I’m sitting on a darkened patio of a club called Viva in the Futian district of Shenzhen. It’s not too late – about 1am – and the place is busy but not full. It’s mostly ex-pats here, folks who work at the various sourcing companies nearby. This place is so anti-China that it almost looks European. Techno is blaring out of the bar and there’s a pool table. Down the way is a coffee house where English teachers from Vermont are playing chess. A little further down is a Tuscan restaurant run by a real Italian who sits at his own table and eyes the clientele. One plate of pasta there costs more than what the average Chinese makes in a week.
This is the other Shenzhen. It’s a cocoon, perhaps, or an escape. It used to be worse. There used to be one bar where all the ex-pats went. It was just like in Prague where, for years, there were only one or two spots they flocked to, where they isolated themselves from the tumult of a post-Communist society.
I’m at Viva with Ben and his friends. Ben runs a sourcing company, Shenzhen CE and IT Supply Company. It’s a small company of ten people and he produces and sells phones and MP3 players for the West. His value-add is service – he can make sure every piece of your order works and can liaison between the manufacturers and the marketing teams to ensure your boxes are printed to spec and your devices don’t burst into flame. He’s been in China for almost ten years. He moved her after college and just stayed. He speaks Chinese to the wait-staff here, Portuguese to his Brazilian model girlfriend, Thailis, and French to some dude with one of the most primitive Motorola phones I’ve ever seen. He grew up in Manhattan, moved to Thailand where he sold t-shirts and then moved to China.
He was looking for something to sell back in the US. Although he admits that when he first started, he “couldn’t even spell PCB,” he has now carved out a small but growing niche in Shenzhen, a city of 14 million Chinese and where Western faces of any nationality are a rarity at best.
Benjamin Dolgin-Gardner of Szceit.com
He’s with his buddy Brent who runs ShenzhenParty.com, a site that started out as a party listing and turned into Craigslist. We’re with another guy, Bill from Chicago, who is Mr. Battery. His company makes and sells electric cars and their attendant batteries. Bill started out as a porter at one of the Shenzhen hotels and just moved up.
This is the last frontier. You can’t do this kind of thing anymore; there are few places in the world where you can just pull up stakes and start over, but Shenzhen is growing so rapidly that it seems that everyone is welcome to go along for the ride.. There are countless stories here of folks who just up and moved here. One entrepreneur here, Liam Casey, lives in a hotel. He never bought an apartment. He just pays the daily rate. He’s been doing this since the mid-1990s. It just seems to work.
This is a boomtown. Nearby Hong Kong feels like a young city but it has had a Western capitalistic influence for decades. Shenzhen is a machine looking for operators. If you can find a spot at the controls you can make a pretty penny. The cost of living is low, the opportunities are high — it seems like a great place to start a career.
We’re drinking and talking. Some of Thais’ model friends are sitting at another table. The models aren’t especially tall – they fit into the Chinese fashions a bit better – and many work for catalogs where they take hundreds of pictures a day, one for each outfit. It’s hardly a glamorous life, but it’s a living.
As we leave we meet an American girl, Star, who can’t find a good hairdresser. She just had her hair cut and I can tell she’s nervous about it. She can’t communicate with the barbers, she says. She’s also very drunk. Many of the folks here never bother to learn Chinese. Past learning numbers and some street names, what else is there to learn? This place serves English-speaking consumers, after all.
At the end of the night we look for a cab and Ben starts trying to bargain with the cabbies. He doesn’t like to pay retail. Everything he does and buys comes at wholesale prices – MP3 players, cellphones – so why pay retail for services? He asks for a flat rate back to his apartment, 15 yuan or about three dollars. The cab drivers don’t bite, knowing that there are more Americans inside and that this Chinese-speaking kid is too smart for his own good. They roll down their windows and yell at him to come over, hear his pitch, and shake their heads, no. There are other marks to be had.
Next: The Shanzai
This article is part of a series about manufacturing in China. Read more parts here.