Friday, November 20, 2009

Silk Manufactories.

Like much of China, Hangzhou has a traffic problem. On a week day it seems to take an inordinate time to reach anywhere, and by the afternoon of the third day exhaustion was setting in. My eye-lids kept shutting without my meaning them to, and I had to keep willing them open again. I suppose I missed a lot. I probably missed houses with tiny balconies strewn with washing, small shops with canopies selling food, and people carrying impossibly large loads on bicycles, but eventually, when the coach stopped, I did see this:

one of China's biggest silk-mills run by a Hong-Kong-based company called 'High Fashion'.

High Fashion is proud of many things: its modernity, its output, but what interested me the most was its use of solar power. I asked the spokewoman if they'd had much help from the government for this, and she said yes, then laughed and said, 'Not much, though...'

We had a talk, one of those company pep-talks, and most of which I can't remember now, but I remember the room and the shuttered windows, and stuffy warmth as we walked in, and the large rectangular table and the dark blue carpet with a pile so deep it was like walking on snow, and on the table were little bottles of water and I kept looking at them wondering if it was safe to drink, and in the end I did, then noticed no one else did.

The show room was a vast place

with displays of cocoons, partially stretched ready for making into quilts, hung up along the ceiling, reminding me of fish I once saw strung out of reach of the dogs.

There was this too - the life-cycle of the silkworm preserved in glass

and then upstairs more clothes:

a display of ties like colours in a paint palette

and a quilt already touched by Midas.

High Fashion is at the high quality end of the market - and it showed. But this is not what we'd come to see. As an Indian salesman pointed out we all knew what silk looked like - what we had come to see were the feted machines, and the advanced looms, and the process of silk being made but instead, after we had been allowed to dawdle around this vast display we were taken out. 'No time!' the representative said. 'There's too may of you. Next time you're passing Hangzhou please tell us and call by.'

Then, we were in another part of town, and once again there were talks and brochures - this time of a factory producing machines for the silk industry. Once again my eye-lids drooped. The nights without sleep were beginning to catch up with me and that odd sense of everything being unreal and distant was beginning to overwhelm me. 'But we won't be able to show you that today,' I dimly heard, and scribbled in the letters on the brochure in front of me in an effort to keep awake. 9000 miles, I thought. I had so much wanted to see the weaving machines and the workers, but all I'd seen so far were tea gardens, a temple and a fashion show.

But then I heard this: '...and he wants to apologise because he didn't know until two days ago that you were coming round, and hasn't had much time to prepare, so he's afraid that you might not think he factory is very good...' and we were all getting up, and being led in between low buildings, past stray dogs loitering in the streets, and the distant sound of machinery and into this

a hanger-like building looking like many a UK factory I've seen, and one loom weaving silk

and then another

and another;

and workers on lathes, but no safety glasses or yellow track-line along the floor, or safety screens

and smoking obviously permitted... and this girl which makes me pause even now and wonder what her life must be like...

how she goes home and eats noodles and feeds her dog, and maybe sends money back home to her parents...and as I stood there taking photographs it all seemed surreal, but also familiar. I remembered a factory unit in Stoke-on-Trent not so long ago and the only safety concession there had been to leave the building when the high pressure valve was turned on. There had been oil drenched rags on the floor, and the whole place had been a lot more squalid than this one. When I closed my eyes in Hangzhou I felt as though I could have still been there.


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