Day 9: Asia Optical, Ninghe electronics market, SZX to Hangzhou (HGH)

I should probably get some rest after this blog post; we’ve got a full day ahead for our first day in Beijing. So, real quick…

Our last plant tour was at a subsidiary of Asia Optical, where we toured molding and stamping facilities, primarily for consumer camera parts. We then spent a few hours at the Ninghe electronics market nearby. It wasn’t nearly as big as SEG, but it was sufficient for my needs. I got about 50x matching photodiode / LED pairs for ~5USD (also for the swarmbot project) and 9 USB webcams for ~33USD, roughly 4USD a piece (for a vigilance project perhaps). These might be foreigner rates, so it’s possible that I have been ripped off here, but I can’t really tell. Haggling and going around asking different vendors their prices for the same item were interesting experiences.

Then, our stay in Shenzhen came to a close and we flew to Hangzhou without a hitch. I was surprised to see that even short 1-2 hour flights serve food (as US airlines used to when I was a kid). I was also surprised to see a note left by my seat by the attendants to remind me to ask them for food because I was vaguely sleeping when they came by. Super nice! In Hangzhou, we had some traveling hitches on the way to the hotel, but eventually got there and met with OnionCapsule founder Vuvuzela + friends for a snack and a relaxing tour around.

Day 8: Colibri, Great Wall Industry, Chaihuo

Guanxi in Asia, which is the idea that everything is relationships, is quite something. Our tours for the day were made possible by the following relation: my friend’s father’s elementary school friend and his wife. One of our visits from Day 6 was made possible by the relation: my father’s brother’s wife’s college classmate.

We visited Colibri, an automation machinery design company and a small quantity high precision machine shop, and Great Wall, a consumer electronics assembly company. Great Wall was our only company visit conducted primarily in Chinese. It seems like a bunch of the places we have seen are fairly empty because of a combination of a bad economy (needing to pay more for operators) and because of the seasonal migration home for many plant workers. It would be cool to see some of these places again at their full capacity. As we saw it this time around, there was plenty of space to operate and move around, but we’ve been told that the plant floor can also be a sea of people during the peak season.

Also, en route to Colibri, as we exited the subway station, we were greated by a long line of illegal motocycle taxis. The transportation / taxi situation is really interesting in Shenzhen; it was the greatest “culture shock” I felt during our short stay in China. It’s a huge mess of taxi meters that don’t mean anything, drivers colluding, black taxis, illegal motorcycle taxis, and official taxis with unethical practices.

Later that day, we were tipped off that the taxi ride back to the hotel should not cost more than a few tens of RMB, but we had happily paid 110RMB in the morning for the same distance, so Nancy and I resolved to fix this on the way back. We started our price at 40RMB, but were unsuccessful with the first taxi driver, and the price was bumped up to 80RMB almost immediately. The driver wasn’t willing to drive us for 80RMB, so we decided to move on, but by that point, there were about 6 other drivers hovering around us, taunting either us or the first driver — I couldn’t really tell. Probably nothing bad would have happened, but it was 6 of them and only 4 of us, so I felt some chills, stood up straight, and walked calmly out of the ring of drivers. Feeling uncomfortable, we proceeded to walk down the line of cabs and resolved to take the first cab that would drive us for 80RMB. Immediately, one of the drivers from the ring ran up to us and agreed to drive us for that rate, so we patted ourselves on the back, and headed over… but realized he was not an official taxi driver, so we started our task over. The taxi drivers seemed to be colluding! There was this ~100RMB barrier for foreigners that the taxi drivers seemed extremely opposed to breaking. I believe we ended up paying a driver 90RMB to take us home and away from all that mess.  

Our lunch was at a traditional Canton place with managers from both plants (+ friends), where there was basically a miniature market indoors with living sea creatures, tubs of vegetables, and counters stretching down a long corridor full of plates of potential dishes and you walk down ordering what you want. And then the sea creatures are slaughtered and the dishes are cooked, fresh. Our dinner, by contrast, was on our own, so being the college students that we are, we wandered into a giant supermarket and bought random pastries and things. We were later berated by real people for not eating a real meal.

We spent our evening at Chaihuo (柴火创客空间), the Shenzhen makerspace (our first makerspace visit in Asia!), where they had a show-and-tell organized, and they even advertised our attendance [src]. The space is very neat; it is divided in half, one part for working, the other for chilling and eating — ingenious. Their space is also super clean and organized, something I would not in a million years have expected. Attendance was in the 20s, and people talked about Seeed Studio, an upcoming Makerfaire in Shenzhen, a robot kit project, programmer board design, light sensors, etc. We talked about our projects and fielded questions about MITERS and MIT. Josh and Julian presented in English, and then Nancy and I presented in Chinese. Nancy was extremely well received, which was really nice to see. I mostly talked about my computer vision projects (Everything in the Kitchen Sink, Kinect Symphony Conductor, Maslab). Afterwards, we broke off into free form talking, and I was pleasantly surprised to see interest in my work. I feel like I don’t have a great sense of the place that software holds and its role in China. I know the strength of China in manufacturing, hardware, and electronics, so at first glance, software seems to be something on the backburner, something to get around to, something not quite valued. I very much hope to learn more about role of computer science in China. Anyway, I enjoyed our short time at Chaihuo very much.

I think at this point in the trip, I also started feeling super self-conscious about how Asian I looked — or rather, how Asian I don’t look. Multiple people were surprised that I spoke Chinese… and I’m in freaking Asia! Some combination of my height, my pale skin, my brightly colored clothing (why is everyone wearing dark clothing here?), my accent and lack of Chinese vocabulary, and my mannerisms probably gives it away, but I wish I knew the key factors that gave it away. I later felt redeemed (basically as soon as we left Shenzhen) because people started being surprised that I was from America. 🙂

Day 7: Seeed Studio, SEG electronics market, dinner with Asia Optical, family time

Happy new year! We’re on our way from Shanghai to Beijing. Everyone is sleeping, and for whatever reason, I’m opting to write blog posts.

Protip: if you find yourself in a huge unfamiliar city with a population of 20 million and multiple city centers and have an engagement in an unfamiliar place about 40 minutes away, allot 3 hours to navigate there.  That’s how long it took us to get to Seeed Studio to tour their space and have lunch with their CEO Eric Pan. Seeed Studio is basically the Chinese version of Sparkfun, and they supply small quantities of electronic parts as well as kits. I had never been to a space like that before, so that was neat. Eric and Steve (Engineering lead) took us out to eat amazing Hunan food, where the restaurant was decorated super patriotic because Mao Zedong (毛泽东) was from Hunan Province. I learned the term Manong (码农), which is essentially like “code monkey” and carries negative connotations. It is also interesting that Eric suggested we meet Ben Koo, described to us as a Taiwanese guy who is advocating the maker movement in China, because I got to meet him just a few days later in Shanghai (in fact, earlier today 12/31). It seems that the maker community in China is quite well connected.

We later went to the SEG electronics market, which was several buildings full of mouth-watering electronics of all kinds. Julian proposed staying there for the entire rest of our stay in Shenzhen. Nancy walked around contemplating whether or not to buy things. I got 50x vibrating mini-motors for my swarmbot project for about 12USD (and are 4.70USD apiece on digikey), w00t. Then we rushed back to Changan for a dinner with officials from Asia Optical and my dad, welcoming us to Shenzhen.  I have to say, despite the fact that Shenzhen is a place of crude manners, everyone has been super welcoming of us. Anyway, at this dinner, we saw their customs of intense social drinking — continuous shots 37 proof alcohol for several hours.  And the night ended with a couple hours of chilling with my dad. I’m really lucky to have seen my entire family on this trip. 😀

Day 6: Asia Optical, GTBF, Failong

Now we’re on the Shenzhen subway system, on our way to our 2 plant tours for the day, giving me a few minutes to write. In case you haven’t noticed, I am backdating these posts to when I start writing even though it may take a while for me to actually finish writing AND have internet reliable enough to publish it.

Monday started at 7:30am sharp, when Josh and Julian knocked on our door.  Oops, my alarm didn’t go off.  Anyway, we rushed downstairs just in time to run down the street to catch the Asia Optical company shuttle to Dongguang, where they are based. From there our day was super exciting, we saw 4 product lines + 2 window tours at Asia Optical (lens polishing and optical prisms, high precision injection molding, light engine modules for pico projectors, scanner modules, laser range finders, lens modules for consumer cameras), a tour of the IC production process at GTBF, and a tour of the crystal oscillator facility at Failong. It was incredible.

We saw so many things at Asia Optical, including my dad’s line (pico projectors for Microvision), and even got to eat in the cafeteria along with everyone else. The food was pretty good, but there are different lines in the cafeteria for office workers (management, engineers, etc.) vs. the operators, so I can’t really say much about their food. At GTBG, I saw my new favorite machine ever, a piezofeeder, which uses various vibrations along a circular frame to orient tiny components (chips) such that they feed into the next system properly. Also, because of the nature of the manufacturing process, we wore bunny suits for a good portion of the tour, and we learned that they actually color the bunny suits to distinguish process engineers from maintenance engineers from customers from shift leaders from operators. Failong actually has a brand new campus. Apparently in China, it takes about 7 months to build a new campus of ~10 buildings, and it’s not even the fastest. The technology in Shenzhen today allows for a skyscraper in 21 days or 10 floors per day. Just based on how long it takes things to get built or fixed up on MIT’s campus, I have a feeling it takes much longer in the US. We later had dinner with my aunt (COO of GTBG) and Mike (General Manager of Failong), where we learned about the ritual for washing all the dishes and utensils with hot tea before use, and it was all very pleasant. Because of this meal, I believe that lotus root has been added to my list of favorite foods.

Day 5: More relatives, then TPE to SZX

I feel like every day, we are ramping up for what is to come next.  We’re getting more accustomed to Asia with each experience and having our hands held less and less every step of the way.

I have also noticed a tactic that my relatives often use to get me to accept gifts. They tell me that a particular gift is for my dad, friend, etc., and then I don’t even think to refuse it! This has happened 4 times on this trip now, and I can’t think of any way to counter it. Sigh.

Christmas Day, our last day in Taiwan, I started off the day by taking a leisurely stroll down the small mountain from the International House of Taipei. It was beautiful and low-traffic, with the occasional funny-looking bus.

I went and visited my relatives on my mom’s side, and of course they were wonderful. We went for hot pot, and it was a style of hot pot where each individual has their own little pot for cooking whatever. Everything was so delicious and I definitely forgot to take pictures. Apparently, at the moment, the cabbage was the most expensive thing there, even more expensive than all of the various meats. Afterward, I visited Jenny, my favorite dog in the entire world, and I think she might still remember me, even after 7.5 years!

Then it was off to the airport for our flight out to Shenzhen.  By the way, everything is so cute in Taipei, including at the airport.

The travels to Shenzhen was pretty uneventful, and we were all a bit intimidated by the amount of smog we saw upon landing. A short car ride later, we met my dad at our hotel, which had been operating without power for the entire day.  But about 15 minutes after our arrival, the power came back and everything was well. Also, the rooms are extremely nice (Western style, clean, etc.), and I feel like we’re getting spoiled. We are staying in Changan (…), about 40 minutes from Shenzhen.  Changan is sort of like Vegas in that the government there has a lot of money, and the people who reside and work here don’t necessarily have much money, but the native peoples of the area get a lot of benefits for existing. We walked around Changan a bit, and it’s pretty amazing. There are 800K residents, and roughly 700K of them are young people (roughly college age).

Day 4: Taipei Metro, Long San Temple, gondola, and relatives

One day behind. We’re on our way to China now, the land of the Great Firewall. The plane should be landing in Shenzhen (深圳) soon.  To be honest, I’m nervous… and cautiously super excited, if that makes sense.  I’ve been told for the last several weeks how much of a mess China is around this time of year (migrant workers, pollution, food and water safety), especially Shenzhen.

Julian didn’t join us for our adventuring on Saturday due to his architecture paper (from this past semester), but it sounds like he’s almost done so that hopefully won’t ruin any more fun for his trip.

We started the day off by making our way through the Taipei Metro subway system.  The subway system is actually amazing, the best I’ve seen yet; everything is super clean and orderly. No food is allowed, and indeed, I never saw any food in the stations. The escalator has a sign that tells people to hold the handrail, and indeed all the way up, everyone was holding the handrail. The other amazing thing is that there are marked queues on the platform for entering the train, and people line up along them waiting for the train. Sometimes, the lines are so long that they extend down the platform to the next line / train door, but even when it is boarding time and there is another opening nearer to someone, the people still follow the queue they are in! No one seems to be particularly in a hurry, and everyone is amazingly friendly. Once, we got off a train and only looked around for about 3 seconds before an employee came over to ask us where we wanted to go.

The trains are beautiful too, and some lines have trains that don’t have doors between cars. I can’t comment much on the train engineering, but the stations and station maps are extremely well designed. Everything is intuitive and labeled well. After taking the subway just 1 stop the day before with Peter and Jessica, I felt like there was absolutely no problem navigating the subway system, even with only a vague grasp of the language. On the contrary, Boston’s MBTA took a bit of getting use to (inbound, outbound), and NYC’s MTA is still too much for me. Some of the bathrooms even have panels that indicate occupancy.

Later, we even visited the (or just one of?) Taipei Metro gift shop! They have a gift shop for their subway system! I appreciate their value of public transportation.

Anyway, we met up with Peter and Jessica again and had wonderful Shaobing (烧饼) and rice milk (米浆) for breakfast, followed by a visit to Long San Temple (龙山寺), a beautiful Daoist temple for Guanyin (观音), goddess of mercy. It’s about half tourists, half locals, and it houses shrines for all kinds of gods/dieties (I’m not sure the proper term). Sometimes, parents will come to pray that their kids do well on their college entrance exams, and so they will place a copy of their kid’s exam paper with their offerings. There are posters that inform you of whether you will experience bad luck in the coming year and it instructs you on how to best pray. Praying has been a bit commercialized as well. Essentially, people can pay for more luck and consolation, in the form of a small light that holds a person’s name is placed and lit around the temple for the new year.

We took a gondola (cable car) ride up a few hundred meters to Maokong (貓空) into the mountains of Taiwan and saw pretty trees and things. I saw (probably) the tallest giraffe in the world, which was painted onto a smoke stack sticking out of a garbage processing facility that we could see from a distance on the gondola. Unfortunately, I can’t find the picture now, but it definitely made my day. By the way, the gondola is just a part of the metro system in Taipei. The awesome view doesn’t cost much more than a normal subway ride (about 1.3USD instead of 0.60USD).

I rode a scooter for the first time on the way to visit my paternal grandparents, my aunt, and my uncle’s dog Happy, and that was really really great.

Red bean bing (红豆饼), oyster omelette (蚵仔煎), small sausage in large sausage (大腸包小腸). More nom!

Another thing. Taiwan is crazy about recycling. They hit about 45% recycling rate in 2009, higher than the rate in the US (but I couldn’t find by how much).  Almost 100% of people sort and discard their trash properly. Beautiful.

Somewhere along the way, we snuck off and got Jessica a cake because it happened to be her birthday!  Happy 21st, Jessica!!

Day 3: Advantech, ZyXEL, Tsinghua University, and the Night Market

Merry Christmas! 大家圣诞快乐!

Mmm, blogging on the subway in Taipei (台北), 2 days behind. I’m on my way to visit my mom’s side of the family now, abandoning everyone else at the International House of Taipei, but we’ll all meet up at the airport in a few hours for our flight out.

Friday was our first day of company visits.  We awoke to soy milk and my favorite variety of scallion pancakes (葱抓饼), as we got into the car with my uncle for the first company on our tour, Advantech (台湾研华).  Advantech is a huge Taiwanese technology company that design business solutions for basically everything and about 1000 products (eeep!).  They’re also focusing on hard on the Internet of Things and a smarter planet initiative (they actually work with IBM), which may turn out to be The Next Big Thing.  They have a bit going on with traffic optimization and fleet management, which I’ll need to look into more.  At Advantech, Secretary General Mr. Tsai emphasized quite a bit that Taiwan is amazing at hardware, but extremely weak in software.  This is of course a very interesting point for me.  Rather than computer science, apparently electrical engineering is what you study in Taiwan if you want to be basically guaranteed a job (thought studying to be a doctor is probably the most popular).

On the way to the next company, we got stuck in a traffic jam for 20-30 minutes, where the cars just didn’t move at all.  We were conveniently stopped next to a bus with a lot of good-to-know Chinese characters (出口, 巴士, etc.), so we got out of the car and had a mini-Chinese lesson for Josh and Julian with the bus as our blackboard (not really).  I’m impressed at how much Chinese they now know, after about 3 days.  During our Chinese lesson, other people got out of their cars too and we were offered Binglang (槟榔), a pretty popular tobacco-like recreational substance here that turns your teeth funny colors.

We had lunch at 7-11, which is worlds apart from the ones in the US.  Taipei has a 7-11 basically in every streetcorner, so it’s sort of like Starbucks in the US, but with your standard delicious Taiwanese food and convenience store things.  I am told that 7-11s are only good in Taiwan and Japan. And for future reference, FamilyMart is also good, but HiLife is considered more low-end in terms of these convenience stores in Taiwan.  Food is not as ridiculously cheap as I remember from 7 years ago, but it’s still way cheaper than in the US… and I could be looking in the wrong places without my parents around.  Lunch was about 3USD for a bun and a big bowl of soup.  Snacks on the street are commonly priced at about 0.33USD, which is simply wonderful.

The second company of the day was MitraStar, which recently merged with ZyXEL.  They are a telecommunications design company based in Taiwan.  That means routers, switches, network security, etc. For consumers, they do power over ethernet, ethernet over power, digital media centers, etc.  Interestingly, two-thirds of the engineers work on software, and they seem to be better at software than other Taiwanese companies.  They were wonderful and got us an impromptu tour of their quality assurance (QA) and software testing facility and we got a peak of their factory, but it was the Friday before Christmas, so there weren’t enough people around to actually give us a full tour.  Testing the network configurations on the XBox is just part of the job of the facility.  And just to be clear, both company visits were conducted in English (phew).

After the visits, we went off with my cousin Peter who is a junior at Tsinghua University (清华大学 in Taiwan, not in Beijing), which is known as the 2nd top college in Taiwan.  We toured around a bit and went to his class on materials (semiconductors).  Apparently, despite the fact that Taiwanese students don’t know English that well, about 90% of college materials are written in English.  About 40% of EE classes are also taught in English.  The one we went to was taught in Chinese, but the powerpoint presentation was all in English.  All I can say is, I’m glad I know the language that my textbooks are written in.

We also went to a Night Market (台湾师大夜市), where we were joined by Jessica (a college Junior studying English Literature)!  Night markets are just streets lined with little shops and food stands that run from about 5pm to 3am.  Taiwan is famous for these, and they’re full of cheap delicious food, as well as endless shopping opportunities.  We walked and ate and ate and ate.  Broth o’ everything, bubble tea, chicken butts, sausages, butter buns, dumplings, stinky tofu.  Nom.

At the end of the day, we all felt like we had been in Taiwan for way more than a day.  I have a feeling our entire trip is going to be this jammed pack full of fun things.

Day 2: SEA to NRT to TPE

I’m behind on blogging already; this does not bode well for the next few weeks.

Got on the flight from Seattle (SEA) to Narita, Japan (NRT) without a hitch.  They’ve been having weight issues on this flight for the past few weeks, but everyone (including people who had been waiting 3-4 days) got on.  w00t.  Also, unlimited free alcohol for international flights?  I’m not so sure about this.  Also, I’m glad there is still food on 13-hour flights.

13 or so hours later, we were in Japan, land of the fancy toilets and numerous vending machines.  I don’t think the vending machines are actually that particular, but… I can imagine them to be. Anyway, the toilets squirt your butt!  With water, to clean it!  They also play flushing sounds to cover up other sounds you might create, and they have a built-in deodorizer.  There were also squat toilets, but they were super clean and expectation defying. Even the sinks were well-designed in the airport bathrooms.

In Narita, we met these other nice people (Tim and Molly) who were also headed to Taiwan — also students studying in the US.  This began my long chain of saying “EVERYONE IS SO NICE” every time we talk to anyone about anything.

We all got first-class seats on our flight to Taipei, Taiwan (TPE), and they had very interesting pods for seats.  They reminded me of the chairs at the dentist’s office where the dentist could put you in different positions, except this time you’re in control, there’s no fear of getting shots of anesthesia, and there’s a television.  They handed out Chinese newspapers on the flight, and I spent a good hour puzzling over the articles, trying to make sense of any of it.  The most comprehensible part of it was the political campaigns.

We’re now staying at the International House of Taipei, which is a boarding house for international students studying Chinese. This translates to everyone being able to speak English, which makes the language barrier less awkward for us. Yay!


Day 1: NYC to SEA, home for a night!

We got to NYC and then JFK swiftly, and there are no photos of JFK even though the airport was so shiny because photography isn’t allowed there.  My inner asian tourist had to pause a bit for that part of the journey.  On the other hand, there were little birds in at the JFK airport and, as Josh pointed out, these birds would make excellent spies because they get to skip through security.

Anyway, below is the plane to Narita that was too full for us (we’re flying standby, and yes, we stood around until the plane left), followed by the next flight we couldn’t get on.  The result of all this plane-missing is that we were starved by the time we got out of the airport, and we devoured every last bite of our Szechuan dinner, and we were joined by my friend Jason (friends in Seattle, yay!) and my family.  The dinner quickly turned into a Chinese lesson too, when we crammed to learn the names of Chinese dishes.

And the upside of all this, of course, was that I did get to see my family, albeit for just a few hours, during winter break.  Plus, a small amount of Geometry Wars and this new racing game.  I also read 1 of 120 papers.. an OK start!

Tomorrow, we try again!

Day 0: Flu shots, shopping, bus to NYC

About to embark on our trip to Asia!  I’ll be taking lots of photos and hopefully writing a bunch.  Nancy, Josh, and Julian may be writing too!  There’s this Ninja Coder toy that may be following us through our journeys, starting with posing with my EeePC and all my Facebook swag. Also, thanks to Jenelle for letting me borrow her camera on this journey!

Apparently, Facebook and Google swag make awesome gifts.  It’s stuff that we don’t spend money on (as starving college students, we’re not supposed to spend money on gifts), these are hot companies in Asia, and swag is actually pretty hard for them to acquire.

Another untested pro-tip is to wear MIT t-shirts/sweatshirts to the manufacturing plants so the plant people can take pictures with us and have “MIT” all over it.

I went to CVS for a last-minute flu shot and it turned out to be a mess through my health insurance.  Note to future self: always get the flu shot though the free and fast flu clinic that MIT offers every year.  Otherwise, you might be spending $30 and a few precious hours before leaving the country at a pharmacy.

Anyway, leaving Boston in about 1.5 hours!