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Metal Men

Sparks flying in every direction, the whine of a chorus of metal grinders in unison reaches a crescendo on the factory floor. They’re smoothing down the rough edges on an enormous decorative steel panel for a new development in far-off Hong Kong, but most of these guys won’t ever see the panels in their final home. They’re happy to make it, then ship it.
I spent a day this week at the metal fabricating workshop of Mister Xu in far eastern Shanghai, taking photos of their work processes and some portraits of the staff. The workshop used to make air-conditioning vents but now they spend a lot of their time making customized metal decorative panels and artworks for my husband’s company, shipped to projects in all corners of China. They seem to prefer the variety of the art over making the same airconditioning vents every day.
Perhaps it’s years spent around my husband’s own workshop watching men and women make amazing things from metal, but I love watching the welding, the metal grinding and the big heavy pieces come together into a coherent whole. Matt started his business twenty years ago in a workshop exactly like this, making industrial rubbish bins every day (despite his art degree), until the small art orders became bigger and bigger art orders and they were eventually able to stop making skip bins and concentrate on bronze casting and decorative metalwork fulltime. It’s a great story, which I promise I’ll tell you another day.
Like the other factories and workshops I’ve visited on Shanghai’s outskirts, this one was clean and well-organized. None of the workers had to be prompted to use safety equipment, and none of them knew a photographer was coming. I’m sure China still has many, many sub-standard workplaces but it’s great to see that conditions in many places are good, and hours are fair (here, 7.30-4 five days a week).

The workshop’s lone female employee, project manager Xiao Chen looks gentle but is apparently tough and exacting on building sites, just what’s needed to get the job finished on time, and on budget!
Chief Angle Grinder. He was very excited to have his photograph taken but found it incredibly difficult to relax and stood stiff and straight no matter what I tried! His shirt reads “Shanghai Olympics” with a maple leaf. Anyone know what year they held the combined Canadian/Shanghai Olympic Games?

You might also enjoy Shanghai Factory Girls, photos from a garment factory, and Hand of Buddha, about a stone-carving workshop.

Shanghai Factory Girls

After every trip away Shanghai feels more and more like home to me, and it was really nice, after more than three weeks of roughing it, to get back to a comfortable bed and a cupboard full of exciting food items like English Breakfast tea and cereal. Shanghai suddenly seems so cosmopolitan, with its coffee shops and jazz bars and twenty-eight branches of Zara and Uniqlo.
But it’s also hard to come back from the high of a holiday seeing interesting things everyday and get back in the groove of taking photos for the blog, because after all, no-one in Shanghai is wearing ethnic dress or blow-torching a pig’s head. (At least, not today.) I was very lucky then, after I got back from my travels this week to hit the ground running with a factory visit arranged by a Shanghai photography group. It was my first trip with them and they get to visit and photograph some amazing places.  This time, one of the group’s members had access to a clothing factory on Shanghai’s outskirts.

The factory produces clothing samples, items shipped to clothing agents round the world before being ordered in their thousands, or hundreds of thousands. They specialise in hats, socks, gloves and mittens – the hats are fluffy, fur-lined mountaineer style hats with ear flaps, or, for kids, animal-style with fake ears, or with long tails of pompoms. Tody there is a big order of furry leopard hats for kids being processed. In the cutting room the hat’s pattern is chalked on to the fake fur before being cut out. Only the prototypes are cut by hand, once the style is finalized machines speed up the process by cutting dozens of pieces at once.
Cutting machine at work
Upstairs in the sewing room, there is leopard fur everywhere, and the seamstresses wear masks to protect them from inhaling fur fibres. Expecting more cramped and noisy conditions I’m surprised by how quiet the workplace is, and how large, airy and well-ventilated. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is dull and repetitive work though. Each seamstress works on a single task, over, and over, and over. One spends her whole time making small curved leopard ears to be sewn onto the top of the hats. She sews a string of a hundred or so, then turns them all inside out and passes them to he next worker who will attach them to the hat.
ear-making tedium
In the next room it’s all black and silver caps.

Downstairs are the sock machines, the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. Rows and rows of buzzing whizzing vertical knitting machines, all capped with a big perspex bubble where a sock is being brought into existence in mid-air, one at a time. The workers load them up with giant spools of thread and coloured wool, programme a panel of backlit buttons, then after five minutes of quiet and determined whirring, the spools spinning at great speed, a fully formed striped fluffy pink sock starts to appear in the bubble, stripe by programmed stripe, then finally pops out of a plastic tube at the side of the machine into a tub. Like some kind of crazy sock incubator, I kept thinking about the room full of pods incubating aliens in Alien, the movie, but these were all incubating fluffy fluorescent socks.
We should have been madly photographing, but there we all were, cameras at our sides, struck dumb by how socks are made.
Every now and then one of the feathery fluffy threads would snap, and with a sigh, a worker would lift the perspex bubble and rethread down into the innards of the machine to get it going again. I can honestly say up until now I have never given the making of socks a single, solitary thought. Who knew it would be so fascinating and  so very, highly, technical??

I paid a visit to the canteen, a big plain room in an adjacent building. Nearly everyone was eating their own food, so perhaps the cateen food wasn’t all that appetising, or perhaps it was to save money, likely both. Unlike the workroom, the lunchroom was noisy and boisterous, and full of chat and jokes.

Back in the factory, I wondered if it had been sanitised for our visit? There were no signs of this, certainly nothing had the appearance of being hurriedly tidied up to put on a good show, and there were no areas off-limits to us. Perhaps we just got permission to visit the ‘right’ factory, but I’ve seen the inside of a few factories now, and what has struck me about all of them is how unlike sweatshops they all are. Once again, our preconceptions of what really goes on in China are being challenged.

Do dirty, dangerous workplaces exist in China? Of course they do, in droves, but increasingly Chinese workers have clean, relatively safe workplaces and standards are on the improve. By our yardstick, the pay is poor, but increasingly reports are being heard of workers demanding, and getting, pay increases; or of factory bosses forced to offer higher wages to attract sufficient workers. I guess the bottom line is that factory work is menial and poorly paid wherever you are in the world, and while we keep buying cute leopard fur hats for our kids, someone, somewhere, is making them.

It was a fascinating insight, food for thought, and I’ll certainly never look at a sock the same way again….