Our first day in Beijing was a pretty crazy one as well. Our train arrived in Beijing around 8am, at which point we met up with Nancy’s family friend and went for breakfast at this food chain called Yonghe King. That was sort of freaking amazing because my family is actually largely from Yonghe, Taipei, Taiwan. I was already missing Taiwan food at that point, so it was great to have a Taiwan style breakfast. Learning about Yonghe King probably made my day. <3 food.
Day 12 was a real whirlwind of activities. We got a quick tour of Tsinghua University (China’s top tech school) with Nancy’s family friend, followed by meeting Professor Koo’s students at his Toyhouse, followed by meeting 6 Tsinghua CS students, followed by visiting SkyWorks (one of the hackerspaces at Tsinghua). I enjoyed SkyWorks a lot; they even had resources for software projects in the form of mobile phones and server hosting. The hackerspaces we’ve seen in China didn’t have as much in terms of machine tools as MITERS, but all of the hackerspaces that I have seen (except for SkyWorks and Noisebridge) seemed to lack software resources. Anyway, all of this was arranged fairly last minute, so I was surprised that we were able to meet people and have great conversation… on New Years Day, and also the week before their final exams. But, Tsinghua does have 30K students with an emphasis on engineering, so maybe that made it reasonable to find students. The Toyhouse students gave us their insights on Professor Koo’s “radical” teaching methods–essentially student-taught project-based classes instead of professor-blabber-based classes. A lot of work and suitable for only some areas of study, but they teach you how to learn on your own, they said. From the CS students, we learned that the college GPA of Chinese students pretty much determines exactly the next step (grad school, industry, studying abroad, going home), or at least that is the mindset of a lot of students. SkyWorks showed us that not all students focus 100% of their efforts on their GPA; some do work on projects of their own, for commercial purposes, etc.
OK, so that was just the morning until early afternoon. Then, we visited Beijing Maxpace, the Beijing hackerspace (北京创客空间), a new media art exhibition, and attended a maker/hacker new years party. The Beijing hackerspace was tiny. It’s a room only slightly larger than my dorm room, and there were about 20 people there awaiting our arrival — space is hard to find in Beijing?We took a look around, chatted for a few minutes, and exchanged stickers. This trip has taught me that hackerspaces are crazy about stickers. And stamps. Here, I got a second stamp on my hackerspace passport (the first was at Chaihuo, the third in Tokyo). MITERS has neither stamps nor stickers yet, oops. The new media exhibit was neat; it was like the media lab, but orders of magnitude less cluttered. The new years party consisted of people from a whole bunch of different makerspaces and places. We did introductions, watched maker-y videos, and had good food and pleasant conversation. We pulled up yet another documentary of MITERS (produced by NYU students) and also the MASLAB 2011 highlights video, and I talked about MASLAB for a bit. Yay robots and presenting in broken Chinese! I need to find a way to learn/use technical vocabulary in Chinese.
At this point, Julian was seriously food poisoned (probably got infected on Day 10), and so we scrambled to find a suitable place to stay for the night. Originally, Josh and Nancy wanted to crash on the concrete floor of the place of the party, which I wasn’t too crazy about but was willing to entertain. Amazingly, with a lot of help from the Beijing hackers, especially Wang ZhenFei (王振飞), we made our way to our home for the next two nights.
At the end of the day, I was just confused at how we managed to do so much and meet so many people in a single day.
Surprisingly, our trip has been pretty full of Taiwanese people. This is undoubtedly biased because I am on this trip and most of our factory tour relations were tied to Taiwan, but I have been told that a lot of the hackerspace people in China are Taiwanese too. The night of Day 10 consisted of a dinner at a Taiwanese place with my family friend. Yay Taiwan food. We were in some area of Shanghai where there is a large concentration of people from Taiwan… imagine Chinatown, except with Taiwanese people… and in China.
The family friend we stayed with ordered in breakfast for us, which was super nice and tasty. After a lot of hours of figuring out the rest of the day, we parted and went off to Chenghuang Temple (城隍庙) for some culture, touristy shopping, and good eats. At this point in our trip, we started thinking about purchasing souvenirs, so we obtained quite a few stuffed dragons. I just realized that we forgot to haggle, but we did walk around asking 4-5 different vendors for their prices before settling on one. It’s pretty neat to see what different vendors will quote depending on how foreign / touristy we look. I had the best luck when I asked without the others around. This particular vendor actually had 2 clerics who gave me 2 different prices — yes, I asked them both and then took the lower one. We also had soup buns, which are like bread bowls, but replace the bread with a bun.
We only had about an hour there before we rushed off for our (but really Nancy’s) presentation at Xinchejian (新车间), the Shanghai makerspace. Attendance was around 50, which was pretty freaking incredible. We showed my (actually Ben’s) MITERS documentary from my anthropology class, and I’m very glad that finally came in useful. There I met Professor Ben Koo at Tsinghua University in Beijing (as mentioned before, also Taiwanese), who gave us a lot of helpful information and even helped us with our plans the next day in Beijing! After the presentation, we had about 45 minutes of mingling before we rushed off to the train station to catch our train to Beijing. Everyone was very awesome, and everything was way way too rushed. As usual, we almost missed the train (this really needs to stop happening), but the traffic cleared up about halfway there and our 100USD tickets were saved. We got a soft sleeper compartment, which consists of 4 soft bunks for sleeping and a communal table that we used to pile all of our food. On the train, I realized that, for sanitary reasons, I actually prefer squat toilets to sitting toilets in Asia (this does not apply in Japan). Then the new year came (at least on this side of the planet), and though everyone else was already asleep, I found the train ride to be a very nice way to welcome the new year.