Ever wonder what happens to your phone when it dies? It very well could end up back where it came from to be sold in this informal street market.
Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei area is the global ground zero for electronics. If you have any desire to design, fix, or manufacture anything that falls under the high-tech category, then this is the place to be. Its electronics markets are the best in the world; if you can’t get it here you can’t get it anywhere.
A few months ago I spent two weeks browsing through these markets, visiting factories, and interviewing people in all stages of electronics production. I was starting to feel as if I was getting to know the lay of the land a little, then early one morning around 5:30 I’m walking down Shennan Middle Road and I couldn’t help but notice a giant pile of broken iPhones rising up from the sidewalk at the intersection of a narrow side street. I stopped and looked and saw dozens of similar piles extending all the way to the end of the alley, around each one was a mob of people.
What was this?
I turned down the alley and into the crowd. The sun was barely above the horizon but this street market — and the word street can be taken literally as the items that were being sold were dumped on the street — was rollicking. Each vendor tended to have one kind of product displayed in a neat pile in front of them. Oftentimes they would have a large sack off to the side that was full of additional stock. When customers would buy up and deplete the piles they would pick up the sack and dump more on top.
Whether it was iPhones, iPads, Samsung smartphones, Android tablets, dumb phones, electric razors, etc . . . everything was broken. These were electronic devices that people from around the country — and probably around the world — chucked out. Touch screens were shattered, buttons no longer functioned, and batteries were dead, but there were crowds of people wading through the piles on the expectation that some of the elements within each device may still be good.
For it was parts that were being sold here.
And the buying and selling was frantic. The customers knew exactly what they were looking for and their hands nimbly swam through the piles. They would pick up one phone, flip it over, chuck it; pick up another, open it up, nod their head, toss it into their sack; grab another, hook it up to their little hand-held diagnostic meter, nod their head, toss it into their sack . . . It was like being on the trading floor of a stock exchange for electronics parts.
Later on the buyers would completely disassemble their purchases, separate out the parts that work, and then assemble them together into complete, functional devices that they could resell.
This is what happens to our phones when they die. They are shipped to Shenzhen — oftentimes back to their original source — to be dismantled and assembled again anew, imbibed with strange type of afterlife. From ashes to ashes . . .
Although this defacto market was very much underground; by the time the formal work day began this market would disperse, leaving behind hardly a trace. Vendors with carts selling the refurbished products then take their place.
Later on I browsed through these carts and inspected some of phones and other electronics that were assembled from reused parts like those I earlier observed being traded. They seemed to function normally. I held up a smartphone that had a Samsung casing and asked how much it was. 100 RMB, or roughly $15. There is a reason why almost everyone in China can afford a phone.
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