I spent about a day exploring China’s parallel universe internet. The fact that Weibo looks almost identical to Twitter and that RenRen looks almost like Facebook definitely made the parallel universe easier to explore. But everything being in Chinese is still discombobulating. I had been looking for a way to improve my technical Chinese (as well as my general Chinese), and I think that being a part of this parallel universe will help!
The following is a compilation of relevant links for our makerspace tour through Asia.
Friends of makerspaces we visited These are not makerspaces, but are organizations that support makerspaces and include or grow makers. Seeed Studio (open hardware advocate, component and kit supplier, in Shenzhen) [slidedeck] Toyhouse (visual and physical collaborative classrooms, Tsinghua University, in Beijing)
Others doing similar asiatrips Bunnie (Chumby founder; Feb 2009; 1 week; Shenzhen) Noisebrige (San Francisco makerspace; Oct 2009; 2 weeks; Shanghai and Beijing; ~$1K) Noisebridge 2 (Apr 2012; 3 weeks; Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing) Asiatrip (our trip for comparison; Dec 2011; 2 weeks; Taipei, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo; $2.0K)
Makerspace movement in China, government sanctioned What happens when a government is run by engineers [Shenzhen] [Shanghai]
First Open Hardware Summit [Beijing]
China Mobile Developer Conference [Beijing]
Chinese makerspace featured by CNN [Shanghai]
Makerspaces of the world Nancy’s initial plans [post]
China makerspaces [info] [info]
Makerspaces in the rest of the world [info]
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 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08
Legend 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
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
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.
Statistics Length of trip: 16 days
Approximate total mileage: 19,390 miles (31,203 km; for perspective, the Earth has a circumference of 24,900 mi / 40100 km)
Travel by plane: 92.8%
Travel by train: 4.6%
Travel by car: 1.3%
Travel by bus: 1.2%
Photo count: 1416
Times we were taken out for a meal: 21 (+ 5 provided by flights) Times we handled our own meals: 16 (+ 4 that we skipped)
Time spent traveling: 97 hours (6 hours / day) Time spent sleeping: 96 hours (6 hours / day)
Estimated cost: $1.8K (did not account for HangZhou) Actual cost: $2.0K (see the breakdown)
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.
Tips: 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.
Magically, we got on standby to the flight from Beijing to Tokyo. Earlier, they told us it was pretty much impossible because they switched out the normal plane with a smaller one and were thus having weight issues. The Seattle flight looked terrible too (as collateral damage). But magically, everything worked out. At this point in our trip, Julian took a gamble, split off, and stayed at the airport for the flight to Seattle, so that he could get back to familiar lands and hopefully recover better. Here, aside from anti-diahrrea medicine, we could only offer him old bagels from Seattle, some ginger tea from Boston (but probably China before that), and local Chinese herbal medicine. In retrospect, I might have been able to fly directly to Seattle as well, so I’d have a few days at home before headed back to school. Ah, well. The way to go when flying standby is to simply get on the first flight that you can. Among friends, I’m OK with the uncertainty.
I normally have a lot of trouble sleeping on moving things — cars, trains, subways, planes — but this trip has been exhausting enough that it’s been a piece of cake to sleep in these settings. Nancy claims that she’s taught me well. xD But I’m still not a pro like she is. During this trip, I found that sleeping with earplugs and pulling my new navy beanie over my eyes works like a charm in blocking out most noise and light.
We arrived in Tokyo, land of not only fancy toilets but also plentiful vending machines. They vend warm soups! And their toilets are fancy even in non-fancy places, and their fanciness varies. I’ve seen toilets with sinks attached that trigger upon flush so that guests can leave the bathroom untouched. I’ve seen toilets with special pepperminty spray things for cleaning the toilet seat and your hands. Of course there is the standard fancy toilet that squirts water to clean your butt and makes flushing noises to block out unwanted noises. Some toilets also have wonderful butt warmers. Not all toilets are created equal, and not all toilets are fancy. There are also non-fancy sitting toilets and squat toilets. I guess when you are building up a new building, you get to specify a lot more about your toilets in Japan than in most other places.
It’s clear that the Japanese are committed to overdesign. The subway was super smooth, though I can’t tell / can’t recall how different it is from the metro in Taipei. We visited a 7-11 in Tokyo (1 of 12,000 or so) and again, the selection far far exceeds that of 7-11s in the US. As compared to those in Taipei though, they are comparable. Maybe I just have very mundane interests, but I feel like it would be fun to tour the world checking out all the various subway systems and convenience stores. Of course, I have always found it fascinating to watch cars go by..
If Taiwan was preparation for China, then China was preparation for Japan, which has the least English support out of the three countries. Not knowing more than 20 words of the language, what saved us (aside from normal body gestures and looking absolutely clueless) was being able to read some of the Kanji (some are directly mapped to Chinese characters). On the subway, we also bumped into a couple speaking Chinese, and they helped us get to where we needed to go.
The Tokyo Hackerspace was perhaps what I’ve been looking for (without knowing it). We had the opportunity to attend their regular weekly meeting that evening. It was the first meeting of the new year and a lot of people were still away, so the attendance was slim (~10 throughout this evening, but normally on the order of 40 people), but I got the sense that they were really a community. They were all friends; they talked about technical things, but they also joked and talked about non-technical things. They were friendly, not at all exclusive. The emphasis, again, was on hardware, but I’m learning that computer vision is actually something of interest to hardware people. There was calming nature-y music in the background and the atmosphere was perfect, complete with tiramisu, and all I wanted to do was start a hackerspace in my dorm room. It’s the sense of community that has made MIT so awesome for me, but I’m here to learn, so what I want to see is a technical community at MIT, especially among undergraduates. Moar reading groups!
It was here that Josh and Nancy got their wish of crashing at a hackerspace.
And the fun fact for the day is that the Tokyo Hackerspace is comprised almost entirely of expats (who all speak English). Apparently, the Japanese aren’t accustomed to the idea of technical community either. We learned about a separate 4-member hackerspace in Japan that comprised of Japanese members but was closed to membership.
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.
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.
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. 🙂