Tag Archives: inventions

Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei: The Electronic Megamarket.

News and Travel Editor

Welcome to Huaqiangbei: The world’s biggest electronics market. Booths are crammed in over 10 floors and each one represents a factory close by. From smartphones and drones to circuit boards and security systems, if it’s electronic, I can guarantee you’ll be able to find it here. If you can’t find the finished product, don’t worry, there are so many components on sale, you’ll be able to make it from scratch.

It’s not the usual scenic attraction we might talk about on China Icons so why visit? Huaqiangbei is renowned for its vast range of products as well its speed and efficiency in producing them. Plus we were in town with a shopping list – a drone and some circuit boards. This is both geek heaven and the place to stock up on all the gadgets you wish you had.

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Its location in Shenzhen, rather than Beijing or Shanghai, reveals something fascinating about the modern history of China. Until 1979, Shenzhen was nothing more than a sleepy fishing port with a population of around 30,000. That year, Shenzhen became a ‘Special Economic Zone’, becoming China’s first experiment in capitalism. ‘SEZs’ were the brainchild of Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader at the time, who wanted to cement China’s place as a global economic powerhouse. They were designed to encourage foreign investment and this meant that zones such as Shenzhen would have different trade and business laws compared to the rest of the country.

Fast forward to today and the population has leaped to 10-15 million (the exact figure is unknown because of the shifting patterns of migrant workers), a larger population than London, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, New York and Washington D.C.. Economically, Shenzhen has undeniably flourished, with its GDP growing from 1.96 million RMB in 1979 to 1.95 trillion RMB today.

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This immense growth and rapid expansion turned Shenzhen into a haven for hardware and electronic startups. Huaqiangbei is simply one of Shenzhen’s most prominent examples of this.

Some of the famous ‘startups’ that call Shenzhen home include world-renowned drone-makers, DJI; BYD, famous for electric cars and having the world’s largest electric bus fleet; telecom giants, Huawei; and the owners of WeChat, Tencent, now worth over $200 billion. Many of these companies were founded in the 1990s during Shenzhen’s economic boom. DJI’s story is more impressive still. Founded in 2006, DJI have snapped up around 70% of the drone market, way ahead of the nearest rival, French firm Parrot.

The next big company to come out of China and dominate the international market may well come out of one of the tiny stalls in the vast Huaqiangbei electronic markets.

So what can you expect to see? Each floor has its own dedicated speciality, from motors, batteries and circits on one floor, to smart phones, drones, TVs, security systems and laptops on the others.

But you’ll still find a bit of everything on each floor. The challenge is giving yourself enough time to look round to make sure you get the best deal.

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So how did I get on? Sadly I didn’t follow my own advice and purchased a mini-drone far too early for 350 RMB ($50). I found a similar one later for just over half the price at 180 RMB ($25). A great reminder that there’s always room for a bit of bargaining and negotiation. If you play your cards right, buying here will almost certainly be worth your while. The custom-made circuit boards we were after were delivered the next day for half the price we would have expected to pay outside of China.

Make no mistake, Shenzhen continues to grow. The city is covered in building sites and there are plans to make Shenzhen one of the greenest cities on earth.

Fancy knowing more about Shenzhen’s history and how it is competing with the likes of Silicon Valley? The documentary visits some of the city’s startups and takes you through the electronics market, showcasing exactly what you can buy there.

 

The Legend of Fireworks

News and Travel Editor

November is a pretty big month for fireworks around the world.

Not only is Thanksgiving Day celebrated on the 24th of November in the US, the 5th of November marks Bonfire Night in the UK. For the British, fireworks represent the explosives that were never used in Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Lots of people know that fireworks and gunpowder were discovered in China, but did you know about some of the fun and more unusual legends surrounding their discovery?

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Shanghai at Night. Image by SebastienPoncet.

It is generally accepted that gunpowder, and later fireworks, were discovered by Chinese alchemists from the Han dynasty, who were hoping to discover an elixir for immortality. As you may have already guessed, this elixir was never discovered. However, these alchemists did happen to combine a seemingly random collection of chemicals: potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulphur and later charcoal. Little did they know this happened to be the recipe for the perfect firework… Potassium nitrate is the stuff that creates the loud bang, whilst the sulphur makes the firework spray out of its container and smell delightfully of rotten eggs.

On that note, you can probably guess how much smoke and pollution is produced from fireworks. It’s because of this that certain cities in China, including Nanjing and Hangzhou, have taken the decision to ban fireworks in urban areas.

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Illustration of Chinese Fireworks. Image by Rurik the Varangian.

It wasn’t until the 13th century when Marco Polo was credited with bringing the Chinese invention back to Europe, although some European Crusaders also claim to have brought the concoction back home after their travels.

The recipe has of course developed from the 13th Century. Not only did gunpowder start to become used for rockets and weapons, but fireworks became increasingly popular during celebrations, religious ceremonies and to commemorate military victories. We started to add more and more ingredients to create different effects and colours, such as copper for blue and barium for green.

Other legends also suggest that fireworks were discovered somewhat by mistake. One traditional Chinese legend claims that a cook accidentally poured saltpeter on to a fire, creating interesting flames and colours.

Another story from the Tang dynasty credits a Chinese monk, Li Tian, with the discovery of firecrackers. It is said that Li Tian fought off the lingering spirit of an evil dragon by shooting explosives out of a bamboo shoot. The dragon’s spirit was scared away by the loud bangs.

In a similar story, the province of Hunan was consistently plagued by an evil spirit, who deliberately caused droughts and floods. That was until Li Tian (this guy again?!) set off fireworks to scare the spirit away. Every year on the 18th of April, some Chinese honour the efforts of the  ‘Founder of Crackers’ by offering sacrifices.

Next time you’re gazing up at the night’s sky and watching a spectacular fireworks display, remember you’re watching an invention created over 2000 years ago! Today, most of the world’s fireworks are still created in China, in a town called Liuyang, Hunan Province.

Check out a timelapse from China Icons when we were lucky enough to witness Chinese New Year fireworks.

Are you doing anything to celebrate Thanksgiving or Bonfire Night soon? Let us know and send us your fabulous firework pictures for our blog!