The Chaos and The Craftsmanship of Shenzhen – Dafen Oil Painting Village

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An oil painter practicing his craft in Dafen Village.

A Pilgrimage To The Maker Mecca

When I arrived in Shenzhen this week to participate in Intel IDF 16, I hoped to learn more about the roaring technological innovation happening in this unique city. This is part I in my series documenting aspects of my brief trip to the city of makers this week. Read part II here and part III here.

The Dafen Oil Painting Village – A Metaphor For Shenzhen’s Tech Economy

The defining “Shenzhen” moment for me was not the crowds, the maker and electronics markets nor the sprawling industrial zones, factory tours, it was the Dafen Oil Painting village, where hundreds of skilled artisans convene daily to create realistic copies of  artwork for export. The prices? Affordable.

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One of the many wandering street dogs in Dafen.

After a 30 minute cab ride from my hotel, I spent around 3 hours wandering the tightly connected alleys and corridors of Dafen, looking over the shoulders of the artists as they went about their daily work of copying.

Many used iPads or photographs as reference, others seemed to know their target work so well as to not require a reference. More than a few of the painters seemed to have elderly masters looking on, perhaps to give advice on technique along the way. Here and there, beginners practiced their skills on shading simple cubes and primitives, working their way up to become the next master replicator.

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Copying ideas and theories

With thousands of canvases leaning idle and hanging on numerous walls, I suspect, there was an original painting or two. It is difficult to believe that somewhere in the thicket of canvases an artist hadn’t decided to improvise a bit on the themes of an old master…or come up with some new ones.

The innovation process always starts with copying and in Shenzhen they are copying systematically at a scale you can scarcely imagine. A student who copies Van Gogh relentlessly may not initially understand how Van Gogh undertook original works of art. After enough copying, that same student may grasp the underlying theories and extend them into new areas. That is exactly the direction in which Shenzhen is going.

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When the copying ends

Sometimes I forget my wallet for days,” quipped one Shenzhen resident. “We just pay with WeChat. Or if we are out of money we can ask a friend and they just send it to us. One time I forgot my wallet at a restaurant so I paid the waitress using WeChat and she paid for my bill in cash. We are more ahead than the US in that way I think.”

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WeChat is ubiquitous, after only a few days in Shenzhen my list of WeChat friends grew to more than a dozen new friends. Sitting in a newly opened coffee shop, two of the workers asked to take my picture. Within a couple seconds they had scanned my unique WeChat QR code and we were able to exchange pictures. At the Shenzhen airport, I used my new WeChat account to authenticate into the local WiFi network.

Who really needs Facebook, Slack or PayPal? Not the Chinese it seems (not that they have easy access to it). Judging by Mark Zuckerbergs’ recent interest in learning Mandarin, Silicon Valley is increasingly getting concerned about being left behind.  In fact, some have said that many of Facebook Messenger’s features seem to derive from Eastern counterparts, not the other way round.

And where do you think Silicon Valley is getting it’s ideas about Bots? Bots are already in prevalent use in China for numerous use cases which have not percolated yet into the United States. You start to wonder: Who is doing the copying now?

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Hardware and Software, Together

Software can happen anywhere, hardware can’t. If there is one thing that Shenzhen is a global leader in, it is the ability to ideate, manufacture and scale custom electronics for makers, hardware startups and the Internet of Things in a single place. Like Western tourists visiting Dafen village looking for cheap paintings, thousands of global businesses and startups come to Shenzhen looking for cheap hardware, many feel compelled to stay. That can only happen here.

Prior to his death, Andy Grove wrote an editorial that much of the “Efficiency” America has traded for lower cost manufacturing has come at the cost of our ability to bring all of the key pieces together at home. The cost? Starting companies like Yuneec and DJI who combine hardware and software in new ways may simply not be possible in America any longer. We should think carefully about our role in the world if that is the case. At least we have Tesla Motors.

Just like the innovation which is sure to happen by assembling so many painters in a single place, you can’t assemble so many technology experts and feed them a steady diet of foreign clients without a few key lessons rubbing off. If Shenzhen can copy the greatest oil paintings, why can’t they copy the best of our hardware and software products and extend them into new areas with new thinking?

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Closing thoughts

I left Dafen village having thoroughly enjoyed the experience of seeing so many expert craftsman assembled into one place. After seeing the scale, quality and variety of work being undertaken in Shenzhen it seemed to underline my feelings about the experience as a whole: The next decade is going to be all about the relationship between China and the United States in technology, I want to be there to see it happen.

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