Zhejiang’s instant cities

Posted by Reading Time: 3 minutes

In a piece that is being talked about all over the blogosphere, Peter Hessler (of River Town and Oracle Bones fame) reports for National Geographic on the entrepreneurial spirit in Zhejiang province.  This enjoyable bit of reporting begins with the planning of a factory near Wenzhou:

There was no architect, no draftsman; nobody had brought a ruler or a plumb line. Instead, Boss Gao began by handing out 555-brand cigarettes. He was 33 years old, with a sharp crewcut and a nervous air that intensified whenever his uncle was around. After everybody lit up, the young man reached into his shoulder bag for a pen and a scrap of paper.

First, he sketched the room’s exterior walls. Then he started designing; every pen stroke represented a wall to be installed, and the factory began to take shape before our eyes. He drew two lines in the southwest corner: a future machine room. Next to that, a chemist’s laboratory, followed by a storeroom and a secondary machine room. Boss Wang, the uncle, studied the page and said, “We don’t need this room.”

They conferred and then scratched it out. In 27 minutes, they had finished designing the ground floor, and we went upstairs. More cigarettes. Boss Gao flipped over the paper.

“This is too small for an office.”

“Put the wall here instead. That’s big enough.”

“Can you build another wall here?”

In 23 minutes, they designed an office, a hallway, and three living rooms for factory managers. On the top floor, the workers’ dormitories required another 14 minutes. All told, they had mapped out a 21,500-square-foot (2,000 square meters) factory, from bottom to top, in one hour and four minutes. Boss Gao handed the scrap of paper to the contractor. The man asked when they wanted the estimate.

“How about this afternoon?”

The contractor looked at his watch. It was 3:48 p.m.

“I can’t do it that fast!”

“Well, then tell me early in the morning.”

That is just the beginning, and as James Roy over at China Economic Review points out, Hessler’s article delights with descriptions of the factories that sprout up and get torn down with equal speed, and … bra parts. One choice bit:” 

After its arrival on the mainland, where production costs are much cheaper, “the Machine” essentially minted money. The boss got rich, and then a worker named Liu Hongwei got an idea. Despite his lack of formal education, Liu was a skilled mechanic, who worked closely with the Machine. Meticulously, he memorized the assembly line, piece by piece, and in secret he sketched out blueprints. When the plans were complete, he contacted a second boss at a company called Shangang Keji, in the city of Shantou.

In 1998, Boss Number Two hired Liu and took the blueprints to Qingsui Machinery Manufacture Company, in Guangzhou, which custom-built the assembly line. Initially, the new Machine didn’t work—nobody’s memory is perfect, after all—but two months of adjustments solved the problems. Shangang Keji began producing bra rings, but then Liu found Boss Number Three, at a company called Jinde. Every time Liu jumped, he demanded money for his blueprints and expertise; some believe he made as much as $20,000.

Without knowing it, the man was following a path blazed by other societies that had also experienced sudden manufacturing booms. In 1810, a wealthy American named Francis Cabot Lowell traveled to England, where he used his connections to tour the world’s premier textile mills. British law forbade the export of machinery or blueprints, but Lowell had an excellent memory. He returned to the United States, where, in the words of his business partner, he re-invented the Cartwright loom. Lowell became an American hero, with a Massachusetts factory town named in his honor.