded the subway and began the journey to the city’s Bao’an district.

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After the train ride, I was still a considerable distance from the factory. Fortunately, a man on a moped offered to drive me the rest of the way for a few dollars. Sweating through my only nice shirt in the hot summer heat, I finally arrived at the factory gates and messaged the rep on WeChat. He came down and welcomed me into the courtyard. He directed me into a freight elevator, and it jolted upward soon after. On the factory floor, he toured me through various parts of the production line, all the way from raw materials to finish product. Then, we went into the demo room where dozens of bluetooth speaker models lined the walls. I tested the speakers in comparison with my JBL I had brought along, and they were of comparable quality. JBL’s factory is likely in Shenzhen as well, after all.

Before returning to my hotel, he brought me to a small restaurant next to the factory. We had spicy noodles and chicken legs, then he ordered me a Grab car to take me the rest of the way home. It may sound too good to be true — why would a Chinese businessman want to spend such considerable time and money on an American business student? Although I may never know the answer, I believe he saw value in speaking with me and exchanging ideas, opening the door for further communication and collaboration. He knew that I was studying at a ‘name brand’ business school, and that I would have many friends and acquaintances going into various sectors of commerce. He knew that the 3D prototype of my dream speaker, the one I attempted to model in SketchUp only hours earlier, could one day be a viable product. At a minimum, he knew I was from the suburbs of New York City and could provide value to the company in another way, perhaps as a North American representative for their business. Regardless, the day I had was incredibly informative and easily far better than any tourist attraction to which I could have subjected myself.

Day Three

I didn’t hesitate to reach out to the 3D printer company which had expressed interest the day before. Without hesitation, once again, they invited me to come for a visit. Communicating exclusively through WeChat, the factory representative, Kevin, asked me for the name of my hotel. They were sending a driver. An hour later I received a call from reception that they had arrived, so I went down to the lobby where I was greeted by Kevin and the driver. We drove for about an hour and a half northwest of the city, struggling to overcome the language barrier in our halted conversation. As we approached the factory, there were massive compounds with buildings appearing to be warehouses and dormitories. “YKK, the zipper factory,” Kevin said, pointing toward a large, unmarked building. Finally, we arrived and Kevin and I walked through an open door into the factory’s reception area.

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A large tank dominated the entry boasting a rare fish imported all the way from the Amazon River, a token of good luck for the factory’s owner and worth over $14,000. In the main lobby, three small printers were buzzing as each raced to complete its own project. Three-quarters of a bright green Kung Fu Panda stood before my eyes, rapidly approaching its final form. The sight was mesmerizing. A glass display case housed some of their greatest achievements: a Thor hammer, painted in detail by an artist; A palm-sized lobster, complete with functioning joints and claws; A birdcage smaller than a paperclip, with a little dove in the center.

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My curiosity was restless. I had caught the 3D printing bug. I imagined the endless possibilities of such a unique tool; I wondered if they would be willing to sell me a sample printer.

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When it came time for what I assumed would be a factory tour, Kevin gathered a few employees from the office area and brought us all downstairs and into his car. We drove directly across the street and parked in the lot of a mega-sized restaurant.

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Once we were all situated at the round table, he guided me through the process of preparing my table setting. He started by pouring tea into the tea cup, which overflowed into the plate it was on and then continued onto the larger plate at the bottom. Then, he cleaned both chopsticks and the spoon in the tea at the top. I followed carefully and mimicked the actions as best as possible. Minutes later, food was being delivered en masse. Two plates of Indian flying cake were the first to arrive, and they were one of the most delicious snacks I’ve ever eaten. A range of dishes diverse as chicken foot, tofu, lobster, noodles and rice continued to arrive, as well as more flying cake. As for drinks, we started with a round of beers but soon after Kevin ordered a bottle of a whiskey for the table, insisting it was a necessity for good luck.

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After about two hours of captivating conversation, learning from each other and our own unique perspectives, we packed up the car and drove back to downtown Shenzhen. When I was finally back in the room I sent over a brief thank you note and inquired about purchasing a sample 3D printer. Kevin said he would send a courier the next day and that it would only be $100, so I agreed. Although we never did end up touring the factory floor, day three was an overwhelming success.

Day Four

With nothing planned, I returned to the markets for more exploration. Instead of browsing electronics, however, I decided it would be interesting to learn more about the city’s other manufacturing specialties. Needing a more efficient way of getting around, I made it my goal of the day to find a small plastic skateboard. Looking no further than my trusty aide, I found multiple factories advertising their wares on Alibaba. An hour later I was on a subway heading toward what appeared to be a toy market, but considering my poor translation and lack of Google there was at best a fifty-fifty chance I was right. Just a few minutes later I had arrived, and as I surfaced at street level the sight of a colorful four-story building put a huge smile on my face. I was in the right place.

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Hundreds of shop stalls lined the hallways inside, selling all the newest gimmick technology. Humidifiers of all shapes, sizes, and styles competed for attention, spouting steam in quite a relaxing manner. Bluetooth speakers (most of which were knockoffs of popular brands) played American music, and were likely assembled in a nearby factory only days prior. I lost myself in the market, overwhelmed in fascination of the sheer scale of the building. After about an hour of searching, I finally found the plastic skateboard I was looking for and managed to bargain it down to $10. For the rest of the day I casually rode around the city, making my way back to the electronics market district for some more exploration. At the market I snacked on ten microwaved dumplings for only $0.50, then returned to the hotel for a brief nap.

For dinner, I went to Brooklyn Pizza, a restaurant in one of Shenzhen’s massive retail malls. For the first time in a week I had a nice taste of home with my Philly Cheesesteak pizza. The good feelings were short-lived, however, and I soon became nauseous. I retreated to the hotel room, cutting the night short in hopes of recovering. My condition quickly worsened, however, and I was soon kneeling in front of the toilet. For hours I sat on the bathroom floor in agony, cursing out the cheap dumplings which I had concluded to be the most likely cause of my illness.

Day Five

As the night turned to morning I was still not improving, so Liam and I decided it was time to go to the hospital. Luckily, the hotel was just across the street from Sun Yat-sen Hospital. After walking through the underpass, Liam used his limited Mandarin to describe my condition to the nurse. Moments later she stood up and guided us to a waiting room on the second floor. Once there, she motioned me to the cashier desk where I would be required to pay in advance for any medical services. Finally, they gave me an IV and a shot to calm my stomach. For the next four hours I sat in the waiting room, reading and people watching as the three bags of mysterious solution hung above me.

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Heading Home

My flight home couldn’t have come at a better time, but I’ll admit I was nervous to begin such a long journey in that current state. To make matters worse, we would have to find our way to Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok International Airport, where the first leg of the journey would begin. Luckily, Shenzhen is adjacent to Hong Kong, and the entire journey can be completed in just under two hours, depending on the crowdedness of the border checkpoint. Plus, I had already been to Hong Kong, so we could go directly to the airport without the disappointment of missing the city.

Over the next twenty hours we would be flying to Shanghai Pudong and then onto New York JFK, concluding one of the most eventful weeks of my life. Until next time, Shenzhen.

Written by

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Buddhist. Expert adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia.

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