A Gweilo in 1980s China – pt. 11

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Written by Tai Pan

If you haven’t read the previous episodes, you can go into the Story of my Life section and start from part 1.


The day after the trip to the beautiful mountains of Hunan, we organised to go visit the factories that were producing the clothing items decorated with hand embroidery, which my fellow-countrymen and I had just bought.
Throughout the day we visited 4 factories, out of which I chose two to do business with. By visiting the factories I discovered an entirely different world, the world of Chinese textile production, which is way different to the Italian one!

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Indeed, all the factories built in China were developed on different floors, so they were designed to grow in height, not in length…at first I was quite worried, especially when the car stopped right in front of the first factory: in Italy, we used to have huge problems when buildings were designed with the same structure as those that I was just visiting in China; this is because they were unstable as they were too tall!

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However, when I entered the Chinese factories I was positively surprised to see how efficient their embroidery work was. At first I was quite sceptical about buying clothes that would be ‘sold’ as hand-made, I thought this was a way to get higher prices, when in truth all the items were processed by machines. Instead, when I walked inside the first factory, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! We started the tour from the embroidery department, which was nothing more than a massive room hosting dozens of women, all sitting on a simple stool.

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Those workers were embroidering by hand every single clothing item! They all had embroidery hoops to work on, which means a wooden circle with a cloth attached on the top. The cloth was the piece of textile that they were embroidering. This way, both the needle and the thread could enter and exit the fabric more easily. Everything single detail was made by hand! It was really incredible…

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They then explained that, in the early 80s, Chinese hand embroidery was way cheaper than embroider made by machines, so basically the exactly the opposite of Italy! In China, because embroidery machines were quite rare, as they were all imported from abroad; machine production was much less popular, and so much more expensive.

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I was told that most of the women working in those factories, were not from Changsha, but they came from the countryside, from places and towns that were really far from the town. However, they would all walk for miles in the early morning only to reach the factories, as this was the only way to avoid the hard work of the farmer. During those days, there was no distinction between men and women when it came down to rural jobs, so women preferred to be employed in factories, than to work in fields and lift excessively heavy weights.

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I also found out that there was a law that limited the births of children, so because of this, having a new born daughter was considered as a big disgrace for families that worked in the countryside. I am not going to explain why this was considered as a disgrace, as I sort of explained it in the previous paragraph: women weren’t really strong enough to do most of the tasks in the fields.
While I was visiting the factories I also saw some narrow cubicles crammed with beds, these where prepared for some of the women who were sleeping there as their homes were too far away to travel to work everyday.

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I also noticed that the Chinese officials were really respectful towards one particular woman, who was introduced to me as the factory’s manager. It was only during the trip back to Changsha that the Chinese hosts began to explain: before the Cultural Revolution, the factory that we had just visited was owned by the lady-manager’s family, which was one of the richest and most renown ones in Changsha. However, after the Communist Party came to power, it confiscated the factory, assigning the woman, who at the time was just a girl, as director and main supervisor of the structure.

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While we were visiting the factories, in one of which we had lunch too, one of my Italian colleagues had an unpleasantly “problem”: the factories’ toilets were very dirty and he was not even able to pee! Due to the situation, he didn’t drink too much, but he really had to go to the toilet anyway! When we got back to the city, which was in the late evening, he was exhausted…he could barely hold the pee…I honestly thought that only Superman could have not peed for so long!
When we got to the hotel lobby, the poor Italian was literally about to explode. In addition to this, my other colleague and I couldn’t stop making fun of him, worsening the situation as he began to laugh! We rushed to the elevator, and while we were being lifted up floor after floor, my poor Italian colleague let himself go and by the time we reached the 8th floor he peed in his pants…
The situation was funny and grotesque at the same time, and it was actually partially my fault. Indeed, while we were waiting to get to our floor, I made a joke that made me and the other two laugh so much that he then exploded: “Hey, the elevator is really slow, you should just do it in the corner there! It’s just the three of us anyway!”
I can still remember how he laughed and then looked at his wet pants. Anyway this is not it…once we got to the 5th floor, the elevator stopped and the doors opened: there were two Chinese standing in front of us were petrified by the “apocalyptic” scene! A Gweilo peeing in his pants… Luckily I was fast enough to just push the button so that the doors closed. My colleague felt so embarrassed and ashamed that his face turned completely red.
To cut it short, despite the ‘tragic’ pee, I really did have the best time of my life when I was in China, and still today when I think of those moments I feel like I left a part of me in that country. For me, the magic 1980s China was a real life school!

Anyway, don’t worry, this is not the end, we are actually just at the beginning of my travel story! Next week I will tell you about the “traumatic” flight Changsha-Guangzhou, and the “charming” breakfast in the riverside hotel.

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