Friday, May 10, 2013


(Hotel room view.)

This has been my first proper layover in Shenzhen, China. I flew through here a few months back on a commercial flight, but was picked up at the airport and spirited across the border to Hong Kong to lay over there. So I didn't see much. This trip laid over for 40 hours, which gave two full daylight cycles to explore.

Shenzhen is a relatively new destination for my airline. As I understand it, we long planned to operate here but time was needed to build a large facility at the Shenzhen airport. And the airport itself has been undergoing a massive, China-style upgrade with a two-mile-long runway added (built out in the water on entirely created land, a la Hong Kong) and a new gargantuan terminal building (still in process). So while the company waited for this work to be done we operated in and out of Guangzhou, which is about 70 miles or so to the North of Shenzhen. I had numerous layovers there and came to have an affection for the place; I was sad to see it go as a layover, but I also understood we were swapping one Chinese megatropolis for another, and a nearby one at that. And to look at a map, there hardly seems to be any real line of demarcation between Guangzhou and the massive belts of population that surround it in every direction, or between Shenzhen and same. It's all very nearly one continuous supermassive city--something I've noted before on the rare daylight flight into Guangzhou when one can see through the thick smog. (By contrast, the separation between Shenzhen and Hong Kong--which is closely adjacent to it--is much more complete due to some mountainous terrain.)

Looking at Wikipedia, it seems that there's not much to choose population-wise between Guangzhou (12.7 million, making it China's third largest city) and Shenzhen (10.4 million); both are huge, dense places. And more germane for our purposes, they're both part of the huge manufacturing sector of Southeastern China, the place where everything we use in America and elsewhere in the world is made. This is, of course, why an American shipping company has a big presence here.

I love exploring a new place (something I wrote about recently with another new Chinese city to me, Chengdu). A map gives you a general introduction, but these cities are typically quite old and there's often no standard grid. So a map only gets you so far and you don't really know what navigation is like until you see things firsthand. Shenzhen in its current form is a newer place, having been designated a Special Economic Zone by the Chinese government in 1979 due to its proximity to Hong Kong (always the region's economic and shipping powerhouse). So much of the roadways and architecture seem new and expensive. And true to form, there is massive construction going on here almost everywhere. Construction cranes and bare concrete buildings are in every vista, though I understand that a good many of these sites are idle due to the economic slowdown. Still, I saw lots of construction work underway on my wanderings.

We arrived from Sydney about 2:AM on Monday morning and went directly to the hotel to sleep. We stay here at the J.W. Marriott, which has to rank (along with the Fairmont in Dubai) as the swankiest hotel I've ever seen. We stay at some really swell places internationally (more for security than for any kind of status reasons, I think--a good hotel is a simple way to guarantee that we're safe and well-looked-after in a foreign place; this places less pressure on our Crew Planning staff), but this place takes the prize. Marble and tigerwood everything, power shades and curtains, all-glass bathroom. And a staff that seems practically ready to bear your children. Very, very nice.

This series of flights involved training for a new captain, so for legality reasons (which we needn't go into) I was called in to serve as a second co-pilot. And of the four of us, I was the only one who hadn't been here before. So a plan was formulated for us all to hit the shopping hot spots after some rest, and we dutifully met in the lobby at 10:AM and took a cab about 15 miles to an immense shopping mall down near Hong Kong. In Shanghai there is a favorite shopping spot for airline crews called "The 580 Market," and this mall in Shenzhen has come to be called the "Super 580" as it carries the same kinds of stuff but is about five times the size.

Lest I sound irredeemably snotty, I'm truly grateful that the other crewmembers were willing to show me the sights. But this kind of exploration is maybe best done alone or with a single other person, as everybody is just slowed down by having to accommodate the whims--however minor--of the others in the party. So this was fun, but maybe more valuable for giving a sense of what one might want to come back and look over solo. After a couple hours of shopping, we took another cab back to the hotel (after a bizarre incident where a homeless person reached through the front window and grabbed the captain's soft drink bottle and refused to let go of it without some force being applied) to drop off our stuff (movies for me, purses for another guy). Then the captain and I headed out on foot for a huge electronics part of town some four miles distant. We walked between raindrops for the 75-80 minutes it took us to get there, navigating via an oversized map with very little English on it--the hotel concierge had circled a couple areas of interest and we tried to find our way to these. The captain had been to this electronics area a couple times before, but never on foot. So we had to kind of feel our way.

But these are the kinds of things that help you to get a feel for a place. The map says go from HERE to HERE via THESE STREETS, but the reality doesn't really work out that way. What you might be able to do with a car is impossible on foot. Walkways are variable and they don't necessarily follow the roads on the map. Plus, straight lines are almost never really straight, and with the meandering paths and under- and over-passes it's easy to get turned around (as I discovered again today). We would occasionally pass a subway station, and this told us we were basically on-course (we could have taken the train, but, valuable as that is, it doesn't really help one to get to know a place nor do you get any exercise that way). Due to the much heavier rainfall after we were done shopping, we did take the train back to the hotel later that night.

But the electronics markets. I had been told to expect to be wowed, but I wasn't sure what to expect. I had seen an electronics part of town in Guangzhou and kind of thought it would be like that. And it was, but on steroids. This electronics shopping area of Guangzhou was already quite unlike anything I had seen in the US (or elsewhere), being a couple blocks in every direction and made up of several densely-packed mid-sized malls, each building kind of specializing on a particular range of products: computers here, audio equipment there, cameras here, cell phones and tablets there, etc. The electronics area in Shenzhen was like that, but was really a whole city unto itself--the main drag was about the size of Appleton's downtown district, but with many more skyscrapers. Electronics were mixed in with clothing and other things and the whole area was considerably more extensive than what I had seen in Guangzhou or Shanghai. The region was much newer than the Guangzhou shopping district, and seemed maybe two or three times the size. 

Our visit was mostly a quick scouting mission--the other guy was looking for a cover for his old iPod which, surprisingly, no one had--and after looking through two or three of the zillion malls we caught a train back to the hotel and called it a day.

Today I was on my own, and I again walked to the electronics area. But this time I spend two or three hours looking around the area and then walked back via a slightly different route. And here's the main thing one walks away from after this: there are a vast number of people here making a basic free-market living on the periphery of the smart phone and tablet industries. It's hard to wrap your head around the size and scale of these marketplaces, and so many of them--hundreds of booths per floor, many floors per mall, mall after mall for blocks--are engaged in selling phones and tablets and cords and covers and headphones and screen protectors for them. Literally thousands of tiny booths engaged in selling slight variants of the same things. I've seen the same stuff in the other Chinese cities I've visited--Hong Kong and Guangzhou and Shanghai and Taipei and Chengdu--but there's just so much more of it here. I noticed in Chengdu that there were many more booths than there seemed to be customers for them, and I had to conclude that each booth also has an online presence; and so must it be here, though the malls were packed when I went through them (well, many of them). The booths themselves are varied, of course, but many of them are piled floor-to-ceiling in willy-nilly fashion with inventory, and quite a few of them specialize in particular brands or models of phone or tablet--not just selling that particular brand or model, but even specializing in the accessories for just a couple brands or models. Lots of vendors for Apple accessories, of course--signs for "iPhone 5" are literally everywhere--but also Samsung and LG and Sony and others. 

And here's another difference from what I'm used to seeing in, say, Guangzhou: there are clearly lots of people here who are repairing older phones and / or recycling the components. One of the pilots on this trip said that on a previous trip he brought over an older iPhone with a bum power switch and they repaired it on the spot for about $15 (after trying to buy the older model from him. He eventually brought two old iPhones to them and they took them off his hands at a fair price). I've seen computer malls elsewhere where one can buy every little component and assemble a machine from scratch, but here they have the same thing but devoted to phones and tablets. Booth after booth with, say, individual iPhone components--screens, for example, but in colors never offered by Apple. LED lights--there's a whole mall devoted to LEDs--and individual electronic components in huge rolls. Again, with each booth kind of specializing in a product or an aspect of a product, and all of them employing two or three or five young folks. You have to wonder at the specialization of knowledge that a person would need to have to run a booth among hundreds of others selling obscure electronic components--stuff that on its own seems of virtually no value whatsoever. In the dumpier shopping centers that surround the core of high-profile malls one sees more and more of the components and less and less of the finished products. Eventually one comes to booths with just individual components, and workers are busy squatting on the floor assembling cords or individual bits for resale, counting them out and putting them in binders or little ziploc bags. One wonders how these little packages of, say, iPhone home buttons or replacement screens find their way to a repair shop in Sacramento, and here's your answer. Very instructive. In these "component malls" there are fewer and fewer wandering customers, and almost no one tries to wrangle you into their booth. This work must be almost all online sales rather than sales to individuals.

I didn't buy anything today after yesterday's haul of a few movies and a couple phone cases for Susan and myself (I found these great aluminum bumpers for the iPhone 5 that I'd been looking for. Score!) but it was quite enough to just look around and get the lay of the land. I find that Shenzhen is not as walker-friendly as Guangzhou. The sidewalks here are better and there are more of them, but walking paths have almost all been compromised for needs of the huge highway system here. So walking is easy but actually walking to a specific place is bothersome, requiring quite a bit more distance traversed than one expects. And though I found a place that would sell me DVDs, they had less stock and much higher prices than my favorite vendors elsewhere. I hoped today would yield a good movie vendor, but alas I must keep looking.

But we can file that under First World Problems. For a day of wandering around a new and strange Chinese city, today was an unequivocal success. I look forward to my next visit, where I can pick up where I left off.

(Shopping area adjacent to border with Hong Kong.)

(Another new Chinese subway. Busy but clean and quiet.)

(Lots of these tree-covered sidewalks in the Chinese cities I've seen. Nice.)

(Engrish. They'd get a much bigger laugh out of my butchery of Chinese.)

(Construction and amazing architecture everywhere.)

(Huge new Civic Center.)

(Temporary worker's housing. These are everywhere around the city, thousands of  little cubicles in hundreds of locations.)

(One of the electronics malls. A small section of one floor thereof.)

(Hard to see, but the woman has her son on top of the counter where he's having his lunch. Lots of folks with their kids at these workplaces.)

(Huge bundles of cords. Workers assembling things, presumably for shipping elsewhere.)

(An entire mall dedicated to LED lighting. A small section of one floor of the mall. It's immense.)

(Looking one way down the shopping street.)
(...and the other way. Cross-streets full of more shops head off for blocks in both directions.)

(A clothing district. Once outdoor, a canopy has been erected over the sidewalk to make an "indoor" mall.)

(Can't quite see it, but this booth has a stack of DVD burners and thousands of blank DVDs. This is presumably where the copied movies I buy come from.)

(Chinese bicycle fetish, part #5371. There's a bike under that styrofoam!)

(A palm tree on every fourth floor.)

(The civic center from a bit further away.)


payingattention said...

Our burning question: did you eat any 'lamb' this week?

William Stachour said...

Ha! Only if McDonalds has been cutting corners. ;-)

dbackdad said...

Good stuff as always. The electronics market sounds (and looks) fascinating.

I think it'd be hard for a small-town Iowa boy to fathom the sheer size of these towns. Sure, I live in Phoenix now, but it's sprawling. These cities in China are about 8 times the size (at least) and denser.

Jon said...

I noticed quite a few people using umbrellas. I've never noticed that before. Is that common? Just something different I guess or for some other reason I'm not aware of.

William Stachour said...

The umbrellas are for the sun. With the smog, it can be deceiving how much sun you're getting. Plus, showery precip seems to happen with some regularity. An odd cultural thing, since you don't really see this in other places.

William Stachour said...

I'm quite used to big cities, and the density and scale of this still--obviously--takes me by surprise. I guess that's one of the great benefits of travel; to take one out of one's comfort zone!