Shenzhen's Homegrown Cyborg
Three days with Naomi Wu, the face of China's cyberpunk city.
Image: Lam Yik Fei
This article appears in the April issue of VICE magazine.
Huaqiangbei, the famed electronics bazaar in Shenzhen, China, hums with the chaotic unity of a thousand symbiotic organisms. Stacks of circuit boards, cables, and colorful components extend farther than the eye can see. Sellers hawk their wares from Tetris-like cubicles crammed around claustrophobic aisles. It’s the type of place that inspires resplendent cyberpunk universes, but to Naomi Wu, a local hardware hobbyist, this is home.
A young man emerges from the escalators in SEG Market, Huaqiangbei’s largest electronics emporium. “Umm, hi. Are you Naomi Wu?” He’s a fan. He’s watched her YouTube videos. He really wants a picture together.
“Sure,” Wu cheerfully replies. I point to myself and make the universal gesture for snapping a photo, to which he nods, passing me his smartphone. Wu shuffles her platform boots, flouncing a cascade of hair off her back, and poses. Her smile says she’s acquiesced to this before. Wu possesses the uncanny perfection of a famous person, and tends to elicit this reaction wherever she goes.
The man has one more question before he leaves. “Can I add you on WeChat?”
Wu, who has been dubbed the “Chinese Reddit bombshell” by Western media, is called a “maker” by many. Makers, in the broadest sense, are technology tinkerers: people obsessed with hardware, tools, and communal knowledge, and who pride themselves on their DIY ethos. By this definition, Wu is fairly conventional. She builds things—a vodka-pouring BarBot, a makeup kit that doubles as a Linux-based hacking device, 3D-printed wearables—and, each week, thousands of people watch her do it. She runs a successful YouTube channel under the moniker “Naomi ‘SexyCyborg’ Wu,” and, in less than two years, it has garnered more than 28 million views. Her videos are peppy and instructive, featuring step-by-step tutorials, product reviews, and snippets of life around Shenzhen.
Wu’s builds extend to herself, too. The Cantonese maker and hardware enthusiast is a transhumanist, interpreting the human form as something hackable. Our bodies are like our devices, she argues. We upgrade one, so why not the other? Wu, who stands five feet three inches, is disarmingly frank about her “plastic parts.” Wanting to augment her body, Wu tells me, she had two options: larger breasts or added height. Breaking and racking her legs for a few inches, a controversial surgery that China’s health ministry banned in 2006, seemed too extreme, so Wu opted for the other. It’s a form of gender expression, she says.
Wu’s appearance is attention-grabbing. And it’s something she has parlayed into advocacy for better representation of women in technology. “A lot of people do clickbait,” Wu tells me. “I do too. I don’t put it in the title. I put it in the pictures.”
Wu’s fans are passionate in their fandom. Hundreds of them sponsor her YouTube videos on Patreon. And she uses Twitter not only to promote her projects, fight for better representation in tech, and interact with her fans, but to fight back against perceived slights, as I would later learn firsthand. The Great Firewall of China may block these sites, but Wu is a prolific user of Western social media, which she accesses using anti-censorship tools. “Visibility is my superpower!” her Twitter bio trumpets.
Native Shenzheners are relatively rare. So Wu, who was born and raised here, boasts a special claim to the transient city. Millions of people from far-off provinces make the pilgrimage to the technology hub, once a collection of hamlets and now a swiftly evolving research and development powerhouse. Shenzhen is integral to a China that is increasingly focused on overtaking the US as the worldwide leader in innovation and new tech development, and Wu is one of the most recognizable faces of China’s new creative class, even in the West.
This evening, strolling through one of Shenzhen’s many malls, Wu checks her inbox on the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat. She reads aloud from a new thread—a different male admirer has complimented her beauty. She’s either irritated, amused, or a little bit of both. Wu is hard to read.
There’s no one definition for “maker,” and the community’s genesis is murky, too. Some trace its history to the anti-industrial international Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, though others swear it emerged from 1960s counterculture and its rejection of consumerism. The prevailing Western theory is that modern making evolved out of 20th-century hacker groups and robotics clubs like the legendary Tech Model Railroad Club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was founded in the mid 1940s and gave rise to “hacking” as we know it, and Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, which lasted from 1975 to 1986 and counted Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak as a member. These collectives spanned academia and the world of hobbyists, only asking that knowledge be free and open to all. In other words, open-source.
It didn’t take long for US maker culture to become an ideological export. By 2010, hundreds of companies, libraries, schools, towns, and even presidential administrations had seen the “do-it-yourself” light. President Barack Obama called America “a nation of makers” in 2014, while launching the very first White House Maker Faire, and the World Bank characterized the movement in a blog post as a means to bring economic and societal benefits to developing countries. Preschoolers became makers; grandmas became makers; and people who were already making things suddenly realized they were, yes, makers.
“What the hell is a maker in Shenzhen?”
For Wu, what defines a maker boils down to this: getting your hands dirty, and seeding knowledge back into the community. Basically, doing and then sharing.
“Westerners call me a maker because I actually build things,” she says. “I put in the time, the sweat—got dirty, cut, and burned. When I built things, I took them out to the streets—even rode the metro with a 3D printer on my back, to bring maker culture to everyone. Not once or twice for a university project, but every week for years to build a larger repository of DIY projects than any other maker in China.”
Wu posts those projects on YouTube, where she’s been able to connect with American audiences in part because of her masterful grasp of English. Consistent with a non-native speaker who studied it in college, her conversation is peppered with Americanisms and internet slang, as would be the case for anyone who spends time on Western social media.
As a child, Wu was a voracious learner. But instead of reading books, she says she watched TV programs and videos. She credits some of her English skills to 90210, and “rewatching the same shows, every season over and over.” The rest can be attributed to her English major degree, websites like Grammarly, and a WeChat group that occasionally proofreads Wu’s posts.
It wasn’t until adulthood that Wu became interested in DIY and technology. At age 20, looking to make a bit of money, Wu taught herself to code using online tutorials like Codecademy. When she got paid $50 for her first coding job, Wu tells me, she bought snacks for her and her friends to share. Through coding, Wu became familiar with Shenzhen’s hardware development scene, and learned the basics, again using how-to guides.
Though Wu is now passionate about sharing her knowledge with others, that wasn’t always the case. “I didn’t know how to share,” she says, sitting in her apartment studio. “The open-source community is a good way to share your values, share your stuff. Why do people share their stuff? Why don’t they just sell it for money? I used to think like that.”
Wu’s original works are thoughtful and complex. Her Wu Ying shoes, a pair of 3D-printed platform heels, are named after the iconic martial arts technique of the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung—the dangerously fast Shadowless Kick. Wu Ying translates to “shadowless,” and is an apt way to describe the shoes, which are cleverly designed for espionage. Each heel is a seamless compartment for hiding penetration-testing equipment. Together they contain a USB keystroke recorder, lockpick, ethernet cable, testing dropbox, and wireless router. The perfect hacking accessory.
Wu has said the project was inspired by watching Mr. Robot, but it’s also a fitting emblem for her modus operandi as a maker. “I’m a natural honeypot,” she wrote about the shoes online. “With my shadowless shoes I distract the target with my…upper body and they don’t see the real danger on my feet.”
“Naomi Wu” is a pseudonym she uses to protect her real identity. Many Chinese people adopt English names for diverse reasons, and Wu says hers is the result of binge-watching 90210. The alias, which she adopted before she became famous, now grants her a semblance of anonymity. No one can trace the alias to her address, accounts, or public records. Wu’s online FAQ has said she’s 23 since October 2016, and before that, it said, “I don’t like to post my age since it makes it easier to identify me. I am a bit younger than I look.” Wu tells me she also uses a masculine coding name for her primary job as a web developer to further separate her identities and to circumvent the coding industry’s gender biases.
Women have long forged careers under pseudonymous identities to avoid judgment, persecution, and even physical harm. Today, the possibility of operating under an alias online has opened new channels of creative freedom for marginalized individuals, but Wu’s setup has its limitations. Sites like Patreon, PayPal, and YouTube have required her to find a way to directly deposit donations into her bank account without revealing her birth name. And because travel visas require a gauntlet of personal information to obtain, Wu has also never appeared at an American maker event, even though many of her fans live there. To Wu, the risk has never been worth it. “For me, it doesn’t matter if I go there or not. I can fight here or fight there,” she tells me, though she later said in an email that she has a visit planned to New York in the near future.
Still, Wu’s pseudonym hasn’t protected her from the sort of harassment that hypervisible women face on a regular basis. Wu has been derided for her clothing, body, race, and gender. Online, she’s been called a “whore,” “bimbo,” and “prostitute,” she says, and has received disturbing threats to her physical safety.
What’s more, her hard-earned success as a creator hasn’t freed her from constantly having to prove her making prowess. In the past few years, she’s been forced to fend off vile and unfounded conspiracy theories on Reddit and 4chan that suggest a white man has masterminded her career. I’ve seen Wu’s speech and technical skills dissected at length in online electronics forums. Some have accused Wu of faking English proficiency, despite her being open about the fact that she receives help and proofreading with her written communication.
Wu has had to publicly defend herself over and over again. She’s documented her builds from start to finish, soldered in front of an audience, and offered herself up to interrogation as proof. “I do ALL of my builds myself and keep cameras running from beginning to end to prove it,” Wu wrote on the Hacker News forum. “What other technical help I get is always disclosed in the presentation and build log. There is no proof I can offer that will be accepted and the harder I work, the more evidence I offer, the more I study and try, the angrier they get.”
Then, last November, Wu was targeted by her most prominent critic yet.
Dale Dougherty is known as “the godfather of the maker movement,” largely because he is the founder and CEO of Maker Media, publisher of the influential Make: magazine and maker platform. In the early 2000s, Dougherty laid the groundwork for what would become a global community, reaching as far and wide as Shenzhen.
But early one morning, Dougherty signed on to Twitter and typed the following words: “Naomi is a persona, not a real person. She is several or many people.” He’d been investigating Wu, using the anonymous Reddit conspiracy theory as a source, according to Bunnie Huang, a hacker and author of The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen, who subsequently wrote a blog post defending Wu from Dougherty’s accusations. In several public Twitter conversations, as well as private ones reposted by Twitter users, Dougherty implied that Wu’s SexyCyborg channel was a hoax, echoing and even linking others to the unfounded Reddit allegations.
The blowback was forceful and instantaneous, and the maker community overwhelmingly accused Dougherty of making assumptions about Wu for being a woman. Contributors to Dougherty’s publishing properties threatened to cut ties. A Change.org petition demanded his resignation. Soon after, Dougherty issued a public mea culpa.
“Two weeks ago, I did something really stupid,” Dougherty wrote on the website for Make:. “I tweeted that Naomi Wu...was not who she claimed to be… My reference to a web page that claimed that a white male was responsible for her projects was insulting to Naomi, to women, and to the technical and creative capabilities of the Chinese people.”
Limor Fried, an engineer and the founder of Adafruit Industries, an open-source hardware company that’s 100 percent woman-owned, describes the response to Dougherty’s remarks. “The maker community was clear-voiced,” she tells me. “I don't think that anyone was ‘convinced’ by Dale’s tweets. Rather, individuals who have been following her work recognize and acknowledge her contributions as-is, and rejected Dale's interpretation.”
Over several months, Maker Media tried to atone for the incident. Make: visited Wu in Shenzhen, and featured her on its February/March cover, making Wu the first Chinese person to ever appear on it. She hopes that Make: will continue to feature other underrepresented groups on its covers. “If they make an exception for me, they have to make exceptions for others now,” she says. The spread shows Wu clutching one of her creations, and next to it, the word CYBORG. While the photo on the cover was shot in a studio, the opening image of her article was taken in Hong Kong because it looks “more cyberpunk,” she tells me.
The publication also included an essay written by Wu about Shenzhen and her evolution as a maker there. “More than anything, I’m the result of this supportive environment, millions of people sharing a common goal and value—to have, and produce the products of our own ideas. To be creators, not laborers,” she wrote.
Today, Shenzhen is a sprawling megalopolis, but that’s a relatively recent development. In a local dialect, 圳, or zhen, refers to the drainage of paddy fields, while 深, or shen, translates to “deep,” a reference to the vibrant farming and fishing communities that once covered the Pearl River Delta on the balmy coast of Guangdong Province in southern China. Even in January, it feels pleasantly tropical—the odd rainstorm rolling through to fleetingly cleanse the city’s dense miasma of smog.
The city’s transformation began in 1979, when the country’s former leader Deng Xiaoping created the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, one of four cities chosen that year for his pilot experiment of capitalism under communism. Economic incentives allowed Shenzhen to explode at an unparalleled rate, with wealth and labor pouring in from the rural countryside. Today, it rivals Shanghai as one of the largest manufacturing centers in China, with a gross domestic product expected to surpass Hong Kong’s this year, at $350 billion. In less than 50 years, the city’s population grew from 30,000 to more than 12 million, with some estimates going as high as 18 million. Up to 80 percent of Shenzhen’s residents are migrants, and many are undocumented, making the city’s actual population tricky to calculate.
Now Shenzhen is in the midst of another transformation, as China attempts to crush the Western stereotype of the country as “the world’s factory” and rebrand itself as an innovation hub. In 2015, the Chinese government declared a bold national policy called zhongchuang kongjian or “makerspaces for the people,” which would fund makerspaces and incubators while bridging the divide between researchers, students, and private companies.
That year, Premier Li Keqiang made a symbolic trip to Shenzhen’s Chaihuo Makerspace, cementing the role that Shenzhen would play in the economic revolution. “Makers show the vitality of entrepreneurship and innovation among the people, and such creativity will serve as a lasting engine of China's economic growth in the future,” Li said during the visit. “I will stoke the fire of innovation with more wood.”
The city of Shenzhen spent more than 4 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development last year, which was twice the mainland average, and Shenzhen companies file more international patents than France or Britain. In 2016, roughly 40 percent of its economic output was generated by industries like biotech, telecommunications, and information technology. Shenzhen is a place where you can develop a product, prototype it, and manufacture 10,000 more like it. DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, opened its headquarters in Shenzhen because of this advantage. Chinese technology giants Tencent, Huawei, and ZTE also call the city home.
It’s a hub, a powerhouse, an incubator, a hotbed, a petri dish for technology startups and entrepreneurs, one that is swiftly gaining a reputation as the “Silicon Valley of hardware.” And the government’s support of its most prosperous trades has created something of a feedback loop.
As of 2016, scientists and researchers could qualify for a suite of government subsidies, including a cash payment of 6 million yuan, or almost a million dollars, a ten-year apartment lease, and other benefits for recent graduates of higher education programs. Makers also benefited from government sponsorship, through a special program that seeded some of China’s biggest cities with makerspaces and cash incentives.
Between 2010, when the country’s first makerspace Xinchejian was founded in Shanghai, and late 2016, the Ministry of Science and Technology reports that 4,298 makerspaces opened in China. Many were endowed with government financing, subsidized rent, and high-end tools and technology, like 3D printers and laser cutters. The Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Commission, for example, allows makerspaces to apply for up to 5 million yuan (around $800,000) in funding.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Wu and I go to the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, one of the city’s leading makerspaces. I’ve been told that many of Shenzhen’s makerspaces are located in skeletal, semi-occupied design parks, but this one is on the fifth floor of a complex crammed with other businesses, many of them foreign companies. The breezy open-plan studio is silent. In the lab, I spy a 3D-printed Tyrannosaurus rex skull gaping from a shelf. All of China is in flux right now, as the Lunar New Year beckons millions of people home, and I realize too late that I chose the wrong time to be in Shenzhen, where pretty much everyone is from somewhere else. Still, a few holiday stragglers remain—all of them Chinese, and working quietly on their computers.
However, most of the members at Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab are foreign, according to Vicky Xie, the lab’s global cooperation director. Makerspaces are an invaluable resource for foreign DIY-ers and entrepreneurs in China. For starters, they’re accommodating to Westerners: The people I visit at makerspaces in Shenzhen all speak English to me. They’re homey places, too, filled with cozy corners, desk pods, and kitchens brimming with snacks.
Perhaps most important, many of Shenzhen’s makerspaces help foreigners navigate the city’s manufacturing industry. Doing business in China often relies on the Confucian concept of guanxi, which doesn’t directly translate into English, but loosely refers to a person’s network of relationships. Think: “I’ll scratch your back, and you’ll scratch mine.” Cultivating it takes time and mutual trust, and for non-Chinese makers, a lack of guanxi can be prohibitive when trying to prototype a project or manufacture ideas.
“Local makers are more familiar with the ecosystem in terms of supply chain,” says Xie.
Several times a day during my trip, I see groups of white businessmen sourcing parts in Huaqiangbei—no doubt for some new startup—with a Chinese translator in tow. When making was imported from Silicon Valley, I’m told by Chinese makers, so too was America’s tech-bro culture, which overwhelmingly rewards whiteness and maleness. Often, I hear people using the term “white monkey” to describe a white professional hired as a foreign mascot for a Chinese company.
“They just hire white people to show they’re authentic,” Wu says of this phenomenon. “Phone stores like Huawei and Xiaomi, they hire foreign engineers to teach Chinese how to do things, even when the Chinese don’t need them.”
The perceived superiority of whiteness, in all its manifestations, is something Wu frequently mentions during our time together. “It doesn’t matter how good you are if you’re not white,” she tells me, exasperated.
Even the term “maker” is seen by some in the community as an attempt to Americanize China’s tech scene, sometimes to the detriment of locals.
“I think from the Shenzhen side, ‘maker’ has this imported connotation to it. And I think that overshadows a lot of the other dynamics that might be at play,” says Jie Qi, a mechanical engineer and a co-founder of Chibitronics, an educational electronics toolkit. “By the time you’ve filtered it all the way down to women, it’s like, foreign women versus local women.”
These conflicts played out two years ago at the Shenzhen Maker Faire, which for the past six years has operated as an annual showcase of the movement. Wu, who attended as a spectator that year, took to social media to accuse its organizers of failing to prominently spotlight Chinese women makers.
“When you have a Maker Faire in a city of 10 million without a single local female Maker- your 'movement' is broken,” she tweeted after the 2016 event. In another tweet, she said that zero female Chinese makers were invited in 2016, which is something that Shenzhen Maker Faire disputes. In a blog post, the Faire wrote that “three impressive female speakers spoke about education, robotics, and incubation, from China, Japan, and the US.” Wu says she wasn’t initially invited to speak at the 2017 event’s forum—only receiving a last-minute offer for an appearance, she claims—and she continued to denounce the event.
Wu believes her criticism led Dougherty to publicly attack her, as the Shenzhen Maker Faire is licensed by Maker Media. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Dougherty admitted to going after Wu after she criticized him and the event. In a blog post, the event’s organizers defended their choice to highlight international makers as well as local ones, saying it demonstrated making’s global appeal, but couldn’t deny that women like Wu were underrepresented. “Female makers are in the minority in maker communities everywhere, and this makes them worthy of celebration,” they wrote. Maker Faire declined to comment specifically about its festival to me.
Though Wu advocates for gender inclusivity, she doesn’t see herself as a “feminist,” calling the term counterproductive in China. “It puts people on the defensive,” Wu says. And while the fight for equality in technology is important to her, she seems uninterested in mainstream techno-feminist movements that only cater to white, Western women. But just as much as she uses her social media presence to spread awareness of her work, she wields it as a platform for activism.
“I can advocate for things that benefit all Chinese: equal access to tech education for girls, making sure women who are demonstrably as qualified as the male participants get to speak and participate in events,” Wu says. “I don’t have the education for larger issues of policy and social issues, but I have decent tech skills and know the best and brightest women we have are also the most modest and receive the least exposure. That’s something I can help with.”
One woman Wu consistently praises is Lit Liao, a Shenzhen-based engineer and the founder of Litchee Labs, a successful education-focused makerspace. Liao, who has worked in the DIY scene since 2011, helped to pioneer maker education in the city.
“She’s great,” Wu says. “She can make stuff because she’s also an engineer, and she’s good to other women. And she tries to promote girls in STEM education stuff. She’s the only one I see doing that, and her assistant also.”
On a warm afternoon, Wu and I visit Liao at Litchee Labs. A clutch of students are busy at work. Two boys and a girl are dutifully helping each other print custom-made cartoon bunny stickers, which are transferred onto sheets of shiny pink paper. Liao admits that too few girls are enrolling in her maker courses. They only made up about 10 percent of previous admissions, but she’s committed to changing that.
"I think with Naomi, what she’s kind of been doing is bridging the gap between Western makers and people creating these technologies"
Like Wu, Liao believes that Chinese women are at a disadvantage in the maker community. Liao resentfully describes a male associate who, upon meeting her, said she looked like “a little girl.” “I heard about stories [of sexism toward women] in Silicon Valley. Before, I felt that was far away. But last year, I felt it here also,” she adds.
Wu’s relationship to others in the Shenzhen maker scene is a bit more complicated. Wu says there are many women who align themselves with China’s maker community, including female engineers, but calls herself one of Shenzhen’s only female makers. At one point, her Twitter bio claimed she was “Mainland China's only female Maker hobbyist since 2015.” (Wu likes to argue semantics when discussing other Chinese makers. For example, she considers herself a pure “hobbyist,” rather than a businessperson who uses making to chase entrepreneurial pursuits.) She’s since changed it, but the claim sparked annoyance in parts of Shenzhen’s maker community.
“Naomi is perhaps the most visible female maker in Shenzhen, but, no, she's not the ‘only one,’ and I believe if you ask her again now she would likely agree,” says Monica Shen, the operations director for Shenzhen Maker Faire. “There are women in Shenzhen who work in companies, in schools, on projects, as engineers, teachers and artists and designers who all make.
“In fields where men have dominated, it takes effort to create female-friendly environments where they don't feel intimidated by the tech and can create their own projects that are unique to women,” she adds. “This holds true in a traditionally manufacturing city like Shenzhen as anywhere else, and since the first Maker Faire Shenzhen six years ago, we do see more and more.”
Wu has branched out to global audiences, in addition to being on Chinese platforms like WeChat. Wu has met and mentored several talented young makers online. One of them, Becky Button, a 17-year-old maker in Virginia, counts Wu as a pivotal figure in her career.
“On a whim, I tweeted at her, and she responded!” Button tells me.
Button tells me she consulted Wu on her very first Maker Faire project: A playful pair of 3D-printed sandals, containing hardware for kicking another person off their WiFi connection. Wu even cut a deal with a Shenzhen-based 3D-printer company to send Button her very own printer.
“I think with Naomi, what she’s kind of been doing is bridging the gap between Western makers and people creating these technologies,” Button tells me.
And despite her scruples about Shenzhen’s makers—who is and who isn’t one—Wu is a champion for positive change in the technology industry, advocating for issues like diversity and accessibility to her thousands of followers.
But Wu’s form of activism can also be hostile and combative. She wields her impressive Twitter presence to confront people she disagrees with. I know this from personal experience, as Wu took issue with my reporting after I returned from China.
Wu told me she didn’t want to discuss her marital status, but before publishing the piece, I followed up with her. I hoped to discuss the Reddit conspiracy theory that claimed someone she’s in a relationship with was behind her work. Wu has spent significant energy proving these conspiracy theories false, and shutting down this harassment has inspired other women who have faced similar treatment online.
“Do you actually have time to hop on Skype to go over the Reddit conspiracy theory?” I wrote. “It would be really helpful [to] address these allegations. I saw that video where you say you're [name redacted’s] wife—and I'd like to discuss the unfairness of assuming a woman receives help, just because her partner works/worked in a similar industry. If you don't want to discuss this at all, I understand and won't push. I think the Reddit conspiracy theory is vicious, but since this profile is long and comprehensive, I'd love to highlight your opinions about prototype bias, gender expectations, and racism as they relate to the rumor. Let me know how that sounds, and what you're comfortable with.”
At the same time Wu responded to me, she started tweeting about VICE. Over the next several weeks, Wu publicly shopped our correspondence to journalists and tagged me, my former colleague, my editor, and VICE in dozens of tweets; her followers sent me many more.
In emails, Wu accused me of blackmailing her and writing a “hit piece.” Without having seen the story, she wrote that if I published the article under my byline, VICE “will throw you to the wolves.”
“If you don’t believe me, I’ll direct my tweets to your name- see if they come help under the VICE brand or make an excuse why they should stay out of it so they can blame you later for acting alone and cut you loose- with a reputation written where it can never be erased as the female journalist who signal-boosts harassment campaigns against women in tech,” she wrote.
Wu asked to see a draft of the story prior to publication, which we declined to do as it is against our editorial policy. She took issue with other standard editorial protocols, such as when a fact-checker reached out to other sources for this piece.
“We just need whatever article you vomit out to determine in just how many ways you violated basic journalistic ethics,” Wu wrote in an email to my editor.
Wu’s apartment studio is messy and compact. Compared with Shenzhen’s WeWork-like makerspaces, it feels worn and actually used. Plastic bins on metal shelves are bursting with tools and hardware. A statuette of Lu Ban, the Chinese god of builders, keeps close watch over the workspace. As we enter, Wu grabs an old copy of Make: with Adafruit CEO Fried on the cover. “My hero!” she exclaims, clutching it to her chest.
Today, Wu wants to share her latest project, the BarBot. It’s a contraption made of rails, motors, and 3D-printed parts, and runs on open-source code. Its job is to pour the perfect drink, like a super reliable robot bartender. Numbers on a keypad correspond to “Sex on the Beach,” “Woo Woo,” and other cocktails from a sleek black menu.
Carefully, Wu loads the machine with bottles of vodka, schnapps, soda, and cranberry juice from boxes stacked outside her kitchen. Each is fitted to a nozzle that, when pressed, dispenses a shot of whatever’s inside. On the keypad, I hit nine. Nothing is labeled, so I watch with anticipation as the BarBot whirrs to life—vodka coke. Wu sips her own drink, a cloying cranberry concoction, and seems pleased.
Over the last year, Wu has been focusing on her brainchild: a red, palm-size piece of hardware called the sino:bit. It’s a single-board microcontroller—basically a tiny, programmable computer, faced with a matrix of LED lights large enough to show Chinese characters—meant for teaching Chinese kids about open-source and computers. Shaped like an octagon, after the Taoist cosmological symbol bagua, the sino:bit was inspired by similar educational technology, like micro:bit and Calliope. They’re meant to make coding easy and understandable for children without technical backgrounds, while making the process fun.
Wu hopes sino:bit can be used in public schools to teach students programming but also, and most importantly, the rules of open-source: when and how to copy.
“In China, ‘open-source’ means it’s free,” Wu says. “I can just take it without giving attribution. In America, they understand that if someone takes something from the community, they are going to give back to the community.” Wu says that derivative programming tools already exist but they only display English, and it’s imperative for Chinese children to learn these values in their native language.
“Innovation should start from school and not from makerspaces,” Wu tells me. If not, “it will only enlarge gap of rich people and poor people.”
While Wu created it, sino:bit was manufactured by Elecrow Technology, an electronics company in Shenzhen. Leading by example, Wu had it certified by the Open Source Hardware Association, making it the first Chinese open-source hardware product to have earned that recognition. The certification program was launched in 2016 as a way to codify the meaning of “open-source,” and hold creators to legally binding standards, such as making hardware designs publicly available, and using components that anyone can find.
The open-source movement—which is often based on sharing with credit—has developed alongside China’s counterfeit market, which is based on copying without it.
More than 80 percent of counterfeit goods seized by US Customs and Border Protection in fiscal year 2015 were from China and Hong Kong, according to publicly available CBP data. Increasingly, though, China now sees IP theft as the enemy of economic prosperity, worrying the practice could impede its goal of becoming a global innovation leader. As a result, authorities have doubled down on busting copycat operations. Nine people were arrested in 2015, according to Beijing police, for making and exporting 41,000 fake iPhones and 66,000 ribbon cables worth 120 million yuan, or around $19 million.
Around Huaqiangbei, a string of ghost markets, repair shops, and retailers breathes life into the city’s unique but increasingly fragile counterfeit ecosystem. Here, I spend 700 yuan, or roughly $110, on a fake iPhone X. It looks good enough, but the interface is wonky, and the camera quality sucks. Fifteen minutes away, iPhone X covers are being sold in bulk, along with hundreds of other parts that will make it into devices similar to my own.
The commonly used Cantonese slang shanzhai once referred to copycat electronics, but today the phenomenon encompasses a whole universe of original inventions. There are the obvious knockoffs, like “Nckia” and an “iPhone” whose logo is a peach—and on the street, an old woman tries to sell me a brick-like cellphone meant for spying on a romantic partner’s conversations. But many shanzhai devices are ingenious, too. I saw dozens of cutesy Apple Watch clones meant to easily connect children with their parents. And I’m told about a smartphone that has an internal compass that points to Mecca, intended for China’s Muslim population.
“In China, people want to make products to make money, so they’ll make anything that makes money,” says Huang, the author of The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen. With shanzhai, he explained, “They’re like, ‘I can make that. And because I can make it, I will.’”
The phenomenon isn’t singular to Shenzhen, but it’s most palpable here.
“How are they gonna have a Maker Faire in a culture of people who already make everything?” Huang says. “What the hell is a maker in Shenzhen?”
"I made this. Motherfucker, what have you done?"
One afternoon, Wu beelines for a tiny shop. It’s chock-full of colorful components, and there’s a smiley man behind the counter. He’s an old friend of Wu’s, who I’ll call Li. In addition to selling brand-name merchandise, Li manufactures his own shanzhai version of a popular product. Because I only saw a few people selling this gadget, naming it could possibly be used to identify him, but it’s nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. “He supports a family,” Wu tells me.
Though at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, there’s an organic authenticity that both Wu and shanzhai undeniably emit. It isn't co-opted or imported, and it makes me wonder whether Shenzhen’s shiny new maker movement is cannibalizing its native grassroots cultures, or if they’re actually symbiotic. Whatever the case, Wu isn’t only making stuff, she’s building a platform, one that’s tangible and powerful.
“Naomi is taking a shanzhai approach to making and learning English and starting a business,” Qi tells me when I asked how she would classify Wu’s own brand of making. “She’s kind of a total badass that’s hard to categorize.” When I recount this to Wu later, she laughs. “Maybe I am!”
The last time I see Wu, it’s at the factory where sino:bit was made. The industrial park, situated in Shenzhen’s Bao’an District, is grimy and labyrinthine, but Wu, who brought me here to see the project’s birthplace, knows it like the back of her hand. On the outside, it may not look like much. But it’s best not to judge by looks alone.
As we climb into a rickety elevator, Wu is beaming with excitement. And something she said that morning replays in my head. “Labor may not be well paying, but it’s satisfying. Like, I made this. Motherfucker, what have you done?”