Shenzhen: First Impressions

Mike Daisy Was Full of It.

A few months back, Mike Daisy got himself an entire segment speaking on This American Life. He talked about Shenzhen as “the place where your crap comes from”; A city of concrete and neon that “looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself”. In Mike’s dystopian Shenzhen, the sky is a poisonous mercury silver, and bowels of a sprawling highway system punch through the city only to end abruptly in a traffic cone that hangs over a 30 meter drop. Everything is bustling, toxic, and under construction.

I haven’t found that Shenzhen yet. Here’s the view from my hostel, where I’m writing this:

Nope, I'm pretty sure Los Angeles already looks more like Blade Runner than this.

There’s one especially touching segment in Mike’s story where he meets with disabled victims of Chinese industrialization: Men who have been polishing the screens at the iPad factory, who now live with tremors. Their hands are curled up, shaking wrecks after years of handling nerve-poisonous n-hexane screen cleaners without protection. He hands his own iPad to one of them, who touches the screen in awe and says (through his translator) “it’s a kind of magic”.  He’s given up his life to make iPads, this man from Mike Daisy’s story, but he’s never even seen one turned on.

Funny how just as many folks on my train ride in from the airport were tapping away on their touchscreen phones and phablets as in Silicon Valley.

Speaking of train rides, let me admit a prejudice: I am inclined to count a culture’s ranks in civilization in part by how clean and generous their public transit is. Are their trains to everywhere you want to go? Do they come often? Is it affordable to everyone alike?

A Shenzhen metro token

This is an especially techy tidbit: The subway tokens have something like an RFID or NFC tag embedded, so even through they’re one-ride-only, you tag them in to open the entry gate the same as you would a rail card. Then when you drop them in the exit gate from the subway system, it knows if you paid enough for the length of your ride.

By this metric, Shenzhen is second only to Barcelona in civility. The trains come every few minutes. The network is vast, getting you within 10 minutes of anywhere you want to be in town. A medium-haul train ride will set you back 4C¥: About 60 cents at the current exchange rate. Above each train door is map of the line with LEDs showing where you are now, which direction you’re headed, and whether the doors on the right or left side of the train are set to open at the next stop, making using the system idiot-proof.

The Great Firewall? You Can’t Miss It.

It’s not all wine and roses. Chinese censorship? You’re going to hit it the first time you log onto the ‘net. Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter; navigate to any social network and you’ll run into…

This webpage is not available.

Google what’s up with that, click any link and you’ll run into…

This webpage is not available.

Other web sites (like this one) seem to run just fine. Still others are in a grey zone, loading slowly, frequently failing or dropping for minutes at a time. GMail and GChat occupy this limbo of sites that are available in China, but painful enough to use that Pavlov may suggest you prefer an alternative.

lousy wifi

Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s not the hostel’s wifi. I’m uploading these (large) picture files and getting them back just fine.

Off to Find “My People”

I’ve been in China now for ~24 hours now, but I’ve just got my feet: Overnight in Beijing International Airport after my first connection to Shenzhen was cancelled, wandering across Shenzhen to a new hostel after the first one I’d reserved a room at had given it away when I didn’t show, sleeping until a few hours before dawn to catch up, pulling out of mothballs and then writing this blog post.

Time to find my feet for real: To find the local Makers, techies, coffeehouse addicts, and the rest. Also, I need to get my own phone turned on to this network, lest I shatter every notion that the locals have of Americans as being affluent movers and shakers. Because clearly, to the people around me, anyone who isn’t tied to the ‘net at will is at best a primitive cretin.

What? There's a high correlation between boardgamers and other species of nerd. Also, of note: Check out how googling "board game store shenzhen china" turns up the majorities of its entries over the water, in Hong Kong.

What? There’s a high correlation between boardgamers and other species of nerd. Also, of note: Check out how googling “board game store shenzhen china” turns up the majorities of its entries over the water, in Hong Kong.

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Saturday, July 13th, 2013 Journals 13 Comments