11:00 am - Best choice
The Baoshan Electronics market is right next to the subway station. The view is blocked by a outlet of a global food chain. 20 year old Pierre, a student of English Literature, who has helpfully agreed to be my interpreter for the day remembers the market from when he went to school which is nearby, in his early teens. It was much smaller then. However, not too interested in electronics, he hasn't paid the market much attention.
We cross the road, which is busy with many people carrying their computers towards the market, and many crossing back with trolleys with printers, computers and bags with things electronic. The market begins quickly with shops selling printers, and looking at the different parts on display, I miss noticing how I entered it. Soon the row of shops to my right are selling audio equipment. I walk past many, till I walk into one. There are many kinds of audio equipment – loudspeakers, speaker, amplifiers, mixers. I am confused. The young man, with a large, muscular build and stained teeth looks calmly at us, I think fairly certain we are not going to buy anything. Of course, people come into his shop when they are looking for something specific. All the equipment in his shop looks professional and carries the label JBN. We are handed a brochure and allowed to stumble out of the shop. He does tell us, though, since we ask, that everything is made in Guangdong. We walk through the shop to the other side, where after a gap can be seen a big hall with many rows and columns of stalls.
I turn the brochure about. At the back it says in fine print: We would run the legal duty for republication. On the cover are (image); the text says "JBN (Jaibailun), Professional audio systems, the images and sound technology of USA, the best choice".
11:35 am - Computer hunters
Inside the hall, which is quiet, past many stalls selling laptops, is this laptop stall. It is not very big in terms of size: A long table with two rows of laptops, each one with an A4 handwritten sheet of specs (in Chinese), and a shelf on the wall with more laptops. The manager - the only person manning the stall - knows we are not here to buy, because we tell him so, but switches on the laptop we have been looking at while contemplating how to begin the conversation.
This season the stall sells Sony; next season it may be a different brand. Companies update their tech infrastructure. Whenever old computers are replaced with new in the US or in Japan, computer hunters from China track them down, and collect them. Individuals bringing their laptops to his shop are very rare. Computer hunters transport the laptops to China, where they are tested and checked and passed on to suppliers. This shop has a dedicated group of suppliers, and they supply according to the order he places. This year the demand for Sony has been high, and so he has asked suppliers to get him Sony. He is a seller, but is a distributor too, supplying to managers in different cities, to shops similar to his in different provinces. The region doesn't matter, when there is a demand, he supplies. He has been here two years and has two stalls. The other stall is in the same market, and sells a different brand of laptops. "The market hasn't changed much in this time", he says, "Sometimes, more people come, sometimes fewer. It is life that keeps changing".
He was in manufacturing (computers) till two years ago. With the recession, he lost his job, shifted here. The move would not have been without its share of uncertainty, and there is a tremor in his body, his words are rapid, though his voice is calm as he tells Pierre of this shift and then waits for Pierre to translate. Things will only get better, he says now. He started with one, but now has two stalls. He will grow further. He replaces the A4 sheet with the tech specs on the laptop, a tiny but effective gesture that conveys it is now time for business as usual, time for our conversation to end. Both Pierre and I are, we figure from the speed with which we walk out of the hall, a bit overwhelmed. Neither of us expected, I think, to be let into life and its entanglements, so soon. We haven't even stepped into the river and it's time already to step back, sit down and have some coffee.
Flashback at noon
We are sitting with a cardboard cup of coffee inside the fast food joint. Pierre remembers coming to this market, when he was younger, with his father and being furtively approached by someone offering to sell them a stolen bicycle, somewhere right behind the electronics market.
12:20 pm - Not too far away
It's lunch time in the market. Everyone is eating out of thermocol tiffins, all supplied, it would seem, from one or perhaps more shops nearby. We have entered from a different side and shops here are selling CCTV cameras, webcams, GPS equipment. There is a continuous sound of conversations. We stop in front of a shop which is empty, save for a small table at its front end. There are two men - one young, the other older - behind the table, which has one A4 sheet with text and visiting cards on it, which many people are taking away. The board they have hung from the roof behind the table says Huaxi Securities, and we assume, considering the part of the market it is in, that the company sells security equipment. So we are a bit puzzled by the text on the table, which Pierre translates - If you buy for 10,000, you will get a phone, a beeper etc for free. We inquire and are told it's a stock exchange firm.
We follow an old man carrying a large bag, gathering up garbage from the floor as he walks. He turns at a bend and we are distracted by what looks like a far end of the market. There is a lady here with a push cart, which could mean slow speed movement through narrow, perhaps uneven lanes. The cart, filled with neat, compact rows of movie CDs in paper jackets and plastic covers, chinese and english with chinese subtitles, has been redesigned so that when it's stationary, it stands on legs and the wheels rise up from the ground a couple of inches. She lives not too far from here, she tells us when we ask her. I'm yet to start looking through the CDs when the lady pulls out many, showing them to me one by one to figure out my taste, and takes a posture of great amusement that I won't get interested. Both Pierre and I are a bit uncomfortable I think - to look through her things only to extend our stay and make notes when I'm not buying and she's trying to sell is a transaction neither of us want to be part of. I'm unsure now; I'm in a market after all. Pierre and I walk away and reach the end of the lane when I'm more comfortable and remember I saw on her cart a copy of Avatar with Chinese subtitles. We head back to buy it. 5 RMB, she tells me and compliments me on my "Indian" looks. I try to haggle and say 4. She's more amused than ever - once she indicated with her fingers, "five", to a foreigner, that is a price of 5 RMB and was given 50.
We are further inside the market, amidst stalls/shops selling mobile phones now. This still seems to be a spillover from the main building, but less transitory looking than the stalls we have been to till now. There seems to have been growth too. The flooring on the lane we are walking on is different from the front part of the stalls/shops, which in turn is different from the inner part of the stalls/shops. The roof above us, as we walk in the lane, is made of a series of projections from the stalls/shops. Pierre says from what he can hear of conversations, most people working in the market are not from Shanghai. We stop at one shop and look at the Nokia Nseries phones on display inside a glass case that can be opened from the other side. They are all twin sim card enabled. The two young boys sitting behind the table have come to Shanghai recently – a couple or more months ago. The shop belongs to their uncle, they are both from Guangzhou, and the phones are from Spain, they say.
1:30 pm - A quiet lunch
Pierre points out as we go for lunch that there are many more markets we can go to - several two to three storeyed buildings in the area, all of which are electronics markets.
2:15 pm - Collectors
We are walking along the road, skirting the market. Things being sold from shops are lower resource base here. Lights, lighters, small speakers, toys, thermoses, animated images etc. Across the road a woman is selling, from her bicycle, squeezable plastic dolls with big breasts. I'm drawn by persistent loud noise - of people speaking, but it is clear it is something being played. Three twowheelers (scooters) are parked next to each other, their bums towards the road, each with a TV set fixed on it, playing what look like theatre or TV serials.
Mr. Ren has a blue scooter. There is a TV showing a play in which a man and a woman in very bright costumes are talking loudly to each other. And also on the scooter is a cardboard box filled with DVDs, which have been burnt, labeled by hand and put into plastic covers. Mr. Ren is selling comedy from North East China, which is very famous, but has grown popular in Shanghai only over the last one year. Before that there would be performances here, yes, but only on New Year etc. Mrs. Ren is at home buring DVDs while her husband is here, selling them. Mr. and Mrs. Ren have a collection of about 2000 comedies from North China. There are many local groups there, which perform for entertaining in clubs, on stage etc. A camera person records these performances and also does post production. Then they are distributed in Shanghai. The distributor brings Mr. and Mrs. Ren demo tapes, and they watch each and every one of them, then select what they like and what they select they make copies of themselves, at their house. Mr. Ren chose for me three sets of three DVDs. He specially selected them, ones which abound with invectives and abuse words, which he is confident Delhi will find worthy. He also gave me his phone number and promised to take me home, which he said, "is not far away", to meet his wife, see how they work and browse at leisure through their collection next time I'm in Shanghai.
3:00 pm - Going Dancing
We're still walking along the outskirts of the market when I hear familiar music - the remix version of the hindi song Noori, sung by Asha Bhonsle. The seller is wearing a sleeveless black shirt and when he sees me walking towards him he smiles, says namaste and indicating further recognition of where I come from, says, "Gandhi, yes?" His stall runs from a small wooden box, which is waist high, and standing amidst a clutch of other such stalls, behind a row of bicycles and scooters, each of which seems to be held together with reams of scotch tape. He sells dance numbers in Hindi and Chinese; he has downloaded individual songs from an online site by paying a fees for each. These he makes collections of and burns into CDs. His CDs have a black paper cover with the song names in Chinese, in white print. Beside the song names is printed his phone number. Pierre has gone in the direction of the fast food place and I follow him and wait near the building. The woman selling an assortment of computer parts - keyboards, mother boards etc – and mobile phones which are gathered up inside a green plastic box, wires which are kept inside a cardboard box and a printer from a cycle operated mobile cart is smiling at my interest in her child's squiggle on the side of her white cart. There are two children, and they are just an earshot away. We all pose for photos in front of the cart.
3:30 pm - Screensavers
We walk back into the market, see a computer shop and ask the man managing it whether this would be a shop we could come to if we had, say, a Compaq Presario 2200, which is not a new model, to have a part replaced, or the RAM increased. He directs us to the first floor of the building.
The first floor is more laptops and we walk to one end of it. All along the wall at an unbroken, though not entirely unpartitioned, row of tables are many young boys - they all look like they are in their late teens, and they are all are bent over open laptops, hard at work dismantling and putting things back together. We apologise to one young man and ask if he is learning here. He has nice, stylishly done hair. He is eighteen years old, and has been here a few months, he says. He didn't know anything about computers before he came here, several months ago, but is now adept at hardware. The others too are learning as they work repairing laptops, and each one will be around for one to two years, after which most will leave. Back downstairs, Pierre and I walk through tables/stalls with laptops, mouse pads, webcams and so on. I lose Pierre because I spend too much time looking at and photographing the incredible wall papers and screensavers on the laptops. One of my favourite displays takes its feed from a webcam and I can see the market in it, framed by vines and flowers.
4:15 pm - Collectors 2
Pierre is a little unwell and has to leave. I walk around, and am in front of one of the side faces of the building. There are many sellers here, and they have set up their wares on mats or sheets or directly on the ground. It starts to drizzle and suddenly the place empties out. But a couple of minutes later, the rain has stopped and the sellers are all back. I stop in front of one spread for several minutes, watching a woman wearing a hat set her things up. Potential buyers have gathered, and are picking up and looking closely, carefully at each object they think they might buy. Later I make a note, from memory, of the things she was selling:
Two sunglasses (one yellow, one blue)
One internet cable
Plastic pipe joiners
Tennis balls (many, in a bag) and badminton racquets
One phone charger
Tools - assorted (screw drivers etc)
A screw driver case (some missing)
Spoons and forks (few)
4:45 PM - Congregation
I walk along the building, towards the main road, making my way back towards the subway station. Just ahead of the shops selling printers, everyone is standing still, looking in the same direction. There is absolute silence, save the commanding voice of a man giving someone instructions. It's a police van; there are three policemen outside the vehicle. Someone has been arrested; he is inside the van. Onlookers have gathered - people have come out of the shops and are standing a short distance from the van. Tiny lights like blue stars from one of the light equipment shops are dancing over the scene. The van starts and I begin to walk on. A few steps ahead, in a small space made by a high railing that protrudes onto the street, two women and one man have sat down in the corner with their large white bags halffilled with scrap electronic materials they have been gathering from the market.