Guanxi means “face”, which is basically a Chinese system of respect in business and life. If a friend does you a favor, you owe them one back. If you do good business with a vendor, they treat you well. Westerners, especially, I think blow this way out of proportion. Maybe in the past it was a live-or-die kind of thing, but in modern Shenzhen it seems no different than doing business anywhere else. Good customers and vendors get respect, bad vendors selling bad parts don’t get your business again.
Navigating the Huaqiangbei electronics markets is not without peril, especially for foreigners. There are bad parts, low quality stuff, recycled stuff, and even fake stuff. If you have a good relationship (“face”) with a vendor, they will direct you away from the bad stuff and give you great prices on even small quantities.
Building this relationship is challenging, especially for non-Chinese speaking foreigners. You can be introduced by a trusted existing customer who loans you “face”, but most buyers are stuck building a relationship over time by ordering large quantities and being easy to get along with. I didn’t do that… I snuck in the back door.
I live on the periphery of Huaqiangbei. Every night at midnight, a makeshift city springs up with street BBQ, tofu, stir-fry, dumplings, and other amazing food sold from carts*. I got in the habit of eating here every evening on the way home. Almost every night, random Chinese people would shout out in their best English, “Hi how are you?!?”. I would reply, “Hěn hǎo, nǐ hǎo mā?” (Good, how are you?). Generally, they would all be drinking beer and playing a dice game called shǎi zǐ… I’ll write about how to play later. I’ve never been able to resist the chance to play and drink beer with new friends, and many of them have turned out to be the kids who push carts or run sales stands in Huaqiangbei market.
Playing shǎi zǐ and drinking Tsingtao has made me instant friends with a dozen “little brothers”. I always add them to my Weixin (“We Chat”), the most popular Chinese social media network. Whenever I need something, they are really happy to introduce me to their other friends in the market, and I pay a tenth what I would when negotiating alone. Not only that, these relationships help me get the low quantities I need for prototypes instead of ordering the usual minimum 5000 or 10000 pieces. As a newcomer in Shenzhen, you should never be afraid to meet locals and try out your Chinese, because it is what will separate you from the market tourists.
*About a month ago, the Shenzhen police cleared the street food vendors from Nanyuan Lǜ, which was heartbreaking. I’ve yet to find where they went, but I know there are several more street food enclaves sprinkled throughout the city and I plan to explore them all. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet my “little brothers” and make connections while the one on my street was in full swing. You can be sure that I’ll let you know if it returns!