Friday, 30 May 2008

Pork Stalls, #13, Shipai Village market, Guangzhou

Lin Ye Te and Su Gu Zhen are pork butchers in Shipai, an ‘urban’ village swallowed up by Guangzhou’s expansion 20 years ago. Many residents are transient, low-income workers from other parts of China who rent apartments from original villagers who now live in nicer parts of the city. At Y550 (£40) per month for a small one-bedroom flat, rents are not cheap.

We’d heard talk about how the price of pork is a big issue for people, especially for those on low incomes like in Shipai. We were told that pork is an important staple resource with pricing under daily government control. Leaving the price open to the market could lead to sharp inflation and make pork more expensive in remote parts of China, where people are often on low incomes. Despite this regulation, the price has rocketed, doubling in the last year, in part due to an outbreak of disease and a subsequent cull, and rising oil prices upping transportation costs. The prices are not as high today as they have been, but are still higher than before the disease struck.

The butchers helped us start a process documenting people up and down the pork supply chain, and ask about the impact the price rise has had on their daily lives. They themselves work most hours of the day and are paying to put their son through University. They introduced us to their customers and suppliers.

Lin Ye Te took us on his nightly visit to ‘The New Pigs Wholesale Market’ on the edge of the city. He bought two live pigs at Y10 per half kilo from a wholesaler who brought the pigs down from Hunan province; one weighing 135, the other 115 kilos; before going home for a few hours sleep. A private food company collects the pigs, delivers them to a government abattoir where they are killed, health tested, cut it in half and stamped (or not) as fit for human consumption. The butcher pays Y80 per pig for this service. The private food company then delivers the pig halves by van to the village gates.

The butchers employ a man with a motorbike to collect the pig carcasses from the gates and transport it through the narrow walkways of the village to their stall in the central market. Lin Ye Te cuts up the carcass into different parts of the animal and throws the meat onto the stall. Su Gu Zhen and their employees cut the meat further into smaller portions and cuts, to sell to customers. General pork cuts are sold for Y14 for half a kilo. Choice cuts, like the heart, are sold for Y28 per half kilo. From wholesale to cooking pot takes less than 8 hours.

Slow Shop, Guangzhou

Slow Shop, tucked away on the 5th floor of a Mall by Martyrs Park metro station, is an enterprise run by designer/photographer, Ya Ya Qiu. Friends introduced us to Slow because it represents two things relatively new in contemporary China, an independent brand with an entrepreneurial spirit; ‘Take your time, it’s your life’ reads the maxim on her business card.

Ya Ya divides her time everyday between the shop, designing at home, and visiting local factories discussing production. Selling clothes, accessories, soft furnishings, home wares, gifts etc… roughly 80% of the products in the shop are her design and made locally, with the remainder produced by other young local designers.

One of the things she wants to bring to the public is an appreciation of Chinese characters, by putting them on clothing – rather than English-language slogans and brands – and for the characters to be seen as modern, desirable and up to date. She’s also making and exhibiting sustainable shopping bags to cut down on plastic. Her business started 3 years ago and she’s soon to open a new branch in Beijing

Guan Han Ji & Xiao Wang Qi, NanTing village

Guan and Xiao have run their grocery in a backstreet of the village for 25 years now. They live in the rooms behind the shop, but used to live in a house in a neighbouring village until that village was one of the many demolished in 2004 to make way for the construction of eight new university campuses known as Guangzhou's ‘University City’.

Completed within 8 months, University City brought an influx of jobs and money to NanTing. Many new shops and restaurants opened on the outer edges of the village to cater for the huge new student population. Not many students take a walk down Guan and Xiao’s street though, so commerce there has stagnated. Now, the scales are rusty and the shelves are relatively bare; packets of noodles, cigarettes, alcohol, soft drinks, household products are sold to their friends and neighbours. The odd bottle of quality spirits gathers dust. Xiao says before University City, they opened all day every day and had a busy pool hall on the 1st floor. Now she opens up 8am to midday and 5pm to 11pm. Afternoons are spent weeding a local farmer’s fields because she can earn more money that way. Similarly, Guan delivers gas cylinders throughout the village.

They host card games most evenings in front of their shop. Xiao told us they no longer pay for a license to trade and nobody cares to ask, so they carry on regardless. Despite the new prosperity in the village, many locals, like Guan and Xiao, resent the fact they lost their homes without adequate compensation. There is still a refugee camp close by that continues the protest and attempts to prevent the planned destruction of a temple. A friend of ours says that NanTing is threatened too, with plans to build a huge shopping centre on the land.

International Traders, Guangzhou

Guangzhou is known in the import/export trade as an end selling point. Traders from all over the world come to buy wholesale products produced all over China, which eventually find their way to places like Guangzhou’s Yide International Exquisite Toy and Stationery Square, where we met Craig and Clem Eady. This father and son team run a wholesale business in Brisbane, established for 35 years and supplying about 150 clients back in Queensland, Australia. They are here for toys, army surplus, hardware and knives. “If you can find that factory somewhere in China or even in the back streets here, you can buy exceptionally well, but all the way down to Guangzhou, it will get dearer. And here, at the endpoint, it’s the dearest.”

We interviewed Craig, Clem and dozens of other traders from the five continents on video, asking about their relationship with Guangzhou, the sellers, and other traders they may encounter. Traders come because they believe this city has the cheapest products available in the world. On this 2-3 week visit Craig and Clem will spend around A$100,000 (650,000RMB). They visit 3 times a year and have been coming here for 8 years. Before Guangzhou, they used to buy in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

They tend to use the same sellers each year – regular customers should get a better price - until the seller does the wrong thing; like supply the wrong goods/quality, change the price, or leave goods behind so they miss the ship and have to be sent by plane instead (400 times dearer than ship). Clem says they will still pop in when there in town but and say “hello” – one of the few Chinese words that they know, other phrases being “too high”, “too low”, “how much”, “how many” – but won’t buy from them again.

They say a lot of the Chinese they deal with speak some English, plus they have help from interpreters and guides. But even when they’re doing business with the sellers that don’t speak a word, they can find a way to understand, such as negotiating price through the use of calculators.

Even though the community of traders is fragmented in time and place (and at times secretive), there are odd occasions when the network connects to exchange tips. Craig and Clem have only ever met one other Australian, but do bump into Americans - who usually get the better prices because they buy the largest amounts - and often put them on to things. Germans too! Because they are not competitors, it’s no skin off their nose. Craig remembers having a quick chat with a Middle Eastern guy at an airport baggage collection. Next minute the guy was on his laptop and getting him the address of a factory somewhere in China, which he said, has very good products at a very good price.

Wang Lin, Clothing Manufacturer & Wholesaler, Guangzhou

Here is Wang Lin, general manager of Anna V (Anna Victoria) clothing, in his central Guangzhou office, showing off his pick of this seasons collection made in his factory outside of the city. His office is on the 6th floor of a huge building hosting hundreds clothing wholesalers, attracting buyers from all over China and the world.

It’s a family business, set up by his relatives in Taiwan. We met his wife, who was asleep at her desk when we walked in. His children help out at the factory when they are not in school. He made us tea, and we sat and chatted about his business; how it isn’t as good as it was and his strong sense of business ethics.

Anna V is their own Womenswear brand, with a new collection for each season – four times a year. They don’t have a designer; they just work things out for themselves. They don’t do fakes/rip-offs and they do pay taxes. His business operates almost entirely with returning, loyal customers. Sometimes his good customers, such as one Japanese man, drop in for tea three times a week when they are in town. Other clients come from Italy, USA, Iran, Iraq and Spain to name a few. The company also has a website and accepts orders direct to the factory through that.

They used to have a retail unit downstairs, but that became too expensive so now they only operate from this upstairs office. Wang Lin used to be able to manufacture and sell 1,000 units of each design in his seasonal collections, but now he says he can only sell 200 of each. He says he doesn’t make much money, as he has to pay his workers first. He employs 200 people at his factory.

He believes in doing business honestly and taking a long-term view. Trust, friendship and responsibility are the backbone of a business he wants to run like a family, and his family are happy. Rather than the short-term manufacture of fakes, which he believes is a non-sustainable business, he wants to build something lasting, to pass on to his children.

Wholesale Porters, Guangzhou

Q011 is one of a 65 strong team of porters serving the massive clothing wholesale marketplace, Zhanxi Plaza; one of dozens of wholesale zones in Guangzhou trading clothes, fabrics, electronics, shoes, gifts, toys, clocks, watches, etc, each of which has its own dedicated team. These men – mostly migrant workers from outside Guangzhou – are a vital link in the despatch of goods throughout China and worldwide. They wanted us to take photographs of them, then we asked them if we could arrange to take a photograph of all of them all together and interview them about where they came from. After permission from their manager, they agreed to gather at 8.30 one morning. When we arrived, we were unceremoniously ignored. Apparently the porters had been instructed by their manager ‘not to talk to the foreigners’ for fear of participating in something that could end up illustrating a derogatory story about China, on the front page of a western newspaper. With the Olympics coming up, we were too hot to handle.

Secondhand clothes sellers, NanTing village

Tradition, we were told, dictates that secondhand clothes are not worn in China, because people like everything to be ‘new’ and not tainted with the lives of others – same is true of furniture apparently (unless it’s a valued antique).

Hu Xiang Qian (second from right) and some fellow recent graduates from the nearby Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, have gone against the grain and set up business flogging ‘dead mans stuff’ so they can earn money to develop their art careers independently without relying on selling their work through China’s rampant art market.

Painted with Italian tricolor because Qian loves an Italian girl, and situated on the village’s tight main street amongst many other new, trendy, student-orientated shops, the shop opened for business on the first weekend of our stay. They sell t-shirts (for 20-30Yuan, £1.50-£2), shirts, hats and jeans - imported from Thailand and bought in bulk - mostly good quality, quirky stuff, with an ‘almost new’ feel. They helped us by hosting an installation of a photo project on the outside wall of their shop.