SHENZHEN, China — Most Americans today still picture Shenzhen as the home of iPhone production, migrant workers, and the center of a huge electronics component bazaar.
Well, they're not wrong. That Shenzhen is still here. However, the way people live, work, and play in Shenzhen is changing -- rapidly, as with almost everything in a rapidly evolving Chinese culture.
Huawei, of course, still has those legendary employees who don't think twice about working the whole weekend, sleeping over if necessary, to solve customers' problems.
But there's also a growing number who expect to have their weekends free, Chinese workers who are driven to seek more knowledge and join movements like "chuang ke" (translated as "makers").
Yang Yang, founder of RPTechWorks, has been teaching how to build open-source 3D printers and selling 3D printers since he got first involved in their development at his alma mater, the University of Warwick in the UK.
Yang believes that "labor intensive" Shenzhen will eventually become a city known for fast prototyping with "shortened development cycles." He thinks the Android explosion, the emergence of better 3D print machines, and the media's hyping of 3D printers will all contribute to Shenzhen's transformation.
Qifeng Yan, ex-director of the Nokia Research Center in Shenzhen (closed last year), is also predicting Shenzhen's shift from the world's factory to its global incubator. Yan, now director and chief researcher at Media Lab (Shenzhen) of Hunan University, told us that Media Lab -- currently 15 people -- will have 1,500 researchers in the next 10 years.
Jingfeng Liu, founder of pcDuino, acknowledged that the "maker movement" has arrived here.
But he quickly added, "It's mostly within the education market." Unlike their counterparts in the United States who tend to be older, have real jobs, but are high-end hobbyists or aspiring innovators, Chinese makers tend to be much younger, often still university students, he observed.
Open-source hardware like pcDuino, for example, is popular in China, not among hobbyists, but mostly among professionals who want to "go up the food chain," Liu explained. A company that used to distribute Lenovo PCs, for example, came up with its own Virtual Desktop, based on pcDuino, he said.
Media Lab's Yan noted that many Chinese tend not to have either a garage or any "spare time." So, the maker movement in China is evolving into something different from what it is in the rest of the world. Especially when it's tied into the existing built-in electronics ecosystem in Shenzhen, the maker movement can help local companies to open DIY workshops within organizations to start new projects, or go all the way into startup territory.
The photos in the following pages show a few changes brewing in Shenzhen in the way people live, work, and play.
Photo: EE Times/Junko Yoshida
Views of massive high-rise buildings astonish me every time I come here. This photo was taken from my hotel room. Judging from the hanging clothes in balconies, these unusually tall buildings aren't offices. They're apartments, where people actually live.