Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Filtering by Tag: China

A month or so of TPR work

Added on by Spencer Wright.

The Public Radio is in preproduction.

First: I spent part of week in Taiwan, Shenzhen, and Dongguan in late June visiting a few of our component suppliers, and parts started trickling in at our manufacturing partner last week. Proof:

A few notes here:

  • A huge thanks to Lucas, who came with me to the speaker factory and was just generally a hospitable guy while I was in Hong Kong & Shenzhen. Thanks also to Kuji for showing me an awesome time (see this video) in Shenzhen. 
  • Visiting our speaker manufacturer for the second time (the first time was two years ago) was great. Knowing our suppliers is a real treat, and I've very much enjoyed working with them.
  • Seeing the mold for our new custom speaker was big. This was an investment - both in the tool itself and in our relationship with our speaker factory - but it makes The Public Radio more robust and *much* easier to put together. It reduces the assembly's total number of parts and allows us to use larger screws, which are easier to handle and will take less time to install. That both saves us money and makes TPR an overall nicer product. This is also the second injection molded part I've ever designed and is *slightly* more complex than the one before it, so from a personal standpoint it was *really* fun to actually touch.
  • China, as always, is just mind boggling. I especially appreciated Ofo, which is amazing.

Second: Since then, I've been dealing with our remaining procurement issues (mostly logistics & cash flow planning; some vendor management) and then hammering on our actual manufacturing plan. The Public Radio has an extremely simple user interface, and to create that there's a *ton* of work that goes into managing the assembly & fulfillment process. This involves a few special things:

  1. As Zach and I discussed with Gabe on The Prepared's podcast a few weeks ago, we've now got a fully custom order management database which coordinates customers, tuning frequencies, and shipping data (and a few other little things).
  2. An instance of Tulip, which will handle not only our assembly training but is also acting as the connective tissue between our database and the real world. Tulip will coordinate barcode scans, assembly steps, and our radio programming jig to keep everything in sync. It also logs productivity and can help track defects down the road. In short, it's awesome.
  3. Our radio programming jig. Josh is taking a crack at this (among other things :) now, and hoping to make it more reliable & robust than the ones that we used on the first batch of Public Radios two years ago. 

These three things are *just* starting to really come together this week; I've got maybe a third of it all running on my desk right now.

Next up: We should have a fully functional prototype of our manufacturing system running in two weeks. We'll be testing it in NYC for about a week, and will then bring the whole thing to Chicago to fit it into Accelerated Assemblies' processes. By then we'll have all of our materials on site and, after a short run or two to iron out any kinks, will be in full production mode.

More soon :)

Distributed Manufacturing

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Note: This draft was started about a year and a half ago. In the name of valuing what's shipped more than what's (theoretically) perfect, I publish it now with considerably less preciousness than originally planned. 

When I took these pictures - on the street in Dongguan, PRC, in the summer of 2015 - I was thinking about the emphasis that American startup culture has placed on distributed manufacturing over the past few years. According to the narrative, distributed manufacturing is being enabled by a combination of 3D printing, streamlined digital documentation standards, and web/mobile outsourcing marketplaces. Through these, we're ostensibly moving towards a paradigm that offers unparalleled improvements in efficiency, variety, and speed-to-market.

Parts of this narrative may well be true. I'm certain, however, that neither additive, nor the model-based enerpeise, nor any digital matchmaking service is a prerequisite for distributed manufacturing. Really, all you need is real estate and some demand for (in this case) overnight EDM and machined parts. 

I tell you, seeing this was really breathtaking.  

A rural community at the heart of it

Added on by Spencer Wright.

As you may know, I'm fascinated with Chinese history and culture. I also like thinking about the way things are made and how that affects people. This article, then, was excellent: A thorough essay on Chengzhongcun, the urban villages that, now subsumed by cities like Shenzhen, play a distinct and unique role in Chinese urban culture. 

So, apropos of just that much, here are some passages that I thought were really great - partly because they feel so much like my (limited, for sure) experiences in urban China, but also because the vision of urbanity they describe are so much like the daily life that I want for myself.

The Chengzhongcun is a vibrant place which is alive twenty-four hours a day and there is a constant hum of activity. The ‘handshake buildings’ over look one another and it is easy to see directly into your neighbor’s living room. These facts should not be considered a negative, but they are the consequences of living at such a high density. It can be argued that such a model of living would not be acceptable in a Western society but in the Chinese context and culture this model is perfectly acceptable and actually thrives.

The boundaries between private and public within the Chengzhongcun as so blurred that even your own home becomes part of the public realm being overlooked. It can be said that this layered living actually reinforces a sense of inclusion and a sense of belonging almost, a sense of belonging to a place and a community. Unlike living in a faceless gated high-rise were you are sealed in your own apartment, living in the Chengzhongcun binds you to a place, you are constantly aware of the environment you are living in and constantly feel part of a wider social group. This is perhaps how a social trace of a village community has remained despite all physical traces of the village disappearing.

The constant flow of daily life spills out onto the alleyways and brings with it a vibrancy which can only come from people living on top of other people. The constant social interaction and the constant feeling of an urban society that is ever present within your life. The fact that everything you need from supermarkets to workplaces to entertainment is literally round the corner. These are elements that a mega-city designed in zones of activities and connected by vast transport links can’t replicate and these are the exact characteristics that give the Chengzhongcun their atmosphere and sense of place...

Only in China can the most extreme form of urbanisation be said to have a rural community at the heart of it...In fact an urbanism with community and social interaction, one which has grown out of a rural beginning can sit just as comfortably within the context of that most 21st century form of a mega-city like Shenzhen...
I believe if you truly want to understand contemporary China then you should try and understand the Chengzhongcun. The traces of history mixed with pragmatic development, the hap-hazard approach and determination to achieve progress, the self-regulation and social cohesion, the density and intense atmosphere of social interaction are all elements that are present at all levels of Chinese society. Here in the Chengzhongcun they are exaggerated and amplified given an insight into the Chinese mindset. For me the Chengzhongcun are in their way a summary of China at this moment in time. To have architecture achieve this is quite special, it was organically produced from the people themselves and the value lies with the villagers and migrants who live in these places, the people who produce the vibrant lifestyle and preserve the ancestral heritage and create their shared communal living. It is that quintessential Collectivity through Individuality that is so appealing and produces these fascinating communities and fascinating communal urban space that is uniquely Chinese.

All I know is this: they're doing *something* right.

Photos from an antenna factory in Shenzhen

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This past July, Zach and I visited The Public Radio's antenna supplier in Shenzhen. I had only a vague idea of how antennas were made, and it was interesting to see the process in person. It was also fascinating to see a shop that relied so much on manual and mechanically driven machinery. 

A few observations:

  • This shop manufactures a variety of parts, with the defining feature being that they're made of tubing. For our antennas, the process works basically like this:
    • Tubing is bundled together with zipties and cut to length by wire EDM.
    • Tubing ends are swaged in/out.
    • Sections are assembled into a single telescoping unit
    • Meanwhile, end fittings are manufactured from solid stock. This happens either on the automatic turret lathes, or on single-operation manual machines (lathes/drill presses).
    • End fittings are installed on the telescoping antennas, again using swaging/forming processes.
  • The whole operation was decidedly low tech and manual - almost disturbingly so. It would seem very difficult to control quality - which I guess should be expected when you're looking at a niche, and rather inexpensive, commodity product.

A few of the photos have notes on them - click to show.

Photos from a speaker factory in Dongguan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This past July, Zach and I took a trip to the Pearl River Delta to visit, among other things (see one, two), the factory in Dongguan that made the speakers for The Public Radio. Below are some long overdue photos from the visit, along with whatever comments I can muster up from memory. 

Note: if you click on the photos, you can seem them larger. Some also have my own notes on them too.

Like most factories I've visited in both China and Taiwan, this one comprised a cluster of buildings around a large concrete courtyard. Immediately inside the gate on the right hand side (out of view of the photos below) was the office building; to its left was the assembly shop, then dormitories, then a building that housed the toolroom and the injection molding line.

We started our tour in the office building. I didn't get any photos of the conference areas, where we spent a good portion of the visit (we needed to discuss a redesign of the speaker, which was going to require new tooling and a few other changes). We dropped our bags there and introduced ourselves, and then went upstairs to see the R&D area.

There were a *lot* of different speakers here. The main part of the R&D area housed a few cubicles, each of which seemed to have more product on it than the last. There was also a small workshop area for assembling sample units, a semi soundproof chamber, and a listening room.

Our supplier had on site tooling and injection molding. We didn't even realize this coming in, but it was great to see that they could have full control of their own process and design. 

Tooling is then sent next door to the injection molding line. Our factory was in the process of installing automated part handling on a few of their machines, which was interesting to see in real time. 

Then up to the speaker assembly area. They had (if I recall correctly) six moving assembly lines, which were broken up by the size of the speakers they could handle. Speaker assembly is mostly a process of gluing different components together, so there were a bunch of specialized tools that would inject adhesive in a controlled manner.

Back outside. The office is on the left here, then the injection molding line & toolroom, then the assembly shop.

Heading back to Dongguan that afternoon, I was impressed with what we had seen. This was a pretty small business, and we were a tiny customer. They (like most of the people we talked to in China) were somewhat confused with our product, but they had a good attitude and definitely understood why we wanted to make the changes we had asked for - and were interested in helping us get what we wanted.

Photos & notes from a visit to the Shenzhen electronics malls

Added on by Spencer Wright.

When Zach and I were in the Pearl River Delta for The Public Radio in late July, we took a few trips to the infamous Shenzhen electronics malls. A few notes:

  • This is an ecosystem. Calling them "malls" kind of misses the point. Western style malls are just the end of the supply chain; the Shenzhen electronics malls are almost a full supply chain unto themselves.
  • I don't know how many independent businesses actually work in these places, but it seems like it must be in the high four figures at least. Many of them (especially on the lower floors) don't seem to be any bigger than a chair and a tiny countertop; others are weird outposts owned (apparently) by major international brands.
  • Everywhere in the malls, work is being done. I can't stress this enough - people are doing real, tangible work. This is perhaps the most striking part about them, and it contrasts directly with what we're used to in the US (where teenagers at Abercrombies mostly sit around, stock shelves, and run credit cards). You don't even have to look that hard - at the mobile phone mall on the south side of Shennan Middle Road, there are people at almost every shop who are literally putting phones together in plain view. Similarly, at Huaqiangbei you can see people (for instance) making wire assemblies at their tiny counters. The fact that you're buying services is totally apparent here.
  • *Nobody* was phased by our presence. There were very few white people in sight (especially on the upper floors, and at more obscure malls), but (aside from small children) nobody really cared that we were there at all.

As a final note, a rather remarkable thing happened since we returned from China. My old MacBook Pro had a hardware failure, and the problem appeared to be the hard drive cable (apparently they tend to go bad on my particular model). I ordered a new one on Amazon, and when a week went by (I hadn't really looked at the shipping time estimate), I checked to see its status. Well it turns out that the cable was sent to me directly from Shenzhen. I have no way of knowing, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if it came from one of these malls.

Photos from on the street in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Dongguan

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last week, while in the Pearl River Delta on a sourcing trip for The Public Radio, Zach and I spent a bunch of time on foot exploring. These are fairly random, and do NOT cover our time spent visiting manufacturers in the area - those will come soon :)

(If you click on a photo and then hover over it, you'll see my notes!)

Thanks *so* much to Dragon Innovation, who helped us plan & manage our trip - and to my friend Dan Hui, who was an excellent tour guide in Hong Kong & point of reference for our whole trip.

A few thoughts sent from China

Added on by Spencer Wright.

After a week traveling in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Dongguan for The Public Radio, I wanted to post a few quick thoughts on China and other related stuff. There will be more to come (photos + detailed descriptions of the places we visited), but here are the things that struck me most prominently during the trip.

Reasons to pay attention to China

I feel like if you need reasons to pay attention then you're already lost. Nonetheless:

  1. I like China a *lot.* The places we visited ranged from visually striking (mostly in their scale & the obvious rate of change that they're going through) to absolutely beautiful; the people we visited and talked to expressed more raw enthusiasm and interest than almost anyone I know; and the culture is just fucking *cool.* I really enjoy being here, and can't wait to explore the vast expanse of geography and culture that I've so far had only fleeting exposure to.
  2. Even if you don't *enjoy* it as I do, I don't understand how anyone can be *disinterested* in China. It's an absolutely fascinating place, and is historically unique in that it has highly mature cultural systems (which are significantly older and more well documented than anything in Europe, for instance), *and* is at the same time navigating a totally unprecedented period of both cultural and technological development and turnover. Add to that the pure drama of the past century or two of Chinese history (I'm shocked that so many Westerners lack even a baseline understanding of, for instance, the Cultural Revolution), and you have what I believe to be the most compelling and spectacular narrative of our time. Even if you don't *like* it, I'd be shocked if every single person who reads this can't find a wealth of fascinating storylines to dive into here.
  3. IT'S BLOWING UP. This country is doing totally mind blowing things right now, and there's little doubt in my mind that the 21st century will see its total dominance of so many of the things (global economic systems; technological prowess; cultural influence) that the West has controlled so well over the past few hundred years. To not make a good faith effort to gain at least a basic understanding of Chinese history, culture, and growth would be to do a complete disservice to one's own future. It offends and saddens me to see my contemporaries doing just that.

A few observations about Chinese culture

  • I've remarked on this before (in particular after visiting Taiwan), but the way that today's Chinese cities (to be specific, as I've visited only a few: Shanghai, Suzhuo, Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Hong Kong) integrate the many modes of life is both impressive and heartwarming to me. In the US, we vilified Robert Moses while never really heeding Jane Jacobs' ideas: our cities still separate commercial from residential spaces, and real manufacturing & logistics is rarely to be seen. But in my experience in China, these three aspects of human activity often exist in close proximity. Moreover, they're often done *as a family;* in the small manufacturing shops we saw in Shenzhen and Dongguan, it was evident that child care is no more complicated than... having your kids hang out while you work. It's possible that I'm a rare case, but this is very appealing to me.
  • I'll write a longer thing about this sometime, but "distributed manufacturing" totally exists here - and it has *nothing* to do with 3D printing. Anyone who talks about how 3D printing is making it so that "regular" people can make stuff (a popular line in both the American press and VC communities) is full of shit, and the reality is that they probably don't understand even the most basic realities of what "manufacturing" looks like.
  • It continues to surprise me how shocked Chinese people are when I have anything more than a passing interest in their culture, language, and customs. Admittedly, it's fair to say that in these things I'm an outlier among my contemporaries; still, the totality of my efforts amount to little more than being comfortable using chopsticks, being open to weird and/or spicy food, and being able to say "I cannot speak the Chinese language" in Mandarin. Meanwhile, most of the Chinese people I meet are often totally fluent in English, eat McDonalds and KFC, have at least some awareness of American culture, and own clothes and accessories made by (or at least copied from) trendy Western brands. I talked to my friend Dan Hui about this, and he pointed out that many Chinese people assume that learning about Chinese culture is as difficult in the US as learning about American culture is in China. Moreover, many of the people who I've come into contact with here are business contacts, and the stereotype of an American businessman isn't exactly someone who goes out of their way to eat random street food. Nonetheless, I continue to encounter people here who are cultured, outgoing, and genuinely interested - and their default assumption is that I am none of those.
  • Everywhere I go in China, I'm struck with a willingness to accept short term discomfort with the promise of long term, lasting growth. This is something that the US (and Europe, for that matter) is really, really shitty about. A jackhammer in the morning; a closed sidewalk; ongoing construction on the BQE - all of these things are treated as unjust intrusions into civilized life. Never mind the NIMBYism that prevents the kind of municipal and regional scale infrastructure improvements going on in China today - in the US, those sorts of things went on a path parallel to Robert Moses' reputation. I'll admit, of course, that the tradeoffs between growth and stability are difficult to navigate. But it's truly inspiring to see a collective effort across Chinese society to *get the next hundred years right,* and I can't help but feel that Western conservatism isn't helping us compete.

General purpose travel notes

  • I bring a handkerchief or bandana everywhere I go. Napkins aren't really a thing, and it's nice to have something to wipe off with.
  • I don't know about you, but drinking outdoors, in public - especially in a subtropical climate - is one of my favorite things. Neither mainland China nor Taiwan have open container laws, and I take great pleasure at stopping in at a 7-Eleven or street stall and cracking open a Tsingtao as I explore a neighborhood on foot. The shocking thing is that nobody else - local or tourist - seems to be doing the same thing. Their loss.
  • WeChat is a really, really great app. I think it'd be great if more people in the US used it.
  • Most of the upscale (ish) hotels we stayed at had "gratuities" sections on their bills, but in general tipping is not a thing here. Which is fucking great, and I can't understand why the US won't follow suit.

Thanks *so* much to Dragon Innovation, who helped us plan & manage our trip - and to my friend Dan Hui, who was an excellent tour guide in Hong Kong & point of reference for our whole trip.

encounters in sinophobia

Added on by Spencer Wright.

"hey, well - china sleepy."

as a recently freelance guy who's looking for some extra cash and every-possible-way to network, i've been moonlighting (daylighting) as a bike mechanic. this is not exactly a career move for me, but it turns out that working on bikes is something i'm halfway decent at - and, moreover, that diagnosing customers' reported issues is something that i'm well suited to. and anyway i do need the cash.

despite myself, i enjoy working there. the clientele are high end and polite, and my coworkers are totally pleasant people. they're kind, thoughtful, and respectful of each other and myself; i would even go so far as to say that i like them. i bring value to the shop, and the shop brings me value too, and there's a mutual respect that's important to have in one's life.

in a lot of ways, though, i'm not exactly one of the dudes. the kinds of things that i'm most interested in - structured systems; means of production; frameworks from which to assess the world - don't always fit into the shop discourse. i'm a stickler for argumentative reasoning, and in my experience, bike mechanics tend towards a top-down distribution of knowledge. it's not an uncommon or surprising tendency, and is one that i think is pervasive - to much benefit - in many industries. manufacturers distribute specific guidelines for how parts should be installed, used and serviced, and individual users are instructed to follow those guidelines closely. it is not a system that rewards innovation. then again, neither is commercial airline navigation, and as Atul Gawande has documented so well, the track record of professions which implement and follow preplanned procedures usually have lower levels of failure.

i hesitate to say that i pick fights about, for instance, whether a torque wrench should be stored at its lowest setting regardless of the consequences. more likely, i suspect, is the exact opposite relationship. i consider the null hypothesis because of the consequences. not only does a rigorous examination of an argument or statement of fact ostensibly increase the likelihood of my making an accurate judgment, but it has a significant social effect as well - and not one that is exclusively positive. and while i can't accurately say that i enjoy being alone in insisting that a particular widely held opinion might be wrong, i also can't deny that i have tended to put myself in that position time and time again. what this says about me and my ultimate desire to be liked - or disliked, as the case may be - i can only surmise.

- - -

i can't say why i chose to take a class in contemporary Chinese film my first quarter at college, but i did, and my decision to do so is something i have returned to often since. it's not that i took the class itself particularly seriously, but i found the content to be highly compelling. i would go on to largely ignore China for he rest of my college career, but i always took an interest when anyone i met had been there or spoke Mandarin. my enthusiasm for the history of the group of civilizations comprising what we know of as China is largely unconstrained, a fact that i have made real (and somewhat pitiful) efforts to encourage in myself and those around me. when my sister spent a year in Beijing, i downloaded some Mandarin instruction tapes and made lame attempts to get through the first couple of lessons. when i worked with a Tibetan carpenter (and friend) for the better part of year, i pestered him to tell me about his life and travels, and encouraged him to bring in some Tibetan music. and to his credit, he did - and to the discredit of the shingling contractor i had hired, an awkward period ensued.

it's tough being a bike mechanic. wages are generally low. the work is dirty and requires both technical knowledge and (unlike many auto mechanic jobs) a significant amount of customer service. moreover (unlike most construction jobs), information turns over rapidly, and mechanics are expected to keep up with new technologies as they develop.

as a part time employee whose specific intent is to be just passing through while i figure out my career, these factors don't particularly bother me. besides, i've made my peace (after years of frustration and hurt) with the bicycle industry. at this point in my life, it's just a skill i have, and a way to support (part of) my lifestyle. it also serves as a place where i can test my ability to maintain a positive outlook and interact pleasantly with a wide variety of customers - not skills i have spent much time developing in the past few years.

and so, when a job i'm working on offers resistance to my efforts, i react mostly with bemusement. not surprisingly, i have opinions about the quality of the bikes i encounter, and much of the stock product that even the nicest shops (of which my employer is certainly one) carry falls below my personal standards. i find working on these bikes to be a particular pleasure, specifically because i would, generally, consider them unacceptable for my own use. for despite my (arbitrary and capricious) standards, most bikes are simply a pleasure to ride. this fact has been a revelation to me: i will, regularly, find myself genuinely enjoying the test-ride of a bike which, just minutes earlier, i had proclaimed to be "complete crap." to be totally fair, it is the case that i have a history of taking pride in accepting my own wrongness - a phenomenon that an astute critic might point out is equivalent to acting more right about my own mistakes, and hence more right generally, than even my most astute critics. regardless, i revel in my own ability to truly enjoy the bikes that i, from a technical standpoint, like the least.

and all of this, of course, is from the standpoint of the mechanic. from a consumer's perspective, the case is even more stark. crappy product is, often times, far and away the best option. if you disagree, i would be happy to up-sell your $800 Felt for a $10K American-made bike, but i can tell you with all honesty that the incremental return on investment will be infinitesimal.

it is my impression that these facts are highly troubling to most mechanics. anyone scraping by in NYC working for $15 an hour knows that there are a few billion people in the world that would kill for a fraction of that wage, and i think it's not lost on such Americans that their hold on such relatively high wages is precarious. sure, many of these people have delusions of grandeur as likely - or unlikely - as my own (it's not only i that am making a stop as a grease monkey on my way to a career). but i have put in my time defining myself as someone of the bike world, and after i was done, i put in my time defining myself as someone apart from it - and now i'm just a guy who can, if called upon to do so, build, diagnose and fix bikes. it's possible that some of my coworkers feel similarly of themselves, but i have seen no indication of that.

viz. their highly confused attitudes towards Chinese production. keep in mind, these are, from all appearances, totally kind and fair-hearted people. a few of them speak Spanish fluently and are fond of conversing with the delivery guys (who ride, almost without exception, bikes that are dirty, poorly maintained, and generally unpleasant to work on) in their native language. certainly, nobody would think of making derogatory comments about blacks, Native Americans, or homosexuals in the shop. and yet, when the issue of the poor quality of inexpensive stock bicycles come up, they find it acceptable to deride not the Western companies that sell and distribute the product, but its country of origin.

"china sleepy" is the most succinct manifestation of their sentiments. the phrase apparently is meant to reference the laziness, or perhaps exhaustion, of the individual Chinese worker who produced the item in question.

i had not heard the epithet until recently, and it reminded me of one i encountered on jobsites many years ago: afro-engineering. i can't say i'm a fan of either phrase.

it would be one thing if these kinds of slurs were simple racism, but they're not; they are pointed criticisms of the purported inability of a culture (or, more often, group of only marginally related cultures) to produce product of a particular quality. never mind that manufacturers like Foxconn build some of the most technologically advanced devices in the world. disregard similarly that the pyramids at Giza (located wholly in Africa) remain some of the most fantastic engineering feats in history, involving a peak workforce of perhaps 40,000 workers. these sentiments ignore all reason to the contrary: the other is incompetent. end of story.

drill down a little, and you'll find the speaker will shift from the individual worker to the planners of China's economic policy. and sure, the Chinese government pegged the yuan to the dollar for about a decade. but that relationship has, since 2005, changed, and the result (as documented by Edward Lazear in the Wall Street Journal) is interesting:

The dollar-yuan exchange rate did not change from 1995 to 2005, and during this period China's exports to the U.S. increased sixfold, or at a rate of about 19.6% per year. Then, from 2005 to 2008, the value of the yuan relative to the U.S. dollar appreciated by about 21%. China's currency was "stronger" and its exports in dollars were more expensive—so Chinese exports to the U.S. should have fallen. Instead, China's exports to the U.S. continued to grow at about the same pace, averaging 18.2% per year.

The only period during which exports from China to the U.S. fell to any significant extent was during the recent recession, dropping by about one-third from late 2008 to early 2010. The dollar-yuan exchange rate was unchanged throughout this entire period. The obvious explanation for the decline in Chinese exports to the U.S. was the decline in demand for consumption goods in general.

clearly, these are complicated issues; far be it for me to attempt to reach any meaningful conclusion, here or elsewhere. my policy is simple. if you don't understand it, be interested in it - not scared of it.

a few nights ago, i was riding through the East Village and decided to stop into Dumpling Man for a quick dinner. i normally prefer the grittier spots in Chinatown, but Dumpling Man was on my way and i wanted to double-check my initial impressions of it, which was that it was okay (they serve fucking dumplings, after all, and i love dumplings) but not great.

i ordered some seared pork dumplings (texturally interesting but not particularly flavorful) and some xiaolongbao (which were abysmal) and sat on the street. the chef appeared to be Han Chinese, but the manager (or anyway the man at the counter) was white, though he seemed to speak Mandarin fluently. about halfway through my meal, a couple of girls walked up and, after some hesitation, entered the small restaurant. i could hear them discussing options with the manager, who advised them on filling options and order quantity before breaking off the conversation to holler out the window to the chef, who was leaving. they yelled back and forth, laughing at each other - completely in Mandarin - for a minute or two, and the girls stood at the counter in amazement.

i don't know what they really thought, and it would be dishonest for me to speculate. moreover, it's not as if my position - the enlightened westerner, just here to experience all the cute foreign ways of other cultures - isn't problematic.

i went to Shanghai in 2011, for an expenses-paid work trip. i had wanted to travel to China for years, and the opportunity to do so - and to visit factories there, no less - was a gift. the trip was organized by, a website whose service is essentially linking buyers of manufactured goods with job shops capable of providing those goods. the buyer base is, as i understand it, largely Western, but it seemed to me that's real customer base is worldwide suppliers, and that the product that they sell those customers is access to the eyeballs of a Western clientele.

the trip was fairly busy, but i found plenty of downtime - not least because i never acclimated to the time difference during my five-day trip. and so i explored on foot, visiting a variety of what seemed to be normal Shanghainese neighborhoods. i walked down sleepy streets lined with old sycamore trees. i found little food courts and gestured at crisp sesame pancakes and greasy dumplings, and found myself in low-slung slums where public services were totally ad hoc and sheet metal was the primary construction material.

i was a bit astounded that my tripmates didn't act similarly, but try to this day to understand and appreciate their methods of approaching the culture. they were mostly confined to the hotel restaurant - a place i eschewed - and squirmed as we were served eel and turtle at dinner on the town. to be fair, many of these people had worldwide procurement experience that my small-time resume couldn't touch, and many of them were able to capitalize on the opportunities the trip provided in ways that i certainly didn't. nonetheless, i got the feeling that they viewed the country as an other place, where i tried to see it as just another one.

it wasn't until my last day there that the most significant reason for this difference occurred to me. the trip organizers had scheduled a van to take a few of us across the sprawling city to its airport, and i met up with my vanmates in the hotel's parking lot ten or fifteen minutes before our departure time. the hotel was new, modern, and nice. my room cost about $200 per night, but the equivalent in New York would likely have been double that. the neighborhood was clean and had plenty of amenities acceptable to both Western and Chinese visitors. and parked in the small driveway in front of the hotel was a shiny red Ferrari. the car likely had a sticker price in the $200K range, though who knows how much the import to China cost. it was a nice vehicle, but not one that struck me as particularly unique.

i spent my formative years in Southampton, New York - one of the most vibrant resort communities in the US. in the summer, Ferraris were almost ubiquitous, and one learned to recognize cars that were interesting, as opposed to just expensive. but my vanmates - who were by all appearances intelligent, informed, and even worldly people - didn't have such a sense. and so it was i who snapped the photos of a woman from Atlanta, leaning gingerly over the hood of an Italian supercar in a nice neighborhood in Shanghai. who else was going to do it?

the previous night, i had taken a subway, and then a bus, to a decidedly normal neighborhood in Pudong, Shanghai's rapidly developing expansion zone. my companion, a Shanghainese college student who had been hired as a translator for our trip, had somewhat awkwardly agreed/suggested (we were both being a bit coy) that it would be fun to take me to Pudong for my last afternoon in town. we were both exhausted, but i was enjoying my last few hours in the country, and as she went up to her parents' apartment (i wasn't allowed), i must have looked like some weird caricature of a tourist, far from his hotel but seemingly unbothered.

she took me to a greenmarket and helped me buy mangosteens. we walked past open air restaurants, ate noodles from a cart, and went to a supermarket, where i browsed wide-eyed and insisted on buying green tea oreos. and then we returned to her street, where she asked for my business card and i awkwardly (and perhaps inappropriately) hugged her. i was emotional. i liked her, and i deeply appreciated her willingness to befriend me despite the fact that i was, for all intents and purposes, just some Western businessman in China for a few days.

- - -

ultimately, my gripe with "china sleepy" is that i don't understand who it's meant to be a criticism of. the factory workers i encountered in Shanghai, Suzhou and the surrounding area certainly didn't seem sleepy. their bosses - enthusiastic business owners, desperate for Westerners to come in and justify the doubtlessly large investments they had made in their factories - weren't sleepy either. and the companies - Western, Chinese or otherwise - that contracted the factories we saw to make parts? they're getting ahead any way they can, just like the rest of us.

the last thing i want is to condone, wittingly or not, the mistreatment of workers. and i'm no more likely (my enthusiasm for cheapish bikes notwithstanding) to buy inferior product than the next guy; i surround myself with the same collection of silly knick-knacks that one would find on Kaufmann Mercantile and Canoe. but to denigrate the work ethic of more than a billion people, and to categorically label their collective output as "crap," seems to me an injustice of equal magnitude.

and ultimately, it's more productive - and more fun - to like, and to be genuinely interested in, China. a culture doesn't survive four millennia, and multiple fractures and reunifications, without developing at the least a compelling storyline or two. it behooves us to appreciate China for that, and it behooves me to appreciate its people for the kindness and generosity i experienced there - if not for the opportunity to ride an affordable bike around the block (after a little fiddling, of course) on a beautiful afternoon in june.

  1. i quit my job and relocated in early february.

  2. cf. The Checklist Manifesto, or, for a quicker read, his 2007 New Yorker excerpt from the same.

  3. you should totally know about the null hypothesis. from wikipedia: In statistical inference of observed data of a scientific experiment, the null hypothesis refers to a general default position: that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena, or that a potential medical treatment has no effect.

  4. n.b., "Chinese" isn't a language; you probably meant Mandarin. or Cantonese, or Shanghainese, or the five or so other linguistically distinct languages spoken in China.

  5. if is to be trusted, bike mechanics (a.k.a. "bike shop;" "bicycle shop") make $20-32K annually, and are subject to significant market volatility. my current wage, were i working full-time, would annualize at just over $30K; well below what MIT claims to be sufficient for one adult and one child in NYC. it's not exactly a position you build a family on.

  6. i was self employed, building custom bicycle frames, from 2008-2011. my business had some limited success, but my concept, as it were, never really blew up, and in the end i mothballed it. it was a painful, but in the end appropriate and informative, decision.

  7. as estimated by Craig B. Smith, mark Lehner et al and reported in a 1999 report of Civil Engineering.

  8. the Wall Street Journal, 2013.01.07: Chinese 'Currency Manipulation' Is Not The Problem. google cached copy downloaded 2013.06.06.

  9.'s representatives on the trip were rather cagey about their business model and the quid pro quo relationship that they seemed to have with the suppliers we visited in and around Shanghai. nevertheless, it was clear that someone was paying for the trip, and the two buses full of buyers - whose employers had only bought them plane tickets to Shanghai (the rest of the trip, from transportation and lodging to hotel buffets and dinners at classy Shanghainese restaurants, was paid by the organizers) - certainly weren't footing the bill, at least directly. moreover, at times i had the distinct feeling that i was being courted, and that the suppliers who were courting me had been promised something in return for whatever cost of entry that had stuck them with.

  10. the development of modern Pudong is legendary. in 1990, the area was low-lying and largely undeveloped; in 2010 it was home to some 5 million residents. i saw a small fraction of the city; its size is astounding. cf. this post, with pictures.

  11. read: she was a girl, maybe twenty years old, who came on the trip with us for no explicitly specified reason. i have no reason to think that anything even vaguely sexual transpired between her - or any of the other handful of similar girls who came along - and my Western counterparts, but the fact remains that the relationship between the two groups was somewhat troubling. i would like to think that i related to her on a genuine and friendly level - we became friends on facebook, and i received a postcard from her a few months after my trip - but in all honesty i can't say what her (or my own) intentions were. for what it's worth, it was genuinely interesting to gleam her reactions to the factories we visited; she provided a perspective i could not have seen otherwise. she also humored my pronunciation questions quite charmingly, and, as described further here, invited me into her neighborhood and showed me a totally compelling view of her city.