Xinchejian: Hackerspace Shanghai
“It’s about connecting the real world with the virtual, demystifying technology by hacking it,” says David Li, the foreman of Xinchejian (新车间), the first Shanghai Hackerspace.
The opening of the area links Shanghai with the Hackerspace network, a global hackers movement. A membership fee of RMB 500 a month allows people to access the space for whatever tech projects they dream up -- but no, they won’t teach you how to steal credit card data.
Li started this techno-wonderland with partner and project generator Ricky Ng-Adam to draw together electronic enthusiasts, DIY freaks and hobbyists with the intention of exchanging information, building stuff and essentially, as Ng-Adam puts it, “having fun with technology.”
While Li and Ng-Adam tinker with tech, Ng-Adam’s wife, Min Lin Hsieh volunteers full-time, making the community as prosperous as possible.
Min’s presence is an oddity in this otherwise testosterone-fueled environment, except that she shares her husband’s fascination for technology. Theirs was a match made in geek-heaven; they spent their honeymoon at an underwater robot submarine competition.
The story so far
Li started Xindanwei, the first informal hackerspace in Shanghai, but later formalized Shanghai Hackerspace's connection to the global network and moved it to the present Changning District location where Xinchejian opened doors in 2010.
In their modest 500-square-foot studio in a nondescript building, the hackers’ playground is a tangled chaos of live circuits, computer spare parts and micro chips. Cheap wrought iron shelves lean against a wall overflowing with DIY delights, forming every geek’s dreamscape.
The energy simply demands invention and innovation.
Some current projects involve incorporating the iPad technology to make smart robots.
It’s about connecting the real world with the virtual, demystifying technology by hacking it.— David Li, the foreman of Xinchejian (新车间), the first Shanghai Hackserspace
Jail breaking an expensive iPad to make robot heads isn’t a cheap hobby, one would assume, but Li points to the benefit of living in a shanzhai goods haven.
“You forget we're in China, there are tons of iPad clones available for a pittance in the local markets,” he says. “We modify them to match our specifications.”
“You’d also be surprised at how many people are willing to give away electronics they don’t use to experiment with,” adds Ng-Adam pointing to a donated computer. “To them it’s junk. To us, probably the vitals of our next robot.”
The nucleus of Shanghai Hackerspace and groups worldwide is sharing, and not just passing around hand-me-downs and tools. The club reflects the tech industry’s most stand-out quality: open sourcing.
At the Shanghai group's grand opening, a multitude of newbies and experts bounced around inspiring ideas on structuring robots, creating 3D printers and making 3D art with the Xbox 360 Kinect.
One such guest was Brad Ferguson who demonstrated building guitars from scratch, which he then reproduced electronically with his CNC machine.
Even eco-friendly community projects like combing technology with urban farming are in progress here.
“It's an interesting mixed bag of locals and foreigners at the Hackers collective,” says Andrew Rose, who works with robotics from an educational perspective.
“Some Chinese members speak minimal English, and there are expats who didn’t speak any Chinese. Yet, there is a healthy exchange of information. It sort of outlines the familial core philosophy of Hackerspace: people from a variety of backgrounds, but similar passions coming together to just build.”
In the field of technology where everyday there’s a new advancement, Hackerspace seems like the ideal way for IT professionals to update their skills.
“[Working in a space like this] makes you more attractive to your current and potential employers,” Ng-Adams says. “Besides, there’s no reason that hobbies can't turn into profitable opportunities for yourself and those around you."
"For example," he continues, "a company a number of people here work with is SeeedStudio.com. It facilitates production and helps arbitrary inventors monetize their ideas.”
Visit from a geek God
When Mitch Altman, co-founder of Noisebridge (San Francisco Hackerspace) and inventor of TV B-Gone (a remote that can turn off any TV in the world), recently visited Xinchejian, he was impressed with the collaboration he saw.
“Not too long ago, there were zero Hackerspaces in Shanghai and now there’s one,” he told a crowd of onlookers. “This fledgling space is now among the 900 Hackerspaces all over the world, it’s linking Shanghai into a global network. It's a great achievement.”
In the spirit of the community, Altman threw an open invitation to Shanghai Hackerspace members to visit his San Francisco Hackerspace, giving the group five sets of keys and saying, “Walk in whenever you’re in town.”
Looks like Shanghai techies have found a new, global home.
Xinchejian (aka Shanghai Hackerspace)
1035 Changle Rd., 2F, Xuhui District, Shanghai (corner Wulumuqi Road)
Hours: Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. (visit during weekdays by appointment)