A small first taste of Shenzhen

I’ll start with a caveat: I am an ignorant visitor. I don’t know anything about China. In the last couple weeks I have picked up the following words: “hello” “thank you” “goodbye” “tenth floor” and “beer”. So that’s how informed any opinions I express are. Read accordingly.

We came to Shenzhen to participate in a startup accelerator for entrepreneurs dealing with hardware. These sorts of businesses have particular joys, needs, and pitfalls, and with material sourcing and production so central to our practice, location really really matters. So when we got accepted to HAXLR8R and were presented with this opportunity, of course, we jumped on it without hesitation, and worked our tails off until Jan 20, when we left Montréal for Shenzhen (via Hong Kong, just across the border).

With very little free time to research things before we left, we arrived in Shenzhen with no idea what to expect. Everything we’d been exposed to in media and rumour led us to believe that we’d be entering the dark underbelly of piracy, a manufacturing-heavy trademark-deficient safety-tenth hazy dystopia. I mean, hey, we came, so clearly we were taking it all with a grain of salt, but we’re coming here to work and find our fortune rather than to find a pleasant place to live.

And yeah, the air here is not great. Above is the clinic I had to go to for a small pharmacy’s worth of asthma meds. (I photographed the Chinese address so we could direct a taxi there.) The air here is decidedly worse than in Bangkok or LA. But it is pretty much the same as Hong Kong, and much better than either Shanghai or Beijing, which has been in the news for record levels of deadly air pollution. All the foreigners here have an app or widget on their phone that measures air quality in near real time. LA’s is usually around 25-50. Shenzhen anywhere from 80-180 (but mostly in the low to mid 100′s), which is considered unhealthy in the US. Shanghai has been above 200 quite a lot lately. Beijing has recently exceeded 500 several times. That’s right around where AQI stops being very useful because it’s just not scaled for pollution levels that high.

I got some inhalers. I got some face masks. No one else I know is significantly bothered by the air quality here, but I am a delicate flower.

We stayed at a business hotel for the first week, where I learned that the kind of men who do business in Shenzhen might sometimes be a little sketchy. The manicure kit seems somehow guilty by association, so I avoided cutting my nails. There was a massage / sauna place in the hotel, right next to the restaurant. They even give you a coupon for it! Don’t ask how I know this, but I am pretty sure that it’s a legit massage place before 7pm, and something entirely dodgier after. In other arenas of sketch, we were located right next to THE big shanzhai cell phone market, where I hear you can find a phone that looks AND WORKS exactly like an apple magic mouse. It’s a phone. And it’s a mouse. Cuz why carry both? Our friend Silvia saw a bunch of people in a room packing up tons of phones in boxes, but moved on quickly when a big scary (apparently) Eastern European guy gave her the stink-eye. I bet her we’d see him at the sauna later that night.

So there is a bit of that “dark underbelly” element, with a significant dash of (largely delightful) weirdness.

Weird hotel adventures aside, Shenzhen is a really liveable city. There’s a big middle class here. Leopard print is in. It’s pretty clean, but not so creepily clean as Tokyo. The subway goes lots of places and runs smoothly and frequently. People are pretty nice — much nicer than in Beijing*, both in our experience and according to everything others have told us. It’s a young city. Someone cited the totally unconfirmed (but rather plausible) statistic that the average age here is 27. Babies, children, and pregnant women everywhere, which is probably partly due to the average age here, and partly due to our proximity to Hong Kong. (I believe that under some circumstances, if you give birth outside of China, and Hong Kong counts in this case, you get an extra kid under the current One Child Policy.)

* I’m starting a rumour that Beijing cab drivers are the product of a failed eugenics program that bred people for maximum nastiness in an attempt to create super-soldiers for the People’s Liberation Army. Pass it on.

The first week we were here, lots of companies were having their end-of-year parties at various big restaurants around town, complete with music, stage performances, and numerous speeches, toasts, and dinner courses.

During Chinese New Year, Shenzhen looks like San Francisco during Burning Man but with more bottled water left on the shelves — everyone goes back to their home town. Like ourselves, hardly anyone who lives here is actually from here. Those who stayed set off fireworks on the first night of the new year, which seemed to come from every alley and rooftop around our building. The next few days each have their own meanings and traditions. Day five is dedicated to the god of money, and on that night, we heard almost as many firecrackers as we did on New Year’s Eve itself.

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