Two markets near Hong Kong

I spent most of November in China. Here are some notes on two electronics markets near Hong Kong, the Apliu St. “Thieves Market” in Kowloon, and the HuaQiangBei electronics district just north of Hong Kong, in Shenzhen. Nothing definitive; just anecdotal.

Hong Kong has long been known for its retail consumer electronics… one of the world’s freest economies, Southeast Asia’s gateway to mainland China. Most tourists say that the better bargains are just north of Hong Kong Island, in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui. But a few miles further north of that, in Sham Shui Po, is the Apliu Thieves Market [map].

Like the Wikipedia entry above says, the diversity of goods on Apliu St. is astounding… all types of current tools, not just boxed consumer electronics. There were dozens of kinds of digital meters and calipers, which alone gives an idea of the range of tools. Prices are more reasonable too: I picked up an 18″ keychain (US$3), a pocket AM/FM radio for baseball (US$7), and a mini-screwdriver from Japan (US$3). If you’re buying bigger items, be prepared to bargain from the listed price, and doublecheck what you actually receive.

Mobile phones were still the big thing by far… dozens and dozens in each storefront, mostly Nokia and Motorola and Samsung and various PRC brands. I wasn’t savvy enough to evaluate the list prices, but it was easy to see that this was the major portion of many stores’ offerings. For every smartphone there were a hundred or more feature phones, at least in the street-level displays.

Smartphones were present, but in low volume. I saw a few iPhones, usually highlighted in the front window of a shop, but very few. And of those, most seemed to be in boxes with suspect printjobs. Android phones were spread throughout the displays, but usually with Android 2.1… some of these were global brands, but most Android handsets were from mainland brands which I did not recognize. Feature phones were in abundance… higher-power phones were available, but not yet popular.

Tablets were also few, at least at first. Most of the tablet form-factors were actually GPS displays or, in much greater volume, pocket televisions. (These pocket TVs seemed to use broadcast signal rather than digital storage, but I didn’t check for sure… surprising how many there were for sale.)

Later, towards the north end of Apliu Street I saw more Apple-branded and Android 1.6 or 2.1 tablets, and variants like “aPad” and more. The iPad boxes seemed poorly printed and did not really mention Apple… slogans like “This changes everything, Again” and “FaceTime”, but not what I’d expect from legit packaging.

No Samsung Galaxy Tabs, no Dell Streaks, no obvious Android 2.2 tablets. The vast majority of tablets felt like Shenzhen products. At the higher-end Apliu places tablets had a meaningful presence but still didn’t seem to be volume sellers.

I saw a lot of other wonderful items… dog-bark silencers, loudspeakers-on-belts, great hardware tooling like personal mini-torches and precision screwdriver keychains, laser globes, digital calipers… more than my mind could retain. Felt like Radio Shack during Tandy’s prime, just updated for 2010. Prices were cheap enough that I could easily have busted my luggage limits had I wished. If you’re in Hong Kong, the Sham Shui Po Metro station lets you off right in the middle of the action.

Big takeaway: People have rapidly adopted pocket devices. Phones for voice and text are already immensely popular, and pocket TVs are big. But personal screens with peer-to-peer interactivity are only just starting to arrive, and have not yet been socially adopted.

If Apliu St. had more detail than my mind could organize, then Shenzhen’s HuaQiangBei district just totally blew my mind apart. Shenzhen is immediately north of Hong Kong. Thirty years ago it was rice paddies and fishing boats, and was opened as China’s first Special Economics Region. Now it’s now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Here’s the Flickr tag for Huaqiangbei, although this blogpost may give a more coherent view of what’s happening there. See model for scale.

The Huiqiangbei electronics district is breath-taking. Fast-paced and hectic like an early-morning wholesale produce market… top-level consumer brands down to motherboards, sheets of silicon chips, grosses of plastic cases… buyers walking briskly, comparing the day’s prices, chatting up competitors, scouting for news… shopkeepers assembling handsets in volume for custom orders, snapping chips into chassis, keyboards scattered among noodle bowls… handcarts overloaded with bubblewrap and spools, hauling boxes throughout warrens of interconnected, multi-level buildings… dozens of street huskers chanting “you piao, you piao” for discount phonecards… wide range of electronic goods, sensors, recreational, GPS components, appliances, low-level mechanical parts, toys & tools.

Overwhelming fun, and more than my brain could process, more than my words could describe. The most impressive thing for me was the range of scales of goods and activities — not just finished big-ticket goods, but the entire ecology of components beneath those finished items. The sheer level of entrepreneurial vitality went beyond any electronics scene I’ve seen, anywhere else.

Detailed notes were impossible… too big an experience. Walking out of the giant SEG Electronics Market I salaamed three times in respect, and the door guards grinned, knowing what I meant. If you could chart the daily pulse of this enormous electronics market, then you’d have a good handle on the progress of technology throughout the world.

Anecdotally, I did see a startling amount of street-level signage for the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which I think was just about to become available there. First iPad advertisements were a couple of blocks in. I was approached multiple times by street touts wanting to sell me “authentic” iPhones… funniest was an American tourist who was proud of his new iPad, with the Apple logo on the back of its (very purple) casing. I saw every global brand I could imagine, and many national brands I didn’t recognize. Impossible for me to estimate pricing… “advertised prices” are merely that, a starting point for negotiations.

Like the Hunts Point Market at 3am, mixed with Akihabara and Yongsan electronics districts, a little bit of Macy’s on Christmas eve, and strongly seasoned with the Homebrew Robotics Club… just plain awesome.

If you’re a gadget-head, and have a PRC visa, then ride Hong Kong’s East Rail Line to LoWu Station, cross immigration, take Shenzhen subway two stops north, transfer and go two stations east, then take Exit A. The Huaqiangbei electronics district extends to the northeast.

The Silicon Valley techblog scene can seem a bit of an insular hothouse, with many voices repeating what is fed to them through “planned leaks”. But if you want to see the vitality of street-level growth in the field, then Hong Kong’s Apliu St. market, and the Huaqiangbei district in nearby Shenzhen, will well repay a visit. Exhilarating.