Giga-Totoro welcomes you to Beijing.
I’m actually writing this from back home – I landed back in town yesterday evening. My desperate attempts at keeping the site up to date with my travels was foiled by the complete sensory destruction that was Tokyo. This is going to be its own post, which might end up being its own book. See, I said I might have to write a book anyway.
(By the way, I’d like to give a shoutout to Ted Dilliard for writing up my three previous Shenzhen posts on InsideEVs. Go check it out – as usual, I welcome discussions and shenanigans in the comment box.)
Anyways, besides family business, I also took a journey around the maker scene of Beijing. I had contacted Beijing Makerspace about visiting. I also pinged Beijing Tiertime (makers of my favorite flavor of lollipop, as well as the Up 3d printer), but got rebuffed away with “We do not give factory tours”. Insiders, help me out here.
On my own, though, I visited the old ‘hardware streets’ I had first seen in 2005 when I was but a wee bunny. Back then, I went through the areas with a family friend since my Chinese ability at the time was around ‘zilch’. During that trip, and a following one in 2007, I took many photos (as I tend to do), but as I mentioned previously, these predate the current version of the site… and archive.org precisely captured snapshots of this site before summer 2007 and then after fall 2007. Oops. And I must have removed them from the Facenet since during those starving times, you could only have small albums of limited size, that didn’t even take 10 minutes to load page-by-page as you scroll! Now that my Chinese ability is around ‘one iota’, I wanted to go back to some of these places and see their current state.
So if you’re ever in Beijing and can 1. speak Chinese or grab a buddy who does, and 2. can stand the stench of cheap cigarette smoke, make sure to check out….
The “Xi Si” (west four… four whats, I’m not sure) area of town was well known for this sort of stuff a few years ago, and for decades before that, I am told. Sadly, when I asked before departing, my family and friends in the area said the vast majority of it was gone – torn down, moved out, and replaced with new consumer-oriented knicknacks. It’s not all gone, but the place has definitely changed for the more mundane (to me) as real estate prices in Beijing go up and areas get redeveloped into higher density modern housing. As with Shenzhen, and perhaps the world over, it seems as the citizens get richer, industries and other manufacturing sector tasks are pushed out of the city. On the other hand, it now has its own subway stop. Beijing opened like 97 new subway lines as soon as I left in ’07.
All is not lost, though, as some familiar characters still jut into the street. 电气, 电器 (dianqi) and 电机 (dianji) all refer to “Electrical” something or other. These doors open up into small markets with the same sort of stalls seen in Shenzhen.
Inside, you find the same dazzling array of parts and wares being sold. I could tell now, however, that these places are definitely geared towards locals and familiars of the industry. The ‘ooh, shiny’ of my yesteryears here transmuted to a ‘god dammit, guys’ now that I have more perspective.
First, all of these places reeked of cigarette smoke. That alone was enough to push me out of this particular location after only a few minutes. Second, it really seems like you have to have local connections or look and act local. Unlike Shenzhen’s markets, few of the vendors wanted to engage me in conversation, and none tried any English – they simply asked me what I was looking for, and if I mentioned I was browsing or that I was a foreigner, they went back to chatting with their friends right away.
I’m not sure if this is the vibe that places attracting new customers should be giving off, which makes me wonder if places like these will be around still the next time I visit. Maybe their own in-crowd customers are enough to sustain them – in which case, I wish them luck. The current state of the markets to me now looked like an aging and complacent creature no longer hunting for food or defending its territory. With the heavy hand of Chinese government driving development, I’m not sure if I blame them for this.
Why yes, this is indeed a lovely necklace. I’ll take one.
Hah, I wish – if the seller were present, maybe I would have. I’m guessing the magic of the Internet has taken a toll on little shops, at the same time making and building is on the rise again. As I’d find out the next day, most of the denizens of Beijing Makerspace get their little widgets from the likes of Taobao and Alibaba, just like in Shenzhen.
In one of these shops, this guy was making battery packs in-house. Behind him is a tab welder and a whole lot o’packs, with BMS boards tacked on and all. He is seen here cutting strips of heat shrink to put over the whole assembly, and presumably there are labels somewhere.
Makes you wonder where your cheap eBay replacement 18v nose hair shaver battery came from, right?
The entirety of Xisi North Avenue (西四北大街) south of Ping’anli (平安里) is still chock full of these shops, and I wandered in and around them all. After a while, though, I got the point, and with the stench of cheap Chinese cigarettes permanently burned into me, I decided to spend the rest of the day drifting elsewhere.
Along the same subway was 中关村 (Zhongguancun, with that ‘c’ pronounced more like ‘ts’ for those unfamiliar), which is touted as “China’s Silicon Valley”. It’s true that a ton of software and communications companies have their Chinese home bases here, and the whole area is dominated commercially by consumer electronics vendors. Though to be honest, I wouldn’t come here if I were seeking such wares, because the sales hawkers are always very aggressive and pushy. You could play the inter-store haggling contest game, but I am not fond of it.
I also think they need a swankier name, like the Silicon
Opium Den Politburo hutong or something. Nah, this is Beijing – definitely hutong. In fact, in Xisi, if you look behind the shop buildings, you see straight into these antiquated residences.
In my wanderings, I happened upon an area that was seemingly being developed in the image of an American startup coworking nest. But in no way did I think they did a good job picking the name.
I know what they were getting at, but this was the first pun I thought of when I saw that sign…
The space wasn’t finished yet – construction scaffolding still abounded, but the street to its immediate east was open and populated with modern hip bars and cafes already, plus an on-site angel capital firm. They really did their research.
I avoided random corner noodle shops this week (no, seriously, I had more Starbucks and McDonalds and KFC this week than I’ve had in the US for the past year and a half), so I managed to make it to my visit with Beijing Makerspace! And guess what – straight back to Zhongguancun I go. I was standing under their HQ without knowing it on Tuesday.
They occupy a floor of an office building in the center of the district, surrounded by iPad hawkers below. This is the entrance/lobby.
Chinese makerdom has fascinated me for the name they gave themselves over the past few years. The word we know as “makerspace” is 创客间 (chuangkejian), where 创 is the same character used in stuff like 创口 (an open wound) or, uhh, the movie Tron in Chinese, and means to initiate, invade, begin, establish, or any of those ideas that mean barging into some place. It’s also found in 创业, entrepreneurship (literally ‘invasive industry’) which has the same connotation as “disrupt” here.
Interestingly enough, the most common word in Chinese for “hacker” is, by phonetic coincidence, 黑客 (heike) – “illicit guest”. Sounds quite like people you don’t want to have in your system. It carries a more negative connodation (as far as I know) than “hacker” in the Western Intercloud, so that’s why nobody really names their hackerspace a 黑客间.
A random amusing aside: I thought 创 was also the same character used in “闯红灯”, to run a red light, because the pronunciation of 闯 differs only in tone. The actual character, 闯, means roughly the same thing – to rush into/break through. It’s a picture of a horse (马) in a doorway (门)… quite appropriate, no!?
A floor guide at the entrance! Hey, isn’t it a bad idea to label your “hiding room”?
The entranceway has a small LED-lit structure that a group of members built.
The workshop contains the usual suspects – mill and lathe, drill press, and clusters of assorted hand tools. Very much reminiscent of MITERS, the place sees a lot of use and nobody cleans up!
Sounds like someone needs shop boot camp. I offered to be drill instructor (hehehe) if I were ever in town for a long time.
In the rear were two laser cutters and a medium sized CNC router, among other tools.
I was disappointed to hear that this area doesn’t see nearly as much use – in part because the initial batch of members who knew how to use the machines have basically all left! Seems like this is a trend in all spaces which don’t have permanent staff, MITERS included. Skilled members with mentorship initiative tend to cycle in and out, and the activity level and usability of the space ebbs and floes accordingly.
Sure, I’ll do it!
This is the main meeting & gathering space – breakout rooms are to the left and right. I came at a time of year when everyone’s out of town, so there were only maybe less than 10 people in the whole place, but I’m told it really gets busy on weekends. They host some startups in a dedicated space, too.
I talked shop (in Chinglish, once more!) with the “admins”/organizing members for the better part of three hours, about everything. Being largely new, they don’t remember the last MITERS Delegation of 2012, but I hope I was able to establish diplomatic relations again. I’ll take 1 dorky Chinese van as tribute, please.
What I learned from them is they face the issues many makerspaces/hackerspaces do, with some uniquely Chinese twists. One thing they were longing for is more members who “do their own thing”, so to speak – like myself and many at MITERS, who come to use these resources to explore and learn and do projects on their own for no hard goal or endpoint. Their current membership is made up of mostly young professionals and college students, which is excellent, but most people are casual users or only work on stuff “for a reason” – for the company, for a class, for their research, and the like. This is a legitimate use in its own right, but they wish for more weird, exploratory, and artistic creations to come out of the space.
I’m not in a position really to say if it’s a cultural thing or not, but I do believe it has something to do with the lack of “just for fun” projects. We talked at length about the apparent dearth of “maker culture” – as defined previously, driven fundamentally by learning-by-doing – in China, and what spaces like these are trying to do to advance that cause and generate a cultural base for it. As we sort of concluded, the Chinese would rather learn by observing and copying (insert counterfeit product joke here!), and encouraging people to take the plunge on their own is part of their mission.
I drew parallels with them to this situation with the history of MITERS I was involved in from 2007 to 2012 and to the present day – how when I started at MITERS, there were 5 or so members, and it took two or three years of ‘building shop’ and advertising and chasing people to get them involved to get the club to the state I left it in 2011 (tens of dedicated members and 40-50 casual users) and from there, to its current state in 2014. We also discussed the history of the “MIT Silly Vehicle Epidemic” – starting with two or three students who built vehicles and showed them to their friends, to the state now where it seems a custom electric scooter is a de-facto freshman engineering initiation process. Really. There’s like three dozen or more scooters, go-karts, skateboads, etc. known to me across campus, and I’ve personally mentored or answered questions for like half of them (not counting the 2.00gokart products, but including students’ post-class efforts).
In both cases, it took significant effort, lead by example, and “be the change you want to see”, to build up inertia for cultural change, and talking with them regarding this was a refreshing “I’m not (too) crazy” for both sides.
I left them with a copy of the 2.00gokart class notes to which my host (who I will refer to as Mr. Sunshine because that is literally his English name, and that because it’s phonetically close to his Chinese name) was very gleeful. I’m definitely in for some go-karting class shenanigans if I am ever in town for a long time, and I furthermore hope that the material is helpful in spawning local silly scooters and go-karts.
Speaking of go-karts,
Is this yours? I’m told you’re in the United States studying now, at a school in the Northeast that they couldn’t remember. Give me a holler. Also, they would like you to come back and clean up, and as a fab shop instructor, I agree.
On Saturday, I picked up the magical Cynthia Lu from the train station and we prepared for a week of Tokyo. I need to plan out how to write that one, because it’s like some kind of maker/nerd tourism final boss fight.
Since I’ve been more or less spreading the gospel around to my various makerspace visits in the past 2 weeks, I’ve decided to organize the reference section of the site better, such as making the 2.00gokart class materials and Instructables easier to find. New content will also appear as I add posts I’ve neglected to archive in that section.