Naomi Wu – “My visibility allows me to direct more attention to important issues and other deserving women”

Our Chinese readership might have met with Naomi Wu at tradeshows and maker fairs in Shenzhen, others might have stumbled upon her eye-catching character, SexyCyborg, on YouTube or Twitter. Even if you don’t know her, Women in 3D Printing is very proud of this interview with the self-proclaimed “Mainland China’s only female Maker hobbyist”, Naomi Wu.

Could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?

I was born, raised and educated in Shenzhen, China, the hardware manufacturing capital of the world. In college, I was exposed to the local hardware startups ecosystem; 3D printers were already a pretty big part of it.

What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?

My partner at the time had purchased a small 3D printer but he lost interest pretty quickly. I was going to sell it but started playing around with it a bit. First, I did the basic TinkerCAD keychain tutorials, then boxes for makeup and small things around the house.

Would you consider yourself more as an artist or a tinkerer/maker?

Definitely not an artist, I wish! With my background creativity does not come easily, and I don’t have any sort of art or design education. I just like to tinker with tools and hardware.

You are at the crossroad of many STEM fields from software programming to additive manufacturing, what are your main sources of inspiration?

Most of my inspiration comes from Chinese historical artifacts and inventions. Both my Maker Coin and vise come from traditional Chinese designs. Pictures of ancient Chinese 两当铠 armor inspired the design for my Infinity Skirt, my Pi-Palette with its “smart mirror” came from reading about the ancient Chinese 透光鏡 (magic mirror), my Blinkini from traditional fan dancing.

You have developed a character “Real Sexy cyborg” which is very sexualized and eye-catching. How is this character helping you achieve what you want? Is there any drawback?

If SexyCyborg is a persona, she is a toned down version of me in real life. I often have to dress more conservatively for my builds and YouTube videos because so much of my audience is Western and gets a bit upset by my appearance. But I was dressing this way long before I became involved in Making and 3D printing.

Of course, as a sole representative of women in tech I’m certainly not who you’d want to send, but, as a team member, my visibility and presentation allow me to direct more attention to important issues and other, more deserving women who otherwise might be overlooked.

I pursued my somewhat flamboyant style as a form of gender expression. I have joked that I am effectively a female drag queen. That’s evolved a bit to become more about visibility. With women losing ground in so many aspects of life in China, it’s not enough to just participate, you have to be visible and not let them erase you or your accomplishments. There are all sorts of ways this erasure happens here- from the usual “we could not find a woman to speak” to more underhanded behavior like having a list of male speakers but leave the woman last and “run out of time” before she can present. If I show up at an event- no one misses me or mistakes me for a guy, everyone wants to know what “that girl” is working on and why she’s there. I’m very, very hard to erase or ignore. I’ve snuck into Maker events and squatted on the floor with my suitcase to show my work.

For the first two years of posting my projects online, I refused to monetize my appearance. I experienced the stigma, the exclusion – all the downsides of looking like a sex worker with none of the financial upsides. Now my videos are at the intersection of Making and erotica – as others would combine Making and comedy, music, even stage magic. We all tailor our content to the audience we are presented with.

There are certainly people in positions of power who feel I should be excluded for how I dress in my personal life and my appearance in general but they are increasingly isolated as the community sees what a terrible precedent that is.

In the long run, it’s less about what you mix with your Making/hardware hacking than making sure it is not detrimental to the community. Obviously, a sexualized presentation can potentially affect other women so it’s not simply about what I want to do and wear- that would be selfish. I’m lucky enough to have more experienced women in the Making/ Hardware Hacking community willing to advise me, make sure I stay on-message and that my efforts are made where they will do the best. I respect them and generally defer to their greater experience and education.

Have you run into any challenges being a woman in the STEM fields?

In the past 50 years, female representation in the STEM in China has been some of the best in the world. But, due to demographic issues (a shortage of women), we’re increasingly being discouraged from pursuing careers that might delay marriage. Our media is not openly against women in tech yet, but that’s certainly the direction things are headed.

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Naomi Wu in her workshop in Schenzen

Sexism here in China is more cultural and institutional than individual. The men I know in tech are, for the most part, polite and respectful. There is no achievement gap between boys and girls here, so no one ever questions my capability. They just think it’s odd I do technical things because women who look like me usually pursue any number of easier, more profitable paths.

That being said working in a company with hundreds of people, there would be outliers and we have no real laws against sexual harassment, stalking etc. So I work from home as a coder and increasingly as a vlogger instead.

Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?

I just made a wearable 3D printer…That’s kind of fun:-)

What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?

Educational uses, teaching kids creative thinking and design principles. This may not be a big deal anywhere, but in China where our entire education system is based on rote memorization, empowering children to create whatever they want is incredible.

What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you?

It’s the next desktop publishing revolution, except that instead of letting anyone become a writer, publisher, or photographer,  anyone can become a designer. Within a decade, objects will be the dominant form of content- bigger than video, bigger than pictures or blogs.

How would you like to see the 3D Printing industry evolve?

CAD software companies should stop focusing on legacy power users and more on CAD that is clean, accessible and user-friendly. They could develop the equivalents of wizards and templates to actually aid the design process. CAD interfaces are so old, few are even usable with a trackpad or touchscreen.


Thank you for reading and for sharing! 

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