China's Self-Sustaining Man Is Cyberpunk in Real Life

Mr. Chen's resourcefulness and self-sustaining lifestyle is a model of inspiration and a testament to China's own burgeoning entrepreneurial identity.

Feb 5 2013, 4:00pm

He runs a custom electronics manufacturing outfit from his living room, grows organic vegetables in his garden, and even raises chickens and pigeons on his roof. It’s the kind of self-sufficiency that would make an eco-conscious Brooklyn hipster blush and the sort of entrepreneurial spirit generally reserved for Silicon Valley.

But Mr. Chen lives in the shadows of Foxconn’s super factories on the outskirts of Shenzhen, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, and the manufacturing capital of the universe. While the region has received a bad rap in recent times because of stifling pollution and child-labor practices, its continued development as a dense techno-electronica hotspot has made it the perfect breeding ground for China's vibrant maker scene.

“I’ve been living in Shenzhen for almost 2 years now, and I’m continually amazed by this city,” writes Zach Hoeken, a former Brooklynite developer who has called Shenzhen his home for the past two years. “The people here are creative, it has the best resources for building things you can find anywhere in the world, an amazing climate, and friendly people everywhere.”

In Hoeken’s “ongoing obsession with digital fabrication and small volume manufacturing,” he stumbled upon Mr. Chen on an online forum, who was more than happy to show off his cozy operation.

Entering into Mr. Chen’s place, you feel like you’re stepping into a whole new world. His apartment was immaculate, but signs of making were there if you know what to look for. Tucked away in one corner was the pick and place machine that I came to see. Next to it was a coffee table with boards ready to be populated, surrounded by tea cups.

Using a $4000 pick and place machine -- a machine that mounts electronic components onto printed circuit boards -- Mr. Chen designs and manufactures custom electronics and sells them at the local market, commanding a market large enough to support his wife and son (and chickens).

It turns out, Mr. Chen was more interesting than his machine! You see, he’s managed to carve our a nice little niche for himself by designing and manufacturing his own electronics and then selling them at the infamous Huaqiangbei electronics market. He started about 7 years ago and has been building and selling various things during that whole time. Today he was making AVR ICE programmers, but tomorrow he might build controllers for the fans for his brothers small DC fan factory.

As we got to talking about making and DIY culture, I began to get a sense that this down-to-earth guy was someone who really understands the so-called Maker culture. He was very business savvy, and even had a slogan: 花小钱,赚大钱 which roughly means spend less and earn more. What he was describing was a lean operation where he had digital fabrication tools that allowed him to retool and switch around really quickly and efficiently. His house was doubling as his production floor so he had very little overhead. He also understood that he needed to find niche markets in order to remain competitive.

Mr. Chen's machine at work:

Incidentally, replicating his operation stateside is all but impossible (for better or worse) given the numerous health code regulations he'd surely be violating. But for the millions of Chinese dreaming to escape the monotony of dead-end factory work, Mr. Chen's resourcefulness and self-sustaining lifestyle is a model of inspiration and a testament to China's own burgeoning entrepreneurial identity.


Top image via hoektronics