Hackerfarm Shenzhen Tour
This is a compendium of information regarding the Hackerfarm Shenzhen Tour. You’ll need a lot of this information to both prepare to go there and for when you get there. The more prepared you are, the more you will enjoy it out there. Otherwise, you will likely be in for a bit of a shock.
The Hackerfarm Shenzhen Tour is part of our plan at hackerfarm to grow the local economy in the Kamogawa, Chiba area by exposing people that live here to the manufacturing and trade resources available in China. The idea is that as more creative people come into the area, its possible to start designing and creating goods that can be sold locally or abroad, bringing money into the community. That’s why it’s important to educate people on available manufacturing options, wholesale pricing, and how to design things in a way that can easily scale.
Shenzhen is the manufacturing center of the whole world. You can get just about anything made and find almost all your raw materials there. There is also a vibrant ecosystem of suppliers that sell wholesale in markets and online. Once you understand what’s available out there, how things work, what markets to go to, and how to avoid getting scammed, then your potential for doing business increases exponentially.
Getting to Shenzhen is actually quite challenging and isn’t for the faint of heart. You normally fly into Hong Kong and then make your way into Shenzhen via border crossings. You also need a visa which can be difficult to get depending on your country. Here are some tips for getting in okay.
To get to Shenzhen, you basically fly into Hong Kong. From there, you travel by car, bus, or train for approximately 1 hour and cross the border into Shenzhen at one of the five border crossing points. If you arrive late at night, your only choice to cross into Shenzhen is the HuangGang border crossing since it’s open 24 hours. LuoHu, which is accessible by train closes at 12 am, and the other ones close around 10 pm.
From Tokyo, you can purchase a cheap air ticket from one of the low cost carriers like Hong Kong Express, Vanilla Air, or Jetstar. The tickets with only carry on luggage are generally 20,000 yen to 25,000 yen RT ($180-230 USD). You can purchase extra luggage if you want to bring a suitcase or bring products from Shenzhen back to Japan. Otherwise, we will be going to a shipping agent in Shenzhen and aggregate our shipment back to hackerfarm. The general costs via shipping agent is ~$10 USD/kg via FedEx or UPS up to 21 kg and then $5 USD/kg if over 21 kg. There are people that add bricks to their shipment just to make it past the 21 kg price break.
Travel from Hong Kong to Shenzhen
Airport Cross Border Minivan
From Hong Kong airport, you can book an airport Minivan which will take about six people at a time across the border. You generally have to wait until each van is full for them to depart. The cost is approximately $16 and takes about forty minutes to the HuangGang border. You will want to take it to the Futian district in Shenzhen. See below about crossing at the Huang Gang border crossing since it’s a bit involved. From the border, you will need to exit Hong Kong, hop on a border bus, and then enter China on the other side of the border. The bus costs a few RMB so make sure you have Chinese money available.
You can take the Airport Express to Kowloon and then transfer to the MTR. From there, ask a train attendant which trains to take to get to LoWu. This is the Luohu border crossing and is open until 10 pm. It’s much easier to cross than Huang Gang so this is a preferred route if you are already in Hong Kong. It’s a bit long from the airport though.
Taxi is also available to take you to the border. You’ll still have to cross the border on your own and it normally takes about 200HKD or about $25 USD. Tell the taxi attendant you want to go to the Huang Gang border crossing.
We will mainly be staying at hotels located around Hua Qiang Bei. We normally stay at City Inn Kexeguan, but since it’s become quite famous in the hacker community as a cheap hotel near Hua Qiang Bei, its often sold out. Here is the link to City Inn and some other hotels that are decent and walking distance to Hua Qiang Bei:
City Inn Kexeguan: A decent place to stay and close to Hua Qiang Bei. I know this place like the back of my hand and it’s the standard hacker hotel. Its kind of ghetto, but has reasonable prices and double occupancy.
DiFu Business Hotel: This place is pretty nice and was one of the cleaner hotels I’ve been to. It’s also a short walk to Hua Qiang Bei and close to where a lot of things are happening. If I can’t get City Inn, I normally stay here.
Shenzhen Xinghua Hotel: This place was horrible, dirty, and had a moisture problem. All the rooms on one side of the building are damp and covered in mold. I had asthma most of the time I was inside the room and you can smell the mold here. I’d avoid this place unless there was absolutely no choice in other places to stay.
Hua Qiang Plaza Hotel: This place is a luxury hotel compared to everywhere else. If you have the money, give this place a shot. You can wake up, walk outside, and you’ll be in the middle of the electronic markets.
Chicago Suites International Hotel: I’ve never tried this place. If you have a chance, give it a shot and let us know how it is.
AirBnB: I’ll be testing out AirBnB apartments in Shenzhen soon but they look like a viable alternative, especially for longer term stays. I haven’t had a chance to use the service yet in China though and the offerings are still limited.
Get your Chinese visa early. For people from hackerfarm, you can get it from the Chinese embassy in Tokyo. Otherwise, look up the major Chinese embassy located closest to you. The webpage in the link above is mainly in Japanese but you pretty much just go there. Here’s a map. You can’t really walk into the embassy to get a tourist visa for some reason. At least it doesn’t work when I do it. Next door to the embassy is a “travel consultant” that can help you get your visa. You pay a service fee and they will obtain the visa for you.
To get your visa, you have to fill out a long questionnaire which includes showing them your air ticket and letting them know which hotel you will be staying at. It generally takes about 2-4 days so you can stay in Tokyo until you get your visa or have them ship it to you.
Stuff to Pack
One of the most important things to bring is a SIM free phone. This is Japan jargon for an unlocked phone which allows you to use prepaid SIM cards when you get to either Hong Kong or Shenzhen. If you have a Nexus phone, then you should already be taken care of. Otherwise, find out if you’re phone is unlocked. If not, try to get an unlocked phone. It will make your traveling life much easier. If you don’t have an unlocked phone, let me know since I might have some unlocked cheapie phones. Those are good for making phone calls but can’t surf the internet. Your enjoyment of Shenzhen will be drastically reduced without mobile internet access though.
If you drink coffee and want to save money, I recommend buying a coffee funnel, a cheap pack of coffee filters, and a bag of ground coffee of your choice. I prefer Family Mart brand m’self. Coffee in Shenzhen goes for around $5 USD/cup and is a sign of bourgeois living in China. Most hotels provide a water pot for heating up water for tea but you can also use it to make your own coffee and save that $5 every morning (and afternoon/evening).
A picture’s worth a thousand words and a physical sample is worth a thousand pictures. Bring samples of anything you want to purchase in bulk or get made. Real samples are best since you don’t have to bother explaining what you want. Just hand them the sample and the vendor can try to match it. Otherwise, bring pictures or anything else you can find on it. The worst way to do things is to try and verbally describe what you want, especially if you don’t speak Chinese well.
I would recommend bringing a cheap desktop calculator with a large display. If you don’t speak Chinese, this is a good way to communicate with other vendors about pricing and negotiations. You can also use a phone but most vendors will probably grab it to look more closely at. If you dont like your phone handled by others, bring or buy a calculator.
Survival In Shenzhen
You’ll likely need to change money or pull money out of your foreign bank account. Your best bet is usually to locate a Bank of China ATM. There is one across the street from City Inn Kexeguan or at SEG markets in Hua Qiang Bei. Bank of China ATMs are part of the PLUS system so they can access the foreign banking network. Other ATMs will sometimes work but its a crap shoot depending on the bank you are using and the country of origin of that bank. You should keep a fairly decent wad of cash on you since most places in Shenzhen and China are cash based. If you need to pay for something, very few places will accept credit cards. Bring a few sources of cash, ie: credit cards you can pull cash out of, ATM cards, etc. Some bank cards or credit cards don’t seem to work in China and the last thing you want to happen out there is to not have any cash.
If you don’t have an unlocked phone, you should probably get one as quickly as possible. You’ll need it to pop a prepaid SIM card into. An internet enabled phone is best because it significantly enhances your experience to have internet there. From Google Maps, Wechat messaging, translation, etc, you will definitely want internet access.
If you don’t have an unlocked phone, then I recommend at the very least to get an old school Nokia unlocked phone from the markets. They cost about $20 USD and you at least can make phone calls for basic communications. Talk to me (Akiba) if you don’t have an unlocked phone and I’ll see if I can get you one of my old Nokia burner phones.
I’ll take everyone to get prepaid SIM cards on the day before the first day unless you arrive earlier than that. You can get them in Hua Qiang Bei for around 60-80 RMB depending on how “lucky” the phone number is and how much data you want.
A lot of people are shocked when they get into Shenzhen and suddenly can’t access Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, etc. This is becaus China lies behind the Great Firewall and filters out accesses to most internet services available outside of China. You should have a VPN accound and all your VPN software loaded on to your computer, phones, and tablets before you go into the country. If you don’t have a preferred VPN provider or your own server, then try Express VPN. It’s what I use and always seems to work in China. I’m not sure what shady deal they have there, but its the only VPN service I’ve used that consistently works without getting shut down. I’m neither sponsored nor endorse that company. I just use their service.
If you get tired of everything being so errr….Chinese, you can blow off some steam at the expat ghetto, Coco Park. It’s a high end area where the expats congregate and there are numerous clubs and night spots to let loose and get your foreigner on. Things are expensive in this part of town, but sometimes, you just need to be around other foreigners.
Approximate Costs of Things
- A room at the City Inn Kexeguan where I normally stay (by Hua Qiang Bei) is about $30/night.
- A nice, Western style hotel like the Hua Qiang Plaza is about $100/night.
- I haven’t tried AirBnB yet. If you do, please let us know.
- Small restaurants or food stalls normally cost around 6-24 RMB ($1 to $4) per meal
- Nicer restaurants can go around 40-100 RMB ($6 to $16) for a meal
- Foreign style restaurants targeted to the expat community will be 60 to 200 RMB per meal ($10 to $32). Drinks will also be extra and can be fairly expensive.
- Local beer (Tsingtao) is cheap at around 3-5 RMB (less than $1) per large bottle at the convenience store
- Taxis are about 12 to 30 RMB ($2-$5) per ride to most places in Shenzhen. If you need to go somewhere far, make sure the meter gets turned on. Also, don’t be too annoyed if you get ripped off by a taxi. It happens to everyone and it will still be cheap
- The metro can get you to many places in the heart of Shenzhen. It’s cheap to take the metro somewhere far and then take a taxi localy to get you to the exact location. Metro tickets are about 2-5 RMB (less than $1). It’s recommended you get a metro card and put money on it so you don’t have to keep buying tickets. The ticket machines only accept exact change and it’s hard to get change if you don’t have it.
- A bus from Shenzhen (Luohu) to Dongguan costs about 50 RMB ($8). Guangzhou is about 60 RMB ($10). Dongguan and Guangzhou is where many factories are.
- A high speed rail pass from Dongguan to Guangzhou is about 100 RMB ($16).
- An hour long foot massage costs about 60 RMB ($10). It’s casual and you can just sit down in any empty seat and have a person work on you. Highly recommended after a hard day sourcing parts in the markets
- A 30 minute head massage costs about 30 RMB ($5) and can be gotten at most hair salons.
- A full course 3 hour massage with separate people working on your feet, arms, and back costs about 300 RMB ($100). This is including small drinks and beer as you’re getting worked on. Highly recommended. One of my personal highlights on every trip to Shenzhen.
Places We Will Be Visiting
For the Hackerfarm Shenzhen Tour, we will be focusing on various markets for three days and factory tours on the fourth. We tried to select a diverse assortment of markets to give people a taste of the various genres of goods that are available in Shenzhen. Here is a list of the markets we will be visiting:
This is probably the largest electronics market in the world and can be separated into at least three main categories:
- Cellular phones and phone accessories
- Finished electronics
- Electronic components
Many people selling components and accessories online usually source directly from this market. Once you’re here, you can get a sense of the “real cost of goods” since they’re almost directly from the source. Components priced outside of China like on Sparkfun are usually marked up by 4-6x. It’s buyer beware though so it’s important to know your components very well and specify them as exact as possible. Also, once you find a vendor you like, don’t just get their card. Most of the cards are in Chinese so write notes on the card or better yet, take a picture of the card right next to the components you just purchased from them. Then you can return to them later and purchase more or instruct your purchasing agent to purchase the same components from them.
This market is pretty far out and is near the Shenzhen airport in a very industrial area. The place is filled with all types of things you’d use to make your industrial electronics, process control, or robotics designs. They are filled with linear actuators, ball screws, extruded aluminum railing, stepper motors, etc. Since it’s so far out, the prices are also very reasonable. It seems like it’s the place that most of the locals get their electronics and industrial electronics since Hua Qiang Bei has gotten popular and more expensive.
This market resembles a ghost town at first glance. It consists of many storefronts and very few people. The reason is that they are mainly gateways to factories and is a very quick way to check out sample books and talk to people from many different factories at once. They also keep some spot inventory so you occasionally see trucks pull up, have materials forklifted into them, and then pull out again. They have a very wide array of goods like papers, textiles, leathers and animal hides, chemicals and plastics, paints, accessories, and more. The place is huge and you pretty much need a bike to cover the whole area. It’s especially useful when you have a specific project in mind and need to purchase materials in manufacturing bulk quantities or need to know what kinds of materials are available in those quantities.
The Dafen Oil Painting Village is an enclosed multi-block neighborhood that comprises hundreds of shops dedicated to painting and the arts. Contrary to its name, Dafen also has many sculptors, pottery makers, illustrators, and other types of artists, but the overwhelming focus in the area is oil painting.
The tiny area is believed to be the largest mass producer of oil paintings in the world and is the go-to place when hotels need artwork to decorate multiple rooms in their establishment. It’s also geared towards commissioned artwork where you can hire an artist to paint an oil portrait or convert a picture or digital image into an oil painting. Prices vary, but for a hand painted, framed, oil painting of a simple color illustration about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, I’ve gotten quotes around $20 USD. If you need a mass produced canvas print of an illustration, it’s even cheaper and can get down to around $3 per canvas with a high resolution inkjet print.
Dongmen is a large market that is mainly known for cheap finished clothing. You can buy all types of knockoff clothing or original goods there, however we won’t be paying much attention to the finished goods. They also have four large buildings that focus on textile raw materials. These are fabrics, accessories, adornments, packaging/tags, and tailors. This area is also a gateway to the huge textile industry found in Guangzhou, but since it’s difficult to get all the way out there and visit so many factories, the Dongmen market provides fabrics and samples all in one place. If you’re interested in bulk quantities of anything they have in stock or have samples of, then they will introduce you to the factory and you can make an appointment to tour it at a later date. They also have all the materials for you to assemble your own custom wardrobe, blinged out t-shirts, bags, linens, and bedsheets. Typical lead time for these is a few days so it’s generally one of the first places I take people to.
This place is kind of an optional place. We won’t go to it as a part of the main tour since Jacinta and I have never been there. We are planning on exploring it though after the tour so people that are interested can come along with us. It’s far outside of Shenzhen, on the border between Guangzhou and Dongguan about two hours outside of Shenzhen. 60% of China’s jewelry production occurs in this area which is why it’s interesting. There also appears to be the Panyu Jewelry Mall which sounds tempting to check out. Since we’ll be setting up some small jewelry making stations at hackerfarm, I’m curious to see and learn more about this area. Hopefully we will be able to source some interesting stones and minerals from there.
Some other potential places of interest:
One of the most fascinating markets I’ve been to is Shenzhen Musical Instrument City, an indoor shopping mall with 20,000 square meters of space on four floors. It was the largest indoor musical instrument market in China when it opened in 2006. It’s a hub for music stores consisting of extensive collections of traditional Chinese musical instruments as well as western ones such as string and brass instruments. It’s located near the Science Museum metro station one stop from Hua Qiang Bei, the main electronics market in Shenzhen. I often stay in that area as it’s inexpensive and a short walk away from the electronics buildings that I frequent. The first two floors consist of general stalls and shops but once you get to the third and fourth floors, it turns into a musician’s wonderland.
The Sungang Arts/Crafts and Toy City houses multiple markets that cater to specific audiences.
One of the first markets you’ll see is the Sungang wholesale stationery market which occupies two multi-story buildings near Luohu. This market houses multiple adjacent stalls that are jam packed with office supplies, stationery goods, shredders, safes, and pretty much anything else you’d need to jot down notes or run a business.
Traditional Chinese food markets are all over the place in Shenzhen with fresh produce, freshly butchered meats, and live chickens and seafood. It’s also possible to get all manner of freshly prepared foods at these markets including meat buns, smoked/barbecued meats, noodles, tofu, and lots of other delicious foods. Food markets are one of my favorite places to escape to since I can wander around looking at all the different foods that are not available where I live and think about what kind of dishes they can be used in. The photos in this set were taken ata Chinese food market right behind the electronics market in Hua Qiang Bei and is one of my frequent haunts when I’m on a long stint in Shenzhen.