One thing that’s true about the technology markets in China is that the more you learn about it, the less you find you know. Liam Casey, “Mr. China” himself, and the CEO of PCH, came in and said exactly that our first day on the tour. I had a first-hand experience with that while I was acting as a tour guide of the SEG market in Shenzhen. I knew that the SEG market was big, and that it had a lot of stuff, but somehow I managed to miss the massive mobile phone market for the two years that I had been shopping there. A friend of mine in PCH tipped me off to the market, so at the end of the walking tour of the main market that I was familiar with, we decided to head out and try to find something that none of us, including me had previously seen.
My eyes fell out of my head when I saw it.
Imagine a market, the acreage of two gymnasiums, but four stories tall, packed with nothing but … mobile phone bits and pieces (and finished phones too). It’s impossible to find a single photo that communicates the sheer scale of this market — above is just a flavor of a tiny corner of the area. You hear numbers like 500 million phones being made in China per year, but you don’t actually get to feel it until you walk this market. There is literally everything in there to make phones, from blank PCBs, to intermediate assemblies, to shells, testing equipment, raw chips, batteries, LCDs, broken down parts, you name it.
(The mirrored sign above reads: “Jenny’s LCD and Spare Parts”. I wish I could find a mall in the US with that very store in it. That would be so handy, at least for me).
And the most interesting part about the market is not that these components were for sale — it was the amount of actual (re)manufacturing being done right in the market. It was hard to walk more than twenty feet without seeing a booth crammed cheek to jowel with soldering irons, power supplies and people either disassembling or assembling phones. There’s a similar spot across from the main market that specializes in laptop remanufacturing, but the scale and throughput is much smaller than what I saw in the mobile phone market.
The other crazy thing about the mobile phone market is that it’s not the only one. Windell said he found another market just as big but with a greater focus on finished phones, and then just today I walked into what looked like the New York Stock Exchange of mobile phones. This last find was really fascinating; there is a spot in the heart of the market where you have chain smoking traders sitting in booths piled high with finished mobile phones in plastic sleeves ready for sale on the gray market. It’s so packed and frenzied that from across the building when I looked over in that area I thought maybe a small disaster had occurred and people were gathering around to watch it. Each trading booth had a price list sitting in front; it’s the only place in China where I’ve seen a written price for a phone (but presumably you haggled over prices anyways). People were scampering around the the exchange, carrying sleeves of five, ten, twenty mobile phones. I probably saw at least a few hundred phones move through the exchange in the few minutes that it took me to walk a corner of it; I imagine thousands, if not tens of thousands, of phones move through that exchange in one day. Near that area are dozens of booths selling batteries for these phones … and the best part about these battery booths is that there is a girl sitting in each with raw lithium ion batteries and a pile of Nokia stickers, and she is literally building the fake batteries right before your eyes. She even has the holographic Nokia authenticity stamp; the finished batteries look exactly like the real thing. I asked one of them to sell me a sheet of the holo-stamps, but she wanted 1 USD per stamp because “they were of a high grade” or “the real thing” (I couldn’t quite understand the chinese words she used). I was trying to argue her down on price and apparently if I didn’t want to pay her price I could find a lower grade of stamp in other booths for less but she would not carry such shoddy merchandise in her booth. Ironic.
(All photos in this post are copyright Tom Igoe, posted with his permission)