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China's Boomtowns
JUNE 2007
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China's Boomtowns
By Peter Hessler
Photographs by Mark Leong

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Over the course of a year, I traveled repeatedly to Zhejiang, every time renting a car in Wenzhou and driving into the province. In the same way that a pilgrim treks across Spain, stopping at the shrines of obscure saints, I passed the birthplaces of products that are usually taken for granted. From the airport, driving south along the coast, I started with hinges—a stretch of road where the vast majority of billboards advertised every possible variation of the piece of metal used to swing a door. A mile later, the ads shifted to electric plugs and adapters. Then I reached a neighborhood of electric switches, followed by fluorescent lightbulbs, then faucets.

Deeper in the province, the shrines became more elaborate. At Qiaotou, I stopped to admire the 20-foot-high (six meters) silver statue of a button with wings that had been erected by the town elders. Qiaotou's population is only 64,000, but 380 local factories produce more than 70 percent of the buttons for clothes made in China. In Wuyi, I asked some bystanders what the local product was. A man reached into his pocket and pulled out three playing cards—queens, all of them. The city manufactures more than one billion decks a year. Datang township makes one-third of the world's socks. Songxia produces 350 million umbrellas every year. Table tennis paddles come from Shangguan; Fenshui turns out pens; Xiaxie does jungle gyms. Forty percent of the world's neckties are made in Shengzhou.

Everything is sold in a town called Yiwu. For the Zhejiang pilgrim, that's the promised land—Yiwu's slogan is "a sea of commodities, a paradise for shoppers." Yiwu is in the middle of nowhere, a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from the coast, but traders come from all over the world to buy goods in bulk. There's a scarf district, a plastic bag market, an avenue where every shop sells elastic. If you're burned out on buttons, take a stroll down Binwang Zipper Professional Street. The China Yiwu International Trade City, a local mall, has more than 30,000 stalls—if you spend one minute at each shop, eight hours a day, you'll leave two months later. Yiwu attracts so many Middle Eastern traders that one neighborhood has become home to 23 large Arabic restaurants, as well as a Lebanese bakery. I ate dinner at Arbeer, a Kurdish joint, with a trader from northern Iraq. He was buying blue jeans and electric lamps.

In the past, Lishui was the only major Zhejiang city that wasn't on the pilgrim's route. It's high in the mountains, where the Ou River runs too shallow for big boats; one local described it as the Tibet of Zhejiang. That was an oxymoron—the Alaska of New Jersey—but he made his point: In an industrial landscape, Lishui was the final frontier. It was the poorest city in China's richest province, but the new highway was almost finished, and investors were moving in fast.


the memory of liu hongwei
Three months after designing the factory, Boss Gao and Boss Wang tested the equipment. Since my first visit, they had poached half a dozen skilled workers from another factory in southern China, and an assembly line had been installed. The 50-foot-long (15 meters) machine lurked sullenly in the corner room, six tons of steel painted sea green.

The thing rumbled when the head technician threw the switch. Gas burners hummed beneath blue flames; a stainless steel belt lurched forward. The digital console tracked the rising temperature: 200 degrees Celsius (390°F), 300 degrees (570°F), 400 (750°F). It hit 474 (885°F), then dropped. They needed to reach 500 (930°F) before production could begin.

"Maybe it's because it's colder here than in Guangdong," the technician said. His name was Luo Shouyun, but everybody called him Mechanic Luo. He put on a pair of fireproof gloves and tried to open the door to one of the machine's ovens. But the handle melted off in his hand; he dropped it, cursing. The red-hot piece of metal lay on the floor, hissing like an angry snake.

"Mei shir," Boss Wang said. "No problem."

Mechanic Luo fiddled with the control box. He theorized that the natural gas canisters might be too cold. The men adjusted the valves and began to rock the massive metal tubes. The temperature didn't rise. They shook the tubes harder; nothing happened. Somebody went to get a stepladder and boiling water.

Boss Gao looked even more skittish than usual; he'd never installed such a big assembly line. More than a decade ago, he had started his first workshop in the outskirts of Wenzhou. With his parents and two sisters, he produced the fabric that lines the waist of cheap trousers. Initially, profits were 50 percent, and the workshop steadily expanded. But the neighborhood became home to more than 20 other companies making trouser lining, and the margins dropped until Boss Gao finally quit. "It used to be that you'd try to find a product that nobody else was making," he explained. "But now everything is already being made by somebody in China."

That's one weakness of the Wenzhou Model. Entrepreneurs produce goods that require little capital and low technology, which makes it easy for neighbors to jump in. Boss Wang, the uncle, had slipped into the same pattern. Previously, he had manufactured the steel underwire for women's brassieres, and his profits had dropped steadily. When the two men joined forces, they decided to continue manufacturing underwire, but their goal was to find a more profitable main product.

Fortunately, the average bra is composed of 12 separate components. In a figurative sense, the men began their quest at the bottom, with the underwire, and worked their way up. They thought about thread; they looked at lace; they considered the clasp. But when they reached the top, where tiny 0- and 8-shaped rings adjust the bra straps, they found what they were looking for.

A bra ring consists of steel coated with high-gloss nylon, requiring a specialized manufacturing process. The key equipment is a computer-regulated assembly line, divided into three separate stages, each of which heats the object to over 500 degrees Celsius (930°F). Originally, Europeans produced the rings, but by the early 1990s Taiwan dominated the market. In the middle of that decade, a mainland Chinese company called Daming imported an assembly line.


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