The RUKI guide to Shenzhen, the Silicon Valley of hardware

When your hardware prototype is ready, you should start thinking about where and how to manufacture your product. Southern China is a good option: the most of world’s consumer electronics are produced in Shenzhen, making it an innovative and vibrant environment for local companies.

Because of language and cultural barriers, starting out in the city may seem like a daunting task. Here at RUKI, we created this mini-guide to Shenzhen to make your first visit as comfortable as possible.

People call Shenzhen “The Silicon Valley of Hardware” because of its reputation as a center for innovation and tech entrepreneurship. But, as you may have guessed, there are some differences between California and southern China. Silicon Valley is now a friendly place with thousands of software startups. It is a symbol of the American dream for the thousands of creators who live or flock there every year.

Silicon Valley is known for big name startups and world famous entrepreneurs like late Steve Jobs. By contrast, individual success is less of a focus in Shenzen. It’s hard to name many hardware startups created in Shenzhen (DJI is one exception) because for many decades being different wasn’t encouraged in China. The whole startup ecosystem is younger here than in the U.S.: venture capitalists only appeared in China in the 90s, two decades behind California. And the startup industry has grown so fast in the past years thanks mostly to government programs and Chinese Communist Party initiatives. The main winners of the startup boom are still big factories like Foxconn, which are rapidly expanding thanks to huge growth in orders from its customers.

Shenzhen is a great place to start a hardware company. It’s an ecosystem built entirely around cost-effective manufacturing — the pace of production is much faster than anywhere in the world — so it’s no wonder that the city attracts makers of all kinds. RUKI wants to support you on your journey into a city that may seem unfamiliar and challenging at first. That’s why we’ve compiled some tips about transportation, logistics, restaurants and work that we always share with our clients and guests. We’re sure it will come in handy during your first trip to Shenzhen.

General information. Shenzhen lies in Guangdong province in southern China, and has a population of more than 10 million. Since the 1980s, it has transformed from a fishing village into the most important center of hardware production in the world. Hundreds of factories are located here, producing iPhones, hoverboards, drones and practically all the other electronics that you use in daily life. Today the city consists of ten districts and occupies an area of 772 square miles (by contrast, New York City occupies 303 square miles).

Shenzhen is a city of immigrants. Most of its residents come from different parts of China, and natives make up just a small percentage of the population. Many people relocate from other cities in Guangdong province, as well as the less wealthy northern, western and central provinces of China, looking for better wages and employment. The city is something of a melting pot, and it’s common to overhear conversations between people from different parts of China discussing the peculiarities of their hometowns and regions.

Getting there. Shenzhen has a major airport but you can’t fly directly from the U.S. Buy your ticket for Hong Kong instead — you can travel on by bus or ferry from there and then continue to your exact destination by taxi or subway. There is one good alternative to Hong Kong: fly to Guangzhou (the capital of Guangdong province) and continue by bus or high-speed rail to Shenzhen.

Language. The main language is standard Mandarin, then comes Cantonese, which is spoken across Guangdong province. In China English is not the lingua franca and it complicates daily life: taxi-drivers, shop-assistants, pharmacists, waiters and people on the street won’t be able to understand you. Chinese words transliterated into the Latin alphabet also won’t help you solve a communication problem or find the right address. Photograph the words you need on your smartphone so you can show them if you need to.

If you’re planning to take a taxi write down the address in Chinese characters. Alternatively, you could point to a place on a map or call a translator. (If it makes sense to hire one, the services of an English-Chinese interpreter could cost $100-$300 a day). It also helps to call ahead your destination (a hotel or restaurant for example) and give the phone to the driver so he can sort out where to go.

Cellphone connection. There are two main cellular network operators in China: China Mobile(中国移动) and China Unicom(中国联通). Their rates are roughly equal and 4G is not expensive. The price of a SIM card depends, incidentally, on the beauty of the number — numerology plays a big role in daily life in China. If the owner wants to attract money and success, he chooses a number with a lot of 8’s and avoids 4’s (“four” in Chinese sounds almost like “death” — the difference is just in the tone).

On average a SIM costs from $10–15. You can buy it in one of the mobile operators’ shops (they are practically everywhere) or look for the yellow tents selling newspapers and drinks (though as a rule they only sell the basic packets).

Currency. The official currency of China is the Yuan (¥). You can change cash dollars in banks or in the lobbies of good hotels. Don’t forget that you need a passport to exchange money in a bank.

Staying safe. China is a safe country. You can happily walk about anywhere at any time of the day. The worst you can fear — the perpetual “Hello!” from the locals. Lots of people move into the city from the villages, so they’ve never seen westerners. You might become the object of unwanted attention — but the “Hello!” is a friendly attempt to reach out to foreigners, even if the majority of the people who say it can’t continue the conversation any further in English.

Though it’s generally safe, do keep your guard: don’t leave your phone or purse on the table in the café and don’t put valuables in an open bag in public transport. Petty thieves don’t miss a chance.

Getting around. China’s public transport network is highly developed. In every district there’s a bus stop with routes covering all Guangdong and the neighboring provinces. You can get from Shenzhen to Guangzhou in 1 hour 20 minutes on the high-speed train. On top of that, Shenzhen has an excellent metro and bus network (though it’s true that road transport can take its time in rush hour). A metro journey costs ¥2–8 (0.30–1.20$), depending on the length of the route. If you’re will often use public transport, we advise you to buy the universal travel card for all types of transit.

There are three types of taxi in Shenzhen: red (city and outskirts), green (just for the outskirts) and blue (electric cars operating in the same regions as the red). The fares don’t differ widely. The minimum fare, covering the first 2 km (1.24 m), is typically $3, then $0.40 for every further kilometer (0.62 m). Once you’ve got into a taxi signal to the driver to turn on the meter. If you don’t want to take the official taxi service, you’ll be glad to know that Uber operates in China in all of its various incarnations, from UberPOOL to UberEXEC.

Living. The cost of living depends on the district you choose. A three-room apartment in a good neighborhood costs $1,000–1,500 a month, the landlord is usually renting for at least a six-month period. If you’re not going to stay for a long time you can take an apartment on Airbnb or live in a hotel for around $50 a day.

The most lively districts are Luohu (the financial and transport hub), Futian, Nanshan and Shekou. The closer an apartment is to the center of its district, the more it’s going to cost. You’ll have a great time living around the Grand Theatre (大剧院站) metro station in Luohu, Taoyuan (桃园站) in Nanshan, Shuiwan (水湾站) in Shekou. These are the main places where expats tend to settle.

Internet. The main problem is the “Great Firewall of China” — the country’s system of content-filtering which does not allow you to use websites like Facebook, Instagram and Gmail. Use a VPN if you have to get onto a forbidden site. There’s no problem using Skype or FaceTime to call your colleagues, Google Hangouts also works well via VPN. An added complication: the Wi-Fi and 4G networks in Shenzhen suffer frequent disruptions — it’s a problem all over China. If you’ve come for a long stay and plan to communicate a lot with Chinese partners, you have to get WeChat on your telephone. It’s the most popular Chinese messenger service (WhatsApp is basically unheard of here). For the desktop use QQ International.

Food. Shenzhen has restaurants and cafes catering to all tastes and budgets. The local food is Cantonese, one of the four classic Chinese cuisines. If you’re a carnivore, you have to try Guangdong goose (烧鹅) or chicken (白切鸡); for vegetarians there’s tofu and vegetables. Make sure to warn the waiter that you want absolutely no meat in your dish — Chinese people don’t consider tiny pieces of meat to be meat.

For breakfast you must taste youtiao (油条), fried strips of dough served with warm soy-milk, or rice porridge with assorted toppings (粥). You can buy this street food nearly anywhere in the city. There’s still one more famous Cantonese tradition: yum cha (饮茶), morning tea with dim-sum. The best breakfasts are served in classic tea-houses. In addition, on every corner you’ll find small shops selling various tea-based drinks, where we recommend you to try the classic Bubble Milk Tea (珍珠奶茶).

The main peculiarity of Chinese cuisine is the liberal use of flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) and unusual spice combinations. MSG is added to nearly all dishes — if you try the local food you’ll understand what we’re talking about. The most important thing is to be careful at the start of your trip, because your body won’t have acclimatized this sort of food.

The electronics markets. Well, you came here to work, and that means you want to visit the most important electronics and components market in China. It’s located at metro station Huaqiangbei (华强北站) on the green line. Several multi-story malls filled with finished products and all kinds of components are situated in this neighborhood. To get to know all the markets fully would take days. Maybe you won’t find the component you want at the best price, but Huaqiangbei is a must for broadening your outlook. Anyway, you can order anything you see at the market online.

Community. Most expats (including Americans) congregate around Shekou, at the Sea World metro station. Here there are a lot of shops selling imported products from various countries, restaurants, beauty parlors and other places where they speak English. Many foreigners study at Shenzhen University.

Perhaps you won’t find it easy to start working in a foreign country. This is part of a long road taking you towards releasing your product and creating a company. By doing something new, you are changing the physical world around you — and perhaps even the entire industry. All the potential manufacturing problems are just an interesting learning experience that all creators go through.

Photography: Ekaterina Popova

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RUKI is a hardware incubator, based in Shenzhen, Moscow and San Francisco.

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