Safely tracing a path back to Shanghai

PEN America yesterday released a chilling, illuminating report on the increasingly difficult environment foreign journalists face when reporting from present-day China. When I was there precisely five years ago, I wasn't working as a journalist or trying to post anything to a blog or Facebook or Twitter or a newsy site in any form. Nonetheless, I couldn't access any of those sites or the like given the "Great Firewall" the Chinese government relies upon. According to PEN America's study, it's since gotten a helluva lot worse for people trying to pursue and publish stories. What better time for me to offer a taste of what I was pursuing then, as I continue to research and write about it from a safe distance.

After spending close to a week in Beijing, I traveled with my group of 40 foreigners to Shanghai. We were officially there to see the Chinese part of the global fur trade. We spent our days being spoon-fed locations that surely were allowed for only with government approval. One particular excursion from our temporary base in Shanghai gave me a chance for some off the leash wandering. We were taken by tour bus to a small coastal city named Yuyao. It would have been indistinguishable from the other sprawling population centers radiating out from Shanghai, had it not been for the existence of a major fur garment manufacturing facility plopped amidst the maze-like residential "hutongs" and rapidly gentrifying blocks of factories. What we saw inside that facility and the adjacent "wholesale mall" of retailers was unlike anything I saw up close in China. In my book Pelting Out, you will learn much more about what I saw and learned there. For now, here's a few pics to whet your appetite.

 Just in case visitors are confused about what the majority of the goods they're buying comes from, the China Fur Market in Yuyao offers a reminder. It felt and looked like an empty outlet mall. 

Just in case visitors are confused about what the majority of the goods they're buying comes from, the China Fur Market in Yuyao offers a reminder. It felt and looked like an empty outlet mall. 

 Up in the main manufacturing warehouse, workers match cut pieces of pelts to larger garment patterns.

Up in the main manufacturing warehouse, workers match cut pieces of pelts to larger garment patterns.

 This type of manufacturing requires lots of nails, and lots of precision.

This type of manufacturing requires lots of nails, and lots of precision.

 I was struck by the diverse workforce...drawn from many parts of China from what I was told...populating this specialized manufacturing trade.

I was struck by the diverse workforce...drawn from many parts of China from what I was told...populating this specialized manufacturing trade.

After some touring as a group within the factory, our group was encouraged to go shopping within the connected mall. I used this open time to wander into the nearby neighborhood. This wasn't approved...or formally discouraged...yet it didn't take long for me to feel unwelcome. A few blocks of shops radiated out from the China Fur Market, getting shabbier as the distance from the center grew. Soon the fur goods shops ended and what I came to recognize (not by experience, I assure you) as sex worker shops began. These mini-brothels all had the same sliding glass patio doors behind which stood women ready to greet visitors. The doors would open with that signature "swoosh," that is the universal sound of a sliding door running along its track. When the workers caught sight of me...a pale Westerner with my Canon camera slung over over my shoulder...the sliding chorus was all I could hear over the neighborhood traffic. Not long after, I garnered a few curious men tailing behind me. I could sense I'd ventured a bit too far into the unguided, so I turned back toward the security of the business-lined blocks. Along the way, I noticed fur garment patterns nailed to plywood outlines laid out in every available area. There weren't any customers. And there definitely weren't any other Westerners.  

 Any available surface is a good enough surface for the neighborhood's workers to lay out patterned goods in process.

Any available surface is a good enough surface for the neighborhood's workers to lay out patterned goods in process.

Luckily nothing unwelcome or unkind happened to me while exploring around China in pursuit of my chosen subject. According to PEN America's reporting, however, way too many other writers haven't been so fortunate while trying to work there. Here's hoping everyone working in a safe locale this Friday evening raises their voices and glasses to those in China and elsewhere endeavoring to tell stories that matter. Wherever you're exploring, I look forward to sharing new stories with y'all next week.