I arrived in Chengdu at midday and had made arrangements with my supplier to pick me up from the train station.  The lady who met me was Nancy, the sales manager at Dragonfly signs. Now as a bit of background I’ve been working on these signs for about 9 months with Nancy (why so long?) and suffered great frustration in dealing with her. I would send her an email and not get a response, and then phone her to ask her to look at her email, and then get only one question answered out of five, and so on. It was really frustrating so I took this opportunity to go and see her and the company to get better information.

Nancy picked me up at the station – it was a 16 hour trip with no shower so I was a bit crumpled and smelly – and she whisked me straight off to the factory. The factory is about 50km outside of Chengdu in a little village and it is pretty much the same as many other tool shops that I’ve seen in South Africa. They make their own dies, do their own injection moulding and do their own chrome electroplating. Nice slick operation. Uli’s father has a similar setup in Cape Town but whereas Uli quoted me about R150 000 for a full setup if I wanted to introduce a new product line, the Chinese would do it for free but they would keep the dies. Clever business model.

So anyway the meetings went well and I got pretty much all the info I needed.

After the factory Nancy took me to lunch in the local village garden restaurant. Sylvia, do you remember the roadside “restaurants” in Saudi? This was pretty much the same but outside in the garden. So I wasn’t really looking forward to the meal but it was surprisingly good. We had barbecued cubes of pork, pickled and boiled lotus flower bulbs, the boniest fish I have ever seen in a serious chilli sauce, and some other stuff which I hope I never get to identify. The table etiquette was “rustic” – fresh plastic cloth on the table and all the bones were tossed on the table then the whole lot was wrapped up when you were finished. Actually makes sense.

Then back to the hotel for freshening up and Nancy took me out to walk the ancient streets of Chengdu. This was a real treat. They’ve taken the ancient buildings and preserved them and put in shops and restaurants – same general concept as the V&A waterfront. But you could still see the ancientness of it all. (Sorry, no photos taken – it was too dark).

Then supper with Nancy in a more “normal” restaurant.


The dinner conversation was quite interesting and she gave me some good insights into the life of a middle class Chinese person. The middle class seems to earn about as much as a normal middle class South African and they have the same expenses as we do – bond payments, taxes, utility bills. The government no longer provides in the way that it used to. They are still a strong socialist state but not as hard core as in the past.

The rate of urbanisation is massive and she backed this up. Some of the figures are mind boggling. Cities have grown from 500 000 to 5m in 10 years and she thinks Chegdu probably has about 18m people now.

Going through the cities by train you can see this massive urban infrastructure development taking place. As you come closer to towns you often see a cluster of 5-10 high rise apartments being built on the periphery of town. In Xi’an I stood on a rooftop in the centre of the city and the perimeter of the city was just a solid line of these high-rises in a 360 degree arc. These high rises are anything from 30-40 stories high and seem to be a standard design.


Nancy says these are private developments and are going up simply to meet the demands for housing. She herself bought into one of them and paid R800 000 for a 100 square metre apartment.

Nancy says there is nothing sinister about the massive urbanisation. Peasants in the rural areas are dirt poor – they see they can earn good money if the come to the cities, and things take off from there.

Now I’ve been doing a bit of reading and it seems that when the government of the People Republic of China opened the doors to the outside world in the 70’s, the industrialised western world saw cheap labour and started moving their production to China. It was a slow and frustrating process which only really all came together in the last 20 years or so. Massive population, minimal labour regulation – could only go one way. (South African government – are you listening to this?).

Tomorrow Nancy says she will take me to see the Pandas. I promise to take photos.


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