Shaizi (liars’ dice), street BBQ, and beer: guanxi the easy way

Posted on Tuesday, July 30th, 2013 in #liveupdates by Ian


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!


This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 30th, 2013 at 2:20 pm and is filed under #liveupdates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Responses to “Shaizi (liars’ dice), street BBQ, and beer: guanxi the easy way”

  1. Ah, but do you hold to your “only hot food prepared right in front of me” rule that you talked about on your hackerspace tour video? Or does that not count since you live there now? :-D

    • Ian says:

      Argh so true. My street food rule is hot, fresh and prepared in front of me. I’ve never gone wrong with that in Mexico, India, China, nowhere.

      Chinese street food is always made right there so you know the exact conditions of preperation. The only geek tour where I got.violently ill was the last day when we ate at 5star Italian place in 5star hotel in India. Sick as a dog in 4 hours. Both ends, as my childhood doctor used to say… and i ate anything and everything on that trip.

      That leads to Ian’s second rule of international eating… don’t eat crap if no large group from that culture lives there.

  2. Sjaak says:

    Food market at Songlin Road closed?

  3. Ian says:

    Yeah :( so sad… now have to go to window of world or chegongmiao for the good stuff.

  4. vimark says:

    Hen Hao, Ian! (Very good, Ian) :)

  5. Drone says:

    I’m an expat living in Jakarta. Here the Jakarta Mayor (Joko – yeah that’s his real name) has recently proposed clearing the food carts (called Kaki-Lima, for “five-feet” as many have two wheels and three legs) off the street for Hygiene reasons (or so they claim). I would help with the traffic problems in some areas as well.

    It might be a good move if they can do it like they do in Singapore where the sellers go to a central facility with running water, etc. (in Singapore they’re often called Hawker Centers). But if they just clean the carts out entirely, that would be really bad (KFC etc. will fill the void – Yuck). Not all street food is good in Jakarta. In-fact a lot of it is pretty bad tasting (to me) and/or bad for-you (or anyone). But when it is good, it’s special. But good Indonesian food can be found at indoor restaurants as well, you just pay a bit more.

    That’s my experience anyway.

    Take Care Ian… Drone

  6. yosemitepark says:

    I can’t believe that you guys don’t even both to remove the red eyes or do some basic photo editing. These photos are some of the worst I’ve seen.

  7. dda says:

    Technically, guanxi 關係, is “relation, rapport” — as in building a rapport, and using this to mutual benefit. “Face” — show of face, respect, is mianzi 面子.

    But beyond the technicality, great post, and great human approach. Your immune system must be strong, too ;-)

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