Busman's Holiday, China Style

If you're an audiophile—and let's face it, who else would be reading this—then you know what any hard-core audioweenie would do when visiting a strange city. Visit the hi-fi shops, of course.

Even if it's your first visit to China and you're only there for four days.

I recently visited Shenzhen, with a brief holdover in Hong Kong and the New Territories, and being about as hard-core as they come, it never occurred to me to demur when my hosts suggested I spend two precious afternoons of my China trip visiting audio emporia. In fact, I looked forward to it.

Shenzhen, or more properly, the Shenzhen Special Economy Zone (SSEZ), is one of four SEZs in the People's Republic of China. The SEZs enjoy special tax incentives for foreign investments and experience greater economic independence from the central government than other regions when it comes to international trade. Shenzhen's proximity to Hong Kong (it's next door, connecting HK to the Pearl River delta) has almost certainly turned it into the busiest and most productive of the four SEZs.

What makes this even more impressive is that the city was really little more than a rural hamlet in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping created the SEZ concept, attempting to reconstruct an economy "stunted by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution," which is, I might add, the current (ahem) party line on the subject. Boy, did it work! Shenzhen is now a thoroughly modern city of seven million people (up from four million in 2001, to give you an idea of how fast it is growing) and has a GDP of $14.13 billion—a huge amount of it generated from the manufacture of electronics.

That's one reason why I reckoned a trip into the electronics market of downtown Shenzhen might be fascinating. We're talking about a city filled with people who make their living building the gear the rest of the world listens to. What would they listen to?

Just kidding—this was the only hi-fi shop I saw in Shenzhen that had absolutely no customers. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, we had to park and walk through the crowded sidewalks of Shenzhen's electronic district. Did I call them crowded? Hoo-ha! The sidewalks were immensely wide and had lots of benches and concrete seats scattered around, almost all of them filled with guys tapping away on laptops, wielding portable soldering irons, winding transformers by hand (and in one case, a humongous coil for a crossover or something), or otherwise engaged in street-level electronic commerce. Then we arrived at one of four buildings devoted to things hi-fi.

The ground floor could have been any shopping mall in the States. We passed by—wandered through, more like—shop after shop selling familiar brands. Bose, Unison Research, McIntosh, Denon, Accuphase, Conrad-Johnson, B&W, and Dynaudio, to name a few. As I said, shop after shop—many carrying very similar product collections. Obviously, territory wars aren't a big issue over there. I also saw products I'd never seen before, such as this CD player in a guitar body, which I thought was so stupid-cool that I seriously contemplated buying it.

Then we took the escalator to the second floor, where things got really interesting. On this level, the shops were far smaller and more specialized. They were stalls, actually, with glass fronts, generally displaying the shop's entire inventory—or something awfully close to it. This is where we found entire stores devoted to low-production–run tube amps (many of them, shall we say, highly reminiscent of familiar products).

Other shops were devoted to a single item, such as tubes, many of them immense transmission models with anode connections on the top, models I'd never even seen pictures of before.

There were also stores that sold products that I had not only never seen before, but had never even imagined—such as these loudspeakers that looked like Ohms from an art woodworker. I really wanted to hear them, but the shop owner correctly assessed me as a lookie-lookie and wasn't all that interested in connecting them with no hope of a sale. It made me homesick for New York.

Of course, there were also stores that just sold raw parts, specializing in audio jewelry. It's possible these were extremely good knockoffs, since the prices seemed too good to be true. Not, I hasten to add, the first prices I was quoted, but the second or third ones (and the prices that were quoted when I moved on to the next stall got even more attractive). As I walked by one shop that specialized in cables, the shopkeeper shouted out, "UK! Chord Company!"

"Not UK," I said, pointing at the "Brooklyn" on my cycling jersey. "US!"

"US! Monster Cable!"

Audiophilia, the universal language.

The following day we hit Hong Kong. I'm sure HK has a parts market, but Sanecore's Simon Ma and IAG's Kelvin Kwan concentrated on showing us the retail shops in Kowloon since we had lost a lot of time crossing over from the PRC to HK on a busy Saturday. Again, we saw lots of familiar brands, but the whole shopping experience was the same but different from the US. For example, the single speaker demo room idea doesn't seem to have ever caught on in HK.

We visited about four different "hi-fi buildings," but one, Yau Shing Commercial Centre, will serve as representative. When we entered the building's elevator, we saw seven different hi-fi stores advertised. We hit the first and were greeted with a massive display of electronics. We wandered from the showroom to the speaker room to the video projector room and back. Everything was beautifully displayed and the store was writing a lot of business. What we didn't see was any sort of demonstration in progress.

We then trekked up the stairs to the next shop—and we saw the exact inventory we had just seen downstairs! "It's the same store," Kelvin explained.

"?"

"Those seven shops you saw advertised in the elevator? There are only three different stores, but seven floors of hi-fi."

"And you'll have three branches of the same store, carrying the same products—in the same building?"

"It's how we do it."

Nope, I don't get it either. One thing's for sure, it would have taken more than a single afternoon in Hong Kong to have figured it out. Too bad all I had was a single afternoon. I guess I'll just have to go back.

File this under: Why am I telling you? 'Cause I'm telling everybody! We arrived in HK during the Super Sevens rugby finals, and the city was seriously rocking when we hit the Lan Kwai Fong neighborhood late Saturday evening. Crowds of rugby fans feeling no pain spilled over into the streets. As I walked by, one chap looked up in surprise, pointed at me, and shouted, "You! You're the man! You're the man!" He ran over and high-fived me and ran back to his friends, who all congratulated him like he'd just scored the winning goal. We couldn't figure it out.

When I got back to my hotel later that night, I was reading through This Week in Hong Kong when something clicked. REM was giving a concert there the following night—my happy friend had apparently confused me with fellow chrome-dome Michael Stipe. I finally got mistaken for a rock star. Not bad for a guy in his 50s.