My name is Jordan Kit and these are my words.

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A Different China: Passing Through Shenzhen

4:12 is staring back at me from the nightstand in red block digits. I groan as I watch the 2 reconfigure into a 3. I can’t say for sure why I’m up so early, but I am. Adam is asleep on the other side of the room, and the television is playing a bad American action movie with no volume. I get out of bed and pull back the curtains to look out over the Hong Kong streets below. There’s a man fumbling with his keys trying to open his Lamborghini parked in the Sinopec station across the way. I’m not surprised anymore when I see two, three, even twenty $300,000 cars lining the roads when I go for a walk. My first few days in this China clashed so strongly with all the preconceived notions I had about China, and I thought about how strangely paradisal this tropic playground was. Only a few hours later would I find my ideas grounded again.

We started our day as ever: rushed showers, packing day bags, catching up on journals, big breakfasts, cups of coffee, running to the gas station to buy water bottles on the cheap. We waited out front of the hotel with minimal small talk—it was too early. When the bus arrived, we piled in and tried to stake out as much space as possible for some bus ride nap time. As people listened to music or slept or journaled, I just looked out the window. I studied our surroundings and noticed that as we drove, our surroundings were starting to change with every block. No longer the rich expat haunt, the city was returning to my ideas about China.

We were headed to Wynnewood Toys, and we were about to cross into the mainland for the first time. But first, we had to handle a border crossing. We filed out with our day packs and passports and immigration papers, and headed into the checkpoint. It wasn’t very different from air port security, but there was a greater gravity to everything. These weren’t the Brit-English speaking Hong Kong Airport immigration officers who stamped your papers with a smile and sent you on your way. They were curt and intense, and while I waited in line, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the armed guards strolling about. I wasn’t seriously concerned that I’d have any problems, but I had this strange lurking feeling that when they scanned my passport, they’d pull me aside for something I didn’t even know I’d done and that’d be the last anyone ever heard of me. That wasn’t the case, and after my passport was stamped and I was wished a fine day in pidgin English, my unwarranted anxieties subsided a little.

We got through, had a group sigh of relief, and waited on the other side for our bus to make it through. Now that we were on the mainland, I was in the land of Mandarin, of Putonghua, the people’s tongue. I could read almost everything now and understand some of the speech. I looked in the front of a small duty-free cigar and alcohol shop trying to read the signage. A fuss developed over with the general group, so I walked back to investigate.

"EASTERN STYLE! THEY ARE EASTERN STYLE!"

I knew exactly what the girls were unsettled by, and this image will probably clear it up for you as well, dear reader:

 

You can stop scratching your head. That is a toilet. An eastern style toilet. Less than desirable for the pampered westerner.

The bus finally passed through the checkpoint and we were on our way once again. “Welcome to Red China!” our bus driver announced. The cityscape became more and more dreary as we passed through Shenzhen. On the outskirts, houses were crumbling into a sad general state of disrepair. When we made it into the city, the Lamborghinis and Aston Martins were replaced with less glamorous methods of transportation, like walking and used cars (who could imagine?!).


The factory was an interesting sight to take in when we rolled up. It was a compound with pretty strict security of its own. We were dropped off and met by our contact, whom I’ll call David from here out. David was incredibly well spoken, has an awesome Australian accent,  and it turns out he actually lives on the same block as our hotel and commutes. He gives us the rundown on Wynnewood Toys and explains the challenges that face the Chinese business world in a great presentation. Wynnewood is a manufacturer of plastics and electronics, and they put together other peoples’ products. For example, they might work with a company like Nerf, help them design a product, and Nerf would in turn send them the materials, they would then assemble the product, and then ship the product for Nerf to sell. They get paid to help with the design and then doing all the leg work, and Nerf owns the product the whole way through. Western companies are cutting that work (the engineering, the factory jobs) out of their end to save mountains of money.

David explains that June through September are the peak productivity months because September is about the last chance they have to ship everything so it can hit the shelves ahead of the holiday season. With the peak months come thousands of people looking for work, but with other factories, it can be hard to attract workers to this particular plant. Wynnewood tries to set themselves apart by producing an excellent product, and they have a good track record with this: these are the guys responsible for the Leap Frog. “We don’t want to be in the rat race with the companies happy with an average product,” David said. “Product integrity is vital.”

He went on to take a closer look at the state of the Chinese economy and the challenges it presents for their company in specific.

  • The Chinese economy has boomed and some fear it will overheat, resulting in inflation and bad contraction, which leaves an uncertain outlook for Chinese businesses and makes long term decisions look more like a roll of the dice.
  • A tenuous demand for electronics based toys leaves their wheelhouse on unsteady ground. What they do better than anyone else is become more of a novelty, causing a reliance on breakthrough items like the Leap Frog.
  • High existing retail inventory means there is a diminishing demand for larger shipments of product. In the recessed state of the world economy, more people are willing to sell out and buy more than let product sit idly in inventory.
  • Wynnewood actually faces an issue of labor shortage because they are having a hard time getting people to move out to the plant.
  • Increased economic performance has led to increased wages for workers. Minimum wage has been increasing at a rate between 15-25% per year in recent memory, and this has raised the operational costs for a lot of manufacturers.
  • The other challenge Wynnewood faces is their small shipping window. It’s expensive to move their product across the globe and they have a very narrow opportunity to meat their contractual obligation.




After the lecture, we were granted a tour of the facilities. I wish I could share some pictures, but we were not allowed to take any. The rest of our time at Wynnewood would take on a much different atmosphere from the hospitality area. We began by looking through their quality assurance facilities, where they use state of the art equipment to test all aspects of their products for safety. We carried on to the final section of production line, where workers all check the products for different flaws. People wear respirators and move mechanically as products speed along conveyor belts. Our tour is moving from the most finished step of production to the raw material, and it’s interesting to watch a finished toy gun devolve slowly.

People wear tape or pieces of rubber on their fingers to protect from the metal edges as they meticulously work. Their days are longer than you’d care to know, and at the end of the day, they don’t go home for a glass of wine, pizza, and Netflix. They go to the workers dormitories. The one we saw was a room about the size of your freshman dorm room, but they aren’t made for two or three people, or even five. The room we saw fit ten people. It’s somewhat like the conditions in a can of sardines, with an adjoining room with a toilet, shower, and bar for hanging laundry.

As we move building to building, security guards give a full military salute to David, and I can see the look on Jack’s face every time. I can’t tell if he’s off-put, or if he’s taking notes for his own business back home.

We conclude with a decent meal in the cafeteria, a long bus ride, and the realization that perhaps China is too large a place to claim to understand. It reminded me of a quote from Anthony Bourdain that goes, 

"Saying I’ve been to China is like saying I’ve been to planet Earth.It means maybe at best that you’ve seen a little, a slice, a nibble off the edge. China, with more than a billion people, over 3 1/2 million sq miles of territory, and 56 unique ethnic groups, and at least 8 distinct major cuisines, it’s not a destination—it’s a life’s work."


We returned to the hotel for a quick break, and prepared to continue along our likely futile process of understanding China.

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