Next to Alibaba, the Huaqiangbei Electronics Market (HQB) in Shenzhen is probably the most recognisable symbol of trade in China: known for its size, density, and diversity of products, it is also famous as a laboratory for the innovative prototyping and modification of smartphone technology, due to the high levels of expertise, insider knowledge, and collaboration among its vendors (not to mention their bargain rates). Alibaba and HQB have a complex relationship: while Alibaba’s online platform has reduced footfall in physical marketplaces, especially from foreign customers, HQB is more flexible than Alibaba in relation to international regulations including customs, intellectual property, and trade agreements. Vendors listed on Alibaba with locations at HQB are rarely found there in person, and vice versa.

This project uses the iPhone 7 Plus as a test subject to explore the formal and informal structures and relations of the HQB and Alibaba markets and to map the interaction of consumers, vendors, factory workers, and technology giants like Apple. This phone was also the sole research tool used to document and collect the research. In the process of collecting the components necessary to assemble an iPhone 7 Plus, a new understanding develops around the smartphone: it is no longer a self-enclosed, fixed, branded object of desire but a collection of miscellaneous parts including factory off-cuts, imitations, ad-hoc solutions, aesthetic disguises, and proofs of authenticity.



My research attempts to draw insights from trade cultures, market dynamics at global and local scales, and levels of access and engagement for players in the architecture of markets. I reflect on how I am entangled with these contexts through my consumer choices while being totally detached from them in terms of profession and lifestyle as a white European middle-class being and/or designer. The smartphone is more the means than the subject of my research—as a globalised product that cannot be entirely manufactured in a single location, it is the perfect entrypoint to understand international trade networks as well as trace back to the complexities of material and labour. The smartphone is also my tool to navigate and document my research.

The Huaqiangbei (HQB) electronic markets cover a huge area in Shenzhen. My research focused on four buildings in the southern market, where only retailers of smartphone components can be found. I attempted to source all of the individual components to build an iPhone 7 Plus, which shop owners described as the easiest phone to source on the market at the time. By then, in September 2018, the model was two years old—old enough to be rebuilt or adapted with original components or factory off-cuts, but not too old to have lost relevance on the market. Sourcing and rebuilding this smartphone myself was a way to research the various entities involved, starting conversations with retailers along the way. Some shop owners let us record these discussions; others did not feel comfortable.

While Jack Ma portrays Alibaba as a portal for even the smallest Chinese businesses to enter the global market, the HQB shop owners had a different perspective. Because Alibaba is a local-to-global exchange, it must enforce intellectual property and trade laws. Most HQB shop owners preferred one-on-one exchanges in the local market because they were more personal and less bureaucratic, without the obligation of direct interaction via chat (which could require additional employees to respond to inquiries). Meanwhile, the shops listed on Alibaba with locations near HQB had no physical presence in the market itself, and they were reluctant to enter into discussion unless I was a business or wholesaler.

Both the HQB and Alibaba shops offered a similar range of products related to the iPhone 7 Plus, including some originals and refabrications with certificates. The originals display the Apple logo, which only Apple’s subcontracted manufacturers are allowed to use. Apparently, the manufacturers are required to sort out a certain percentage of each product for quality control—but many off-cuts are perfectly functional and end up being sold to retailers for resale on Alibaba (with formal packaging and labels) or in the HQB market (with little packaging and mostly handwritten labels). One contact said that the Apple logo could be scribbled over in black pen to avoid problems getting these Apple-produced phones through customs.

Most of the HQB shops are family-run businesses: they moved to Shenzhen for work, possibly starting in one of the factories before establishing their own business in the market. In this way, they transfer the knowledge gained through intensive factory labour into business opportunities. This transition is facilitated by the open market structure and architecture of HQB. One shop owner sources iPhone components from a site in Hong Kong, where phones end up after being abandoned by mobile users in North America, Europe, and (to some extent) Australia when they get an upgrade. Most used iPhones are not returned to Apple because their in-house recycling or return system is not profitable: broken iPhones sell for more on eBay. In the gap between Apple’s smartphone market share (18.2% in 2018) and smartphone profits (87%), it is clear that Apple’s exorbitant prices have set the stage for an independent and informal market of returns, recycling, repair, and reuse, focused on HQB.

This narrative of reused, repaired, or reworked iPhones resonates with a global pattern of consumerism, where second-lifecycle objects are distributed to non-Western contexts, including some to Shenzhen. In Europe, the high-tech repair industry has the potential to reduce energy and emissions, but European shops tend to buy only new components from certified factories: thus, their prices are much higher, their speed much slower, and their technical skills far behind the shops in HQB, where the work resembles craftsmanship: if one shop owner cannot solve a problem, they will reach out to their community for collaborative assistance.

Project Images

Copyright Design Academy Eindhoven. Photographs by Nicole Marnati.