Special Economic Zone

Over the summer of 2014, writer Tim Maughan accompanied the Unknown Fields Division — ‘a nomadic design studio’ lead by speculative architects Liam Young and Kate Davies — on an expedition to follow the supply chain back to the source of our consumer goods. On the way they visited Shenzhen, China’s most successful Special Economic Zone. This story was inspired by a visit to one of Shenzhen’s many electronics factories, where GPS tracking and vehicle monitoring units designed to retrofit buses for ‘smart city’ projects were being tested.


14.05

Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles.

He connects an AC cable to the power in, an RJ-45 cable to the ethernet port, a co-ax cable to the GPS antenna in, and 3.5mm jacks to the audio input, the two video inputs, the speedometer input, and the fuel level input — all on the rear of the unit. On its front — where the unit is all curved, shiny black plastic instead of cold, matte metal — he slips a scuffed, red thumb drive into the USB port. With the index finger of his right hand he presses the testing station’s ‘go’ button.

Ten LEDs light in sequence below where the unit rests: green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green. The speaker chimes success, the AM radio girl congratulates him on a job well done.

Dai disconnects the power cable, the RJ-45, the co-ax cable, the five 3.5mm jacks and the USB drive, and places the unit back on the conveyor belt.


Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles.

He connects an AC cable to the power in, an RJ-45 cable to the ethernet port, a co-ax cable to the GPS antenna in, and 3.5mm jacks to the audio input, the two video inputs, the speedometer input, and the fuel level input — all on the rear of the unit. On its front — where the unit is all curved, shiny black plastic instead of cold, matte metal — he slips a scuffed, red thumb drive into the USB port. With the index finger of his right hand he presses the testing station’s ‘go’ button.

Ten LEDs light in sequence below where the unit rests: green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green. The speaker chimes success, the AM radio girl congratulates him on a job well done.

Dai disconnects the power cable, the RJ-45, the co-ax cable, the five 3.5mm jacks and the USB drive, and places the unit back on the conveyor belt.


Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles.

He connects an AC cable to the power in, an RJ-45 cable to the ethernet port, a co-ax cable to the GPS antenna in, and 3.5mm jacks to the audio input, the two video inputs, the speedometer input, and the fuel level input — all on the rear of the unit. On its front — where the unit is all curved, shiny black plastic instead of cold, matte metal — he slips a scuffed, red thumb drive into the USB port. With the index finger of his right hand he presses the testing station’s ‘go’ button.

Ten LEDs light in sequence below where the unit rests: green, red, green, green, red, green, green, green, green, green. The speaker buzzes angrily, the AM radio girl sounds agitated, redundantly telling Dai that something isn’t right.

Dai disconnects the power cable, the RJ-45, the co-ax cable, the five 3.5mm jacks and the USB drive, and places a quality control sticker on top of the unit. With a black felt-tipped pen he ticks boxes on the sticker corresponding to the faulty connections, and places the unit in the plastic crate on the floor next to his chair.


Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles.

He connects an AC cable to the power in, an RJ-45 cable to the ethernet port, a co-ax cable to the GPS antenna in, and 3.5mm jacks to the audio input, the two video inputs, the speedometer input, and the fuel level input — all on the rear of the unit. On its front — where the unit is all curved, shiny black plastic instead of cold, matte metal — he slips a scuffed, red thumb drive into the USB port. With the index finger of his right hand he presses the testing station’s ‘go’ button.

Ten LEDs light in sequence below where the unit rests: green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green. The speaker chimes success, the AM radio girl congratulates him on a job well done.

Dai disconnects the power cable, the RJ-45, the co-ax cable, the five 3.5mm jacks and the USB drive, and places the unit back on the conveyor belt.


16.14

Dai looks up, through the hanging vines of spare cables and connectors, quickly scans the rest of the factory floor. Three dozen other kids like him, all about his age, all wearing the same matching blue and green uniform. Heads down, silent apart from the bleeps of testing units and the whispered, synthetic crackles of endlessly repeated instructions. On the line directly opposite he spots her, Jiao, where she’s always sat, bathed in dust-flecked orange light. And just at that moment she glances up, catches his eye, smiles.

Dai smiles back, feels his face blush, and she smiles again before looking back down at her testing station.

He can’t believe his luck, that she looked up just as he looked over at her. Or maybe she’s always glancing up, staring at him as often as he does her?

The speaker barks at him, the distant girl’s voice dripping with faux concern as to why he’s not working, and he puts his head down again.


Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles.

He connects an AC cable to the power in, an RJ-45 cable to the ethernet port, a co-ax cable to the GPS antenna in, and 3.5mm jacks to the audio input, the two video inputs, the speedometer input, and the fuel level input — all on the rear of the unit. On its front — where the unit is all curved, shiny black plastic instead of cold, matte metal — he slips a scuffed, red thumb drive into the USB port. With the index finger of his right hand he presses the testing station’s ‘go’ button.

Ten LEDs light in sequence below where the unit rests: green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green. The speaker chimes success, the AM radio girl congratulates him on a job well done.

Dai disconnects the power cable, the RJ-45, the co-ax cable, the five 3.5mm jacks and the USB drive, and places the unit back on the conveyor belt.


18.00

A series of chimes sounds out across the factory, and the conveyor belt slows to a halt. Above Dai’s head the tinny girl voice excitedly announces it’s meal time, comments on how hungry she is, and playfully ponders what might be for dinner. Dai pushes his seat back and joins the rest of his production line, waiting in single file at the far end of the factory floor. He’s timed it just right, as he always manages, so that he’s stood just in front of one of the huge floor mounted air con units, industrial fans blowing mildew scented air across the back of his neck, gently ruffling hair and pricking skin as it evaporates away sweat drops. It both calms and invigorates him, and he almost doesn’t want to move when the light at the front of his line switches from green to red, and they obediently march, single file still, towards the exit. At the door they pause again, the first in their row waiting patiently behind a clearly marked line on the floor, six feet away from the door itself.


The panel on the wall bleeps, turns green, the first worker approaches it, gazes at its screen. A second beep, the click of the door unlocking, and they exit.

The panel on the wall bleeps, turns green, the next worker approaches it, gazes at its screen. A second beep, the click of the door unlocking, and they exit.

The panel on the wall bleeps, turns green, the next worker approaches it, gazes at its screen. A second beep, the click of the door unlocking, and they exit.

The panel on the wall bleeps, turns green, the next worker approaches it, gazes at its screen. A second beep, the click of the door unlocking, and they exit.

The panel on the wall bleeps, turns green, the next worker approaches it, gazes at its screen. A second beep, the click of the door unlocking, and they exit.

The panel on the wall bleeps, turns green, the next worker approaches it, gazes at its screen. A second beep, the click of the door unlocking, and they exit.


The panel on the wall bleeps, turns green, Dai approaches it, gazes at its screen. His blocky, low-res reflection gazes back, a machine vision approximation of his tired eyes and pale skin. He stands there, silently, not moving, waiting for the panel to recognise him. A tick appears, obscuring his face. Video game statistics flash scroll along the screen’s bottom: efficiency, accuracy, time keeping, responsiveness, productivity. Chimes and kerching sounds. A second beep, the click of the door unlocking, and he exits.

Downstairs in the canteen, Dai breathes deep and plucks up courage. He carries his tray of food over to the table where Jiao is sat, silently rehearsing what he’ll say. He’ll ask if he can sit next to her. He’ll ask her what year she is. Her star sign. Her blood type. He’ll ask her what village she’s from, what it’s like there.

He’s just a few steps away from the table when she glances up and he catches her eye. Contact. He smiles.

But before she can respond one of her friends, Lenfen he thinks she’s called, suddenly leaps to her feet, blocking his way. She doesn’t see him, collides with him, knocks his tray — he manages to keep the food safe, but his drink falls and splatters artificially sweetened dragon fruit juice across his shirt, flooding the bottom of the tray with orange pollutant. Lenfen scolds him, calls him an idiot, tells him to watch where he’s going. The table behind her erupts into laughter. Dai blushes and turns, retreats, head down.


In the corner of the canteen, under faded red lettering that explains ‘Quality is the price of living, efficiency is the source of money’, Dai sits silently, sucking thin layers of meat from sliced bone.

Out in the dormitory courtyard, sheltered from the relentless sun by four-story walls of brutalist balconies and worn walkways, Dai waits in line to clean his bowl at taps spouting from exposed copper plumbing, watching discoloured water sweep discarded rice along open drains. When he’s done he jogs up stairwells, past the blank stares and smartphone distracted gazes of the bored smokers trying to freeze the inevitable passage of break-time, and into his room. The air inside, heavy with stale smoke and male body odour, barely moves as the sole electric fan attempts to push it around Keung’s huge bulk, the oversized teen hunched over his laptop, lost in fantasy warfare. He spots Dai and pulls off his headphones, more beeps and AM crackle-voices filling the room, and grunts something about them going into Shenzhen city later. Dai makes excuses, says he’s too tired, his shift doesn’t finish until 10, but the truth is the thought of an hour-long bus ride with his roommate bores him. He pulls another work shirt out of the dirty laundry — worn but at least not juice stained — and pulls it on just as the call to work echoes around the courtyard from the glitching, rattling PA.


19.15

Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles.

He connects an AC cable to the power in, an RJ-45 cable to the ethernet port, a co-ax cable to the GPS antenna in, and 3.5mm jacks to the audio input, the two video inputs, the speedometer input, and the fuel level input — all on the rear of the unit. On its front — where the unit is all curved, shiny black plastic instead of cold, matte metal — he slips a scuffed, red thumb drive into the USB port. With the index finger of his right hand he presses the testing station’s ‘go’ button.

Ten LEDs light in sequence below where the unit rests: green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green. The speaker chimes success, the AM radio girl congratulates him on a job well done.

Dai disconnects the power cable, the RJ-45, the co-ax cable, the five 3.5mm jacks and the USB drive, and places the unit back on the conveyor belt.


Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles.

He connects an AC cable to the power in, an RJ-45 cable to the ethernet port, a co-ax cable to the GPS antenna in, and 3.5mm jacks to the audio input, the two video inputs, the speedometer input, and the fuel level input — all on the rear of the unit. On its front — where the unit is all curved, shiny black plastic instead of cold, matte metal — he slips a scuffed, red thumb drive into the USB port. With the index finger of his right hand he presses the testing station’s ‘go’ button.

Ten LEDs light in sequence below where the unit rests: green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green. The speaker chimes success, the AM radio girl congratulates him on a job well done.

Dai disconnects the power cable, the RJ-45, the co-ax cable, the five 3.5mm jacks and the USB drive, and places the unit back on the conveyor belt.


Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles.

He connects an AC cable to the power in, an RJ-45 cable to the ethernet port, a co-ax cable to the GPS antenna in, and 3.5mm jacks to the audio input, the two video inputs, the speedometer input, and the fuel level input — all on the rear of the unit. On its front — where the unit is all curved, shiny black plastic instead of cold, matte metal — he slips a scuffed, red thumb drive into the USB port. With the index finger of his right hand he presses the testing station’s ‘go’ button.

Ten LEDs light in sequence below where the unit rests: green, green, red, green, green, red, green, green, green, green. The speaker buzzes angrily, the AM radio girl sounds agitated, redundantly telling Dai that something isn’t right.

Dai disconnects the power cable, the RJ-45, the co-ax cable, the five 3.5mm jacks and the USB drive, and places a quality control sticker on top of the unit. With a black felt-tipped pen he ticks boxes on the sticker corresponding to the faulty connections, and places the unit in the plastic crate on the floor next to his chair.


20.42

Dai looks up, through the hanging vines of spare cables and connectors, quickly scans the rest of the factory floor. Three dozen other kids like him, all about his age, all wearing the same matching blue and green uniform. Heads down, silent apart from the bleeps of testing units and the whispered, synthetic crackles of endlessly repeated instructions. On the line directly opposite he spots her, Jiao, where she’s always sat, bathed in dust-flecked orange light. And just at that moment she glances up, catches his eye, smiles.

Dai smiles back, feels his face blush, and Jiao turns to her right and he sees her whisper something, and further down the line he sees Lenfen look up and meet his gaze too, scowling. The two girls look at each other, and start to giggle.

The speaker barks at him, the distant girl’s voice dripping with faux concern as to why he’s not working, and embarrassed, he puts his head down again.


Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles.

He connects an AC cable to the power in, an RJ-45 cable to the ethernet port, a co-ax cable to the GPS antenna in, and 3.5mm jacks to the audio input, the two video inputs, the speedometer input, and the fuel level input — all on the rear of the unit. On its front — where the unit is all curved, shiny black plastic instead of cold, matte metal — he slips a scuffed, red thumb drive into the USB port. With the index finger of his right hand he presses the testing station’s ‘go’ button.

Ten LEDs light in sequence below where the unit rests: green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green, green. The speaker chimes success, the AM radio girl congratulates him on a job well done.

Dai disconnects the power cable, the RJ-45, the co-ax cable, the five 3.5mm jacks and the USB drive, and places the unit back on the conveyor belt.