Summary: Asiatrip

Four MIT engineering undergrads, interested in just about everything, took our summer savings and threw it at Asia on a grand 2-week long Asiatrip in an effort to expand our horizons. We came back with so much more.

Nancy Ouyang, the mastermind of this journey, nyancat hacker, hexapod enthusiast, secretary of MIT makerspace MITERS.  She was the point person for Hangzhou, all the flights, and the makerspace contacts.
Josh Gordonson, makerspace advocate, EE + art hacker, analog electronics enthusiast, president of MITERS.  He was the point person for New York City and part of our visit to Tsinghua in Beijing.
Julian Merrick, eater of everything, motors hacker, power electronics enthusiast, core member of MITERS.
Myself, documentor, computer vision hacker, intelligent transportation and data visualization enthusiast, friend of MITERS.  I was the point person for Taipei and most of the manufacturing plant visits.

Nancy and I split responsibilities in Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. Tokyo was a free-for-all.

Tue 12/20/2011 to Thu 01/05/2012, just over 2 weeks.

Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
120 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 230 31 01
02 03 04 0
06 07 08

Lost day (due to passing the dateline, excluded in indexing of blog posts)
On a plane |On a bus/train
Boston |Seattle |Taipei |ShenZhen
Hangzhou |Shanghai |Beijing |Tokyo


View the path of our journey on this Travel Map and check out the makerspace link dump!

City visits (9): NYC, Seattle, Taipei, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Detroit
University visits (3): Tsinghua University (Taipei), China Academy of Art (Hangzhou), Tshinghua University (Beijing)
Touristy vists (14): Night market, Long San Temple, Gondola, Maokong, Taipei 101, West Lake, Lingyin Temple, Chen Huang Temple, CMoDA New Media Museum, Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace, Akiabhara, Shibuya, Asakusa
Company tours (3): Advantech, ZyXEL, Seeed Studio
Production line tours (10): Asia Optical (lens/prisms, scanner head, laser rangefinder, picoprojector, camera, molding), GTBF, Failong, Colibri, Great Wall
Hackerspace visits (6): Chaihuo, OnionCapsule, Xinchejian, SkyWorks, Beijing Maxpace, Tokyo Hackerspace
[Some photo credit: Nancy Ouyang and my dad]

What and Why
Whereever we went, people welcomed us with open arms, but we had a bit of trouble at first answering the question “what is the purpose of your trip?” We came for a variety of reasons. We came for fun (it’s winter break, after all), we came to learn about manufacturing, we came to check out the makerspace movement, we came to visit relatives (well, just me), we came to grow up a bit (Nancy and me), we came to emmerse ourselves in a different culture, we came to eat good food, and we came to make friends and felt the world become a smaller place.

Seeing all the manufacturing has given me a new perspective on how the everyday items we use come to be. We saw factory workers putting together cameras that are the same make and model as Julian’s. We saw boards that dictate how many units the operators need to produce each hour. We learned about their wages and the overtime they need to work in order to make a living, and how social mobility is dictated almost solely by test scores. And then we learn about how little profit each unit makes for the plant, and yet, we saw the rising labor costs. We saw how cheap everything was sold locally; life is hard both domestically and abroad. Profit margins in the manufacturing sector are ridiculously low, and any and all inefficiencies must be engineered out.

Honestly, it was mostly the others who were interested in the makerspace movement in China as we were planning the trip, but I found our visits to be entirely worthwhile throughout. As a sort of outsider from makerspaces, I found it inspirational, seeing actual active communities, how much makerspaces could be, and seeing how fast China can make change.

I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit a good portion of my extended family and my entire immediate family this holiday season. It was far more than I bargained for. It was wonderful to see my grandparents and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews. The last time I saw most of them was 7.5 years ago, which is sort of baffling in my mind.

For Nancy and myself, this was our first time traveling abroad that didn’t simply consist of following our parents and extended family around the entire time. Instead, our family and friends kept a watchful eye on us from a distance nearly every step of the way, which I wanted to avoid at first, but later on realized that our trip would not have been possible without all of their help. Our trip began with our hands held as tightly as they could thousands of miles away, and it definitely made our transition from the States quite smooth. The intensity of our trip gradually increased, and towards the end of our trip, we were finding our own accomodations, doing our own research, and finding our own means of getting around. Everything we managed on our own and every mistake we made was a learning experience. With the last two weeks of experience, perhaps next time, we won’t need any hand-holding.

Length of trip: 16 days

Times we were taken out for a meal: 21 (+ 5 provided by flights)
Times we handled our own meals: 16 (+ 4 that we skipped)

Suggestions for travellers going on similar trips
Things to bring, some of which I forgot, others of which I found useful:
Portable router: hotels often come with a single ethernet jack, so a router is essential for sharing internet between multiple travelers.
Ear plugs: traveling means non-ideal sleeping situations, but sleeping is all the more important.
Long beanie: doubles as a hat during the day and a light/noise blocker during the night.
Toilet paper and toiletries for the first few days: otherwise, you’ll waste valuable time looking for these things while getting used to a new country.
Cold/flu medication: you may get sick.
Anti-diahhrea meds: the food may not agree with your stomach.
Hand sanitizer: no need to waste precious time looking for soap and water whereever you go.
Moisture cream and chapstick: hand sanitizer will dry out your hands; also, hotel rooms will sometimes be very dry.
Underarmor: space efficient for keeping warm.
Cash: withdraw lots of cash before leaving the country, or you’ll risk incurring a lot of fees on your ATM card.

Plan in advance: if you can help it, you don’t want to be spending precious journey time planning the trip.
Plan in downtime: travelling is tiring, and time to relax a bit and take in what you’ve learned thus far is very meaningful.

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!!