Just across the border from Hong Kong is Shenzhen, the richest city in mainland China and the world capital of electronics manufacturing. Here an entire district is dedicated to buying and selling everything from the devices we all use to the individual components that go into them. Called Huaqiangbei, the district is a bustling market where representatives from Shenzhen manufacturers and distributors occupy trading floors with a total area in the millions of square metres, spread across dozens of high-rise buildings. Merchants work out of cubicle-like units, arranged organically and piled high with samples of the products they make or carry, often leaving little room for themselves. The paths between units act as shipping and receiving areas, littered with packaging by the end of each day. The atmosphere is like that of a nineteenth century stock exchange combined with a cyberpunk vision of the future: cigarette smoke and petrochemical fumes, faces expressing a spectrum of human emotions and the cool glow of artificial light from product displays in the windowless environment. It is a place that has been built quickly out of necessity and is not particularly comfortable for anyone – a microcosm of urban China as a whole.
Everyone has a connection to Huaqiangbei through the Shenzhen-made products that are unavoidable in the modern world, yet few in Europe and North America – the primary recipients of Shenzhen’s industrial output – have ever heard of the city, let alone Huaqiangbei. With these images I have set out to reveal the human landscape behind the exports. A reflection of China’s embrace of global demands, Huaqiangbei is a chaotic, overwhelming and perhaps distressing display that needs to be seen.