PSFK recently caught up with Tai-Pan, Editor-in-Chief of Shanzai.com to find out more about Shanzhai and China’s local to global tech culture.
Tai-Pan was born in Canada, but has been living and working in the Asian technology & hardware industry for over 12 years. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Shanzai.com a website dedicated to tracking the products, trends and reach of China’s local to global tech culture. PSFK caught up with Tai-Pan to find out more about Shanzhai.
1.For our Western readers, please explain exactly what Shanzhai culture in China is.
Well it’s not easy to hit a moving target or explain what shanzhai culture is because it’s one that is continually evolving. Originally the term shanzhai was used to identify copycat products or the businesses that were making them… known locally as “Mountain Bandits”. Shanzhai’s literal translation from Chinese meaning something akin in English to mountain bandit or mountain stronghold. The participants in the shanzhai business operations saw themselves as Robin Hood-like rebels competing with the established industries they copied, hence the bandit association.
But over time the meaning of the term has come to also embrace the production of more innovative (often perceived as wacky by Westerners) products as well. On top of that we’re noticing lately that the word is also being used in a similar fashion as the Japanese term “kuso”, meaning “camp” and even “cool”.
The shanzhai term itself is very popular in China and other parts of Asia, but recently we’re noticing that more and more Western consumers are adopting it also.
2. Is Shanzhai strictly an Asian phenomena?
Strictly speaking no. In fact we would argue that the West has been using shanzhai-like business practices for a long time, but possibly packaging and marketing them differentially so that it doesn’t appear so clear cut a case of outright copying.
Our favorite examples are Google and Disney. Google didn’t invent internet search, they copied the idea, added their own modifications and then drove it to market.
Disney certainly didn’t create the original content behind the classic fairy tales they’ve built their empire on. They copied them, packaged the stories differently (animated film rather than books) and then legally took ownership of the end product. In the West this is all perfectly legal.
3. Now that we know what Shanzhai culture is — what inspired you guys to start covering Shanzhai culture ?
Like in good comedy, timing is key :) Shanzhai as a cultural phenomena is really starting to bubble up out and beyond China, so we wanted to guide western audiences just joining in. Secondly we see the shanzhai phenomena as a business model starting to mature and have more impact on competing Western businesses and consumers.
The shanzhai “cycle” which looks something like; copy, create, innovate, go international as a business tactic has now been successfully duplicated in the fashion industry, auto industry and is now happening in the consumer electronic industry. Western businesses NEED to understand how that cycle works so they can successfully adapt and compete. That’s our opportunity to be there to help.
4.What are some of the best/worst trends emerging in in Shanzhai culture?
I guess that’s a matter of perspective question. One of the most “popular” shanzhai trends out there right now is copycat iPhones or iFauxnes as we call them. In one sense that is a very obvious copyright infringement of Apple’s iconic product that may have contributed to the relatively weak recent official launch of the iPhone in China. On the other hand, purportedly 1.5 million real iPhones had already been sold prior to the launch on the “grey” market. Did the plethora of fakes help market the sale of the 1.5 million pre-launch real phones in a country where Apple does not have anywhere near the marketing reach as it does with Western consumers? Very possibly.
One definitely positive trend we are seeing though is that more and more of the copycat type shanzhai phone makers are moving to the innovation part of the cycle. This year on the site we’ve covered several watch phones that have real possibilities, a very targeted “Buddha Phone” as well as numerous phones which attempt to converge 2 or more real world products into the traditional mobile phone package. While a cigarette lighter might not be well received example of convergence, a classy, well built version of the phone that included the electric razor might actually have a broad appeal for men and particularly business travelers!
5.Do you see the perception of Shanzhai products changing as people focus more on what they can do with devices and less on where they come from (do you see this actually happening or no)?”
The perception is definitely already changing. Aided and abetted by standardized hardware platforms and new open source software arrivals like Google’s Andoroid OS we expect the quality and performance of shanzhai phones to dramatically close the “quality gap” between mainstream brands and tier 3 players in 2010. As that happens its going to be increasingly difficult for consumers to decide which smartphone to buy, as the feature-set of many of the branded and shanzhai smartphones will be the same. Basically they will all support variations of the same key applications. This will be the shanzhai players chance to shine as they can produce small runs of very focused phones for several target markets. Consumers will enjoy the option of having a phone that is exactly to their taste and possibly even customizable to their exact preferences.
6. Which Shanzhai manufacturers, if any, do you see being able to make the transition from “Shanzhai” manufacturer to legitimate manufacturer ?
Most people would say BYD in the auto industry and Tencent on the web (an ICQ/MSN-like service) have already successfully made that transition to the tune of millions of dollars. In the consumer hardware industry its a bit harder to judge as there are levels along the way to the retail channel that often hide the real manufacturer. It mainly depends on the scalability of the backend manufacturing. Not all shanzhai operations are mom and pop. Several of the larger more mature operations definitely will make the jump next year.
7. What product, to date, has been the most interesting product that you have covered ? Why ?
Again a very debatable subject. Our most popular item on the site was the recent review of a very good quality MacBook Air Clone. Many of our site visitors loved it because it even included some extra features the original didn’t possess.
For me personally I’m fond of the “Cigarette Lighter Phone” from Seabright. The convergence of a heated coil into candy bar styled mobile phone is absolutely insane… and yet I admire the innovation and basic desire to converge the functionality and utility of 2 completely unrelated portable products.
8. What is something you’re looking forward to in 2010?
I’m optimistic that in 2010 we’ll see a mobile smartphone emerge from China that has its own distinct shanzhai style, good build quality and innovative feature set, and it will be seriously taken seriously enough to be compared to tier 1 products from established Western brands.