CHINA NEWS - Silicon Valley of the East


Shenzhen’s reputation for tech is unjustifiably low-profile in the West. Journalist Johan Nylander hopes to help change that with his new e-book “Shenzhen Superstars”

There’s something surreal about the lack of global awareness surrounding Shenzhen and the technology giants the city has spawned.

Take a look at a USA Today story on January 15, in which the biggest American mass-market daily newspaper told its readers that Danish toymaker Lego was teaming up with China’s biggest social media company. Lego, Lego, Lego: the report described in detail the privately held company’s business performance, strategy in China and rivalry with Mattel to tie up with Chinese partners for a share in the US$31 billion a year market.

“Tencent is Asia’s most valuable company with a market capitalization of US$537 billion” was all the space given over to the Shenzhen tech giant. The Guardian, Independent and BBC have all recently published reports highlighting how little known the company is.

“Shenzhen has emerged as a city just as important for tech development and innovation as Silicon Valley,” says Johan Nylander, a Hong Kong-based journalist who has just published an e-book that he hopes will shine a light on the city of more than 10 million people as well as dispel some myths and misconceptions. “Still, most people in the West have not even heard of the city or the world-leading firms from here. It’s rather shocking.”

Sean Liu, a China-born investment manager at the San Francisco office of venture firm Vy Capital, said he thought most people in Silicon Valley had no clue who Tencent President Martin Lau is. Liu told Bloomberg that’s “the equivalent of people not knowing who Sheryl Sandberg is if they cared about Facebook. Except that Martin Lau is even more powerful and influential within Tencent and in China’s technology community.” Nylander’s book offers readers a whistle-stop tour (yes, it’s a very compact read) of the city and the people and companies that make it tick, and give it its unique culture. A culture that is increasingly challenging the world dominance of the U.S., especially in robotics, AI and hardware.

What sets this book apart from the dozens of research reports from professional services firms readily available on the Web is its reportage. Swedish-born Nylander has a knack for unearthing the quirky side of life. At home among the misfits as he is comfortable rubbing shoulders with CEOs, the picture that emerges is more nuanced. Grounded in the gutter but with views from the c-suite too, this book is as entertaining as it is informative.

Johan Nylander, a Hong Kong-based Swedish journalist, has just published a book on Shenzhen and the city’s stunning rise as a center for all things tech. Appropriately, he chose to publish on the Amazon digital platform. More appropriately still, he tailored his work to the time-poor readers of today’s digital natives.

AmChamHK caught up with the author recently to pose – yet more appropriately – three bullet-point questions for a quick take on a short-read.

Johan, why this length? Why an e-book? How did you go about marketing it?

It’s a so called short-read that will take the reader about two hours to get a good understanding of Shenzhen and Chinese startups. I’ve been getting good comments for the format, especially from business people with limited time to read. I first published it entirely as an e-book for Amazon, but have just added a paperback as many readers still prefer physical paper books.

What’s the feedback been like?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The book became the No.1 bestseller on Amazon’s China section, surpassing dragons like Henry Kissinger and Sun Tzu. It was really cool.

So, what next?

Now I’m writing a follow-up – or maybe several Follow ups – on the Greater Bay Area. I will definitely continue to write short-reads about China and Asia. It’s great fun. I warmly recommend all journalist friends to look into the Kindle platform for storytelling.

This article is based on an extract from Shenzhen Superstars – How China’s smartest city is challenging Silicon Valley by Johan Nylander Published on Amazon, Kindle version US$3.99, paperback US$7.99

[This article is based on an extract from Shenzhen Superstars – How China’s smartest city is challenging Silicon Valley by Johan Nylander Published on Amazon, Kindle version US$3.99, paperback US$7.99]

Warning: Never, Ever Judge a Book By Its Cover…

Naomi Wu, a.k.a. SexyCyborg, says she’s out to promote not only her home town but also the role of women in tech

By Johan Nylander

Shenzhen is home to a lively maker community, and it’s one that also has its roots in Huaqiangbei – a one-mile strip with 10-story buildings on both sides of the boulevard filled to the brim with electrical stuff, both legal and illegal – and the Pearl River Delta’s easy access to supplies.

Makers are a contemporary subculture, representing a technology-based extension of do-it-yourself culture. The New York Times once called them “kitchen-table industrialists.”

One of my most memorable interviews on this topic was with a young female maker, or hardware hacker, in a tech-geek café called Vive in the city’s High-tech Park district.

She’s been called the world’s sexiest hacker and she certainly lives up to that reputation. Naomi Wu, also known as SexyCyborg, is a 23-year-old Shenzhen native whose do-it-yourself videos have made her a global online phenomenon.

As she walks into a virtual reality gaming cafe in downtown Shenzhen wearing high leather boots, stay-up stockings, a pink miniskirt and tight top, she turns a fair number of heads. She’s not shy of parading her 1,600cc of breast implants.

“When people see me in these clothes, they think I’m just a bimbo,” Wu tells me as we sit down. “When they then realize that I do coding and tech stuff and make these videos, they go,

‘Wow! If she can do it, how hard can it be?’” She beams, and takes a sip from a cup of tea with a thick layer of cheese on top – a popular local drink.

Naomi Wu’s videos range from step-by-step guides to setting up a 3D-printer to detailed demonstrations of how she creates high-tech wearables. They are largely meant to inspire young women to go into technology, to code and to promote China as a hub for creative technology. They’ve racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, Imgur, Reddit and elsewhere, earning her a reputation as a cyberpunk icon.

After shooting zombies in one of the cafe’s VR simulators, we talk about how Wu joined the maker community and why she wants to inspire more women to go into technology. When asked why she initially got involved in tech, she explains that at first it was just a way to make a living but soon transformed into a passion.

“It can be frustrating when I hear people on international tech sites talk about China. They say all we can do is copy, and stuff like that. That is, of course, always an issue, but we’re all working hard to improve and be more innovative. I like to show off some simple projects to demonstrate that we have a creative culture here and that we are not all clones and robots. We have interesting, eccentric people just like any other country.”

She offers an interesting example of how women are getting more involved in the tech scene in China. In the 3D printing community, she says, we are starting to see more women from a crafting and cosplay background. These women, who are already familiar with prop making, digital sewing machines and vinyl cutters, are now starting to use 3D printers.

“A lot of the men who buy 3D printers don’t really have a use for them. For them, it’s just a cool tech toy. They often end up just downloading Yoda heads and calibration prints without a clear use. Women are less interested in playing with the printers and are more project-focused, be it for gifts or holiday decorations. We’re starting to see not just young cosplay women, but moms and homemakers without any technical background doing detailed YouTube tutorials on fairly advanced CAD software,” she says.

Companies, large and small, would benefit from more actively tapping into the local maker community to access new designs and ways of making things on a shoestring budget, she says.

“It's a proven way to promote innovation and creativity,” she states. “Shenzhen is good because it’s so easy to get access to components and custom fabrication services for small or single orders. The turnaround time for both parts and services is fast.”

Together we walk to her friend’s maker space, Steam- Head. The room is jam-packed with all kinds of tools, apparatus and cables, as well as 3D-printers and proto prototypes, and – of course – people busy designing or building stuff.

The room reeks of creativity. The maker space and its cofounders, Benjamin “James” Simpson and Carrie Leung, a couple from San Francisco who left Silicon Valley to explore new ideas in Shenzhen, also offer maker classes for children. Here and there one can see small 3D-printed dinosaurs and other funny figures made by the kids.

The maker space concept originated in Silicon Valley as a grass-roots movement shaped by ecological considerations and community-mindedness. Their aim is to stimulate collaboration and empower individuals through providing a co-working place to experiment, share and network. Today, however, California struggles to match Shenzhen’s ecosystem of makers.

“What makes Shenzhen unique for maker entrepreneurs is the rapid prototyping. And because of reduced lead-times and ease of obtaining materials, we see a huge decrease in costs here. We are able to do projects for 10 dollars that in the US or elsewhere in the world would cost 100 dollars,” Simpson says.

Simpson also says that Shenzhen is an ideal place for maker education. From his experience, parents here don't want their kids inheriting the jobs of their grandparents’ generation, as suppliers of cheap goods for the rest of the world. Rather, he says, parents want to see their children succeed as creators, as members of a class of people who are able to design solutions to problems.

“That makes it an excellent location for maker education. We see the interest from the parents and the appetite from the kids. The raw materials and electronics are inexpensive, available and quick. Suddenly it’s affordable to let kids play with electronics, break things and make mistakes.”