Posted by: Sam Olsen | November 9, 2011

Tea, carp and factory

At last, an update from my visit to China (not Beijing, but the South) the other week.

Daliang high street

A friend of mine owns a factory in a small town across the border, called Daliang. Well, you say small but if transplanted to the UK it would be the 12th largest settlement by population. And to put this into context, Daliang is a sub-district of Shunde, which is itself a district of the city of Foshan. And Foshan is not even the biggest city (by a long way) of Guangdong province. (Guangdong, a little larger than Greece, has a population of 104 million people, which is more than Spain, Poland and Portugal combined. But I suppose that’s what you get with a country of 1.3 billion souls.)

I got the 7am ferry from Hong Kong to China, a fast catamaran that sped up the Pearl River. This is probably the equivalent of the canals of Britain a few hundred years ago, with billowing industry lining both banks, and buzing craft plying up and down the waterway. Wealth creation is everywhere. Allan, my pal and the factory chief, got on with his morning work whilst I dozed with the rocking of the countless wakes.

Following our arrival in Shunde’s brand new ferry port we jumped into a new VW Passat for the 15 minute taxi ride to the factory. The driver insisted on spitting out of the window every 2 minutes, as if he was on a timer. He beeped his horn though every 1 minute, which was not surprising considering the amount of people trying to hit us. I didn’t see Penelope Pitstop but her buddies were definitely there. Amidst the road carnage, I saw motorbikes calmly waiting at red lights, unlike many of their four-wheel cousins. “Alan, how come the motorbikes stop for the lights?” “Because if they didn’t the cars would run them down”. Fair enough

Although the roads were dusty, and in some places not finished, there was definitely a prosperousness in the air. A whirlwind of wealth, and one that is difficult to always trust.

I heard a story which puts it all into perspective. Shunde used to be an independent city, but is now officially under the control of Foshan. The reason, so the tale goes, is that the mayor of Shunde had so much spare cash that he decided to build himself a magnificent new city hall, modeled on the Washington White House. But to stop his bosses stopping the project, he called it a ‘hotel’ right up until it was finished. The ‘hotel’ was then requisitioned and ta da! A stunning new council office. Alas for him the bosses saw through the ruse, and as a punishment subsumed Shunde into Foshan.

Me, Apple and Allan outside the factory

We arrived at the factory, and wow, it was small but impressive. I have no idea what you imagine a Chinese factory to look like, but this was new, clean, functional, and well laid out. Indeed, it would have put many equivalents in the UK to shame. And there was no union foreman demanding a 4 hour day, or as I saw repeatedly in France, waving a communist flag at the gates demanding money (sorry, ‘union contributions’) to come in.

Allan’s factory is an assembler of air-conditioning units, which he then ships all round the world. Numerous buildings in the City of London, in Holland, in America have his products cooling the workforce. But his biggest growth market is China itself.

On the factory floor a dozen or so workers in smart blue overalls were making themselves busy. Whilst some loaded vans, others were sitting around a table assembling some small parts, working hard but seemingly rather happy. As Allan approached there was a big hello and some friendly banter, although slightly limited thanks to the language barrier. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like some industrial Mary Poppins, but there was a lot better atmosphere than most.

Life in the office of the factory is pretty similar to the UK. The people all sit at their cubicle desks, the aircon humming and the keyboards clacking. There didn’t seem to be much banter, but whether this was because of diligence or a dislike of their fellow employees I couldn’t tell. One difference was the tea. For a start only green tea was available, and also every cup came with a small ceramic lid – ” to keep the flies off”. What flies?!

Still not enough to beat the germs

After a morning exploring the factory’s operations, Allan took me to lunch with Peter and Apple, two of his senior people. We went to a very nice restaurant in the centre of Daliang, where – as is the way in these parts – 50% of the people there were not locals, but rural incomers seeking better quality of life.

The first thing I noticed was the shrink-wrapping of the cutlery and bowls (see photo) as a way of preventing germs. But this is not enough, oh no. The chopsticks and spoon are all hosed down by the tea provided, as an extra cautionary measure against illness. “Chinese tea wash!” Apple exclaimed.

The food was not at all bad. We started with a plate of the slippiest noodles known to man, which of course the locals – and even Allan – could manage with aplomb. The rest of the dishes soon piled up, with roast pig spine (nicer than it sounds), and roast goat the highlights. I never, ever thought I would say this, but the best dish was the spicy tofu, which was so moreish they should put it on the shelf next to Pringles.

Our lunch over, and feeling very full indeed, I bade my farewell and headed off into town. Allan had told me about a scholar’s house nearby which was worth a peep. During Imperial days the Court was dominated by scholars, who excelled in Chinese language, history and culture, and so to be one led to considerable improvement in living standards. To have a senior scholar, such as owned this house, in a town was a rare honour. And the house really showed off his position, being a mini-version of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Rubbing along nicely

The highlight of the house though had to be the carp ponds. Chinese youths bought bucket loads of fish food, then created boiling feeding frenzies by depositing it in concentrated levels in pond corner. It was really quite off-putting to see dozens of foot long carp sliding all over each other, gaping and sucking. A heron would have loved it. (I should add here that I have no idea how the kids bought the carp delicacies because the woman running the shop was absolutely fast asleep, which, judging by the nonchalance of passers-by, was not exactly a one-off.)

But the day was nearly at an end, and I had to return to the ferry. Overall, a fascinating look at how southern China is developing. And how fast it is. To finish, I will give you this stat. When I visited Guangzhou in 1996 with a friend (Graham Rule), between us we could not spend £20 of renminbi, despite expensive dining, taxis around the city and more souvenirs than was healthy. This time, £20 didn’t even cover the taxi back to the ferry.

She loves her job

P.s. Allan – thanks for a great day out!

Daliang's Boris Bikes



  1. At lunch time in the office, after eating, did they dim the lights and everyone go to sleep. This is my memory of a Shenzhen factory.

    • No, not quite! Allan wouldn’t have stood for that!

  2. Hey Sam,
    Have found you at last and have really enjoyed reading about your exploits…Harry loved his postcard and is carrying it around everywhere. Love to all, Emxx

    • Hi Ems, so glad you (and especially H) like it. A lot of fun to be had out here!xx

  3. […] Tea, carp and factory ( […]

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