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.
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.
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.
My mind has recently been on the manufacturing side of the fur trade. Since it would take a whole lot more effort to travel back to China to see where much of that occurs, there seemed to be no better time than today to visit one of Seattle's own garment manufacturers to see the action. C.C. Filson's Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers opened here in Seattle in the 1890s..now you can just call them Filson...eventually fueled by the Klondike Gold Rush and the demand for goods to equip those often futile dreamers needing gear to stave off death. Long before Velcro or GoreTex or REI Cooperative or the broad categories of competing goods and manufacturers were close to seeing the bushels of money to be made from selling a "lifestyle", Filson made a name for themselves making quality survival/adventure gear. Thanks to a recent infusion of private equity and the influx of consumer interest in the trappings of the modern lumbersexual, Filson is seemingly thriving. So much so that they offer a cute but at best cursory tour of their factory a few times each week. Here's a quick peek at the manufacturing going on just downstairs from their seriously sexy retail showroom.
Their retail store also features the "Filson Restoration Department" doing the work of turning many old, less-functional products into new, even-more-overpriced one-of-a-kind keepsakes. I'm not complaining...this sort of bespoke manufacturing is something I believe bespeaks of worthy reclaimation...although the $150 canvas and leather-bottomed "Ditty Bag" did chafe my mast a bit. The larger point being, seeing goods made close to home is worth the trip. No matter what materials are being used.
The scary news from NYC over the past few days drew the attention of many Americans, myself included. Beyond thoughts of "new normal" urban threats, it also brought to mind a dual set of personal memories. I feel fortunate to have gotten to know that part of Manhattan somewhat over the last handful of years. I've walked the streets of Chelsea where the bombing took place and where the other pressure cooker bomb was discovered nearby. What drew me there was the fact that the old garment center and the concentration of manufacturing of what had sometimes been called the "fur district" not so long ago occupied many of those blocks.
It isn't easy to cover my understanding of the long and fascinating history of that part of Manhattan in a quick blog post, so please excuse the gaps in my reasoning. But this unfortunate current news story also brought me back to what I saw five years ago today on the streets of Beijing, where what some call the "skins trade" is currently present. In a nutshell, what formerly was seen all over NYC's Garment Center is now a hard to find but active part of Beijing's street trade. I went back through some old photo libraries to offer the following pics to summarize what I'm referring to.
The overly-simplified next step in this trade sees those raw skins enter the manufacturing process. For an up-close example of this, I was taken by our tour bus to a factory outside Beijing where dozens of Chinese workers do the work of turning that commodity into a finished product. Once again, here's a few examples.
In the days ahead, I will better explain what I learned of this garment manufacturing process. For now, I thought it might be a worthwhile introduction as we all grapple with what happened in NYC over the weekend. Beijing is a long ways from Chelsea. Yet they are connected by this trade's history and the basic human element of real people doing real jobs. No matter what people may think of the manufacture of these goods, either then or now.
My personal trade mission to China in 2011 began in Beijing. As a part of a group largely driven by newcomer curiosities, tourist-y highlights factored in right from the start. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square were among the first sights seen, before our collective jetlag really even had a chance of kicking in. By the time our group of 40 hit the public bathrooms at the Forbidden City, culture shock seemed to be taking hold for most. Nothing makes a Westerner miss the comforts of home quite like a hole for crapping in the floor. Sorry to go blue right off the bat. I'm just calling it as I recall seeing it. I was actually more struck by the walk back to my fancy hotel, sans group. Just so you know what to expect, I always look to walk and generally always spin off from the dictated path. Here or there or most anywhere. That's how I roll.
Stroll many of the business neighborhoods of Beijing and you'll see very little separation between the sort of places that burn garbage in the alleys (or "hutongs") and the places where the open display of copious wealth dominates way some modern Chinese urbanites live. I came across numerous Lamourghini and Ferrari dealerships literally right down the block or around the corner from the sort of urban lower class realities that made me cautious and a bit ashamed for taking the time to look more closely. I would love to go back and see if anything's changed in the five years since visiting Beijing. I'd do so tomorrow. I loved my brief explorations of urban, rising China. However, my bet's that the dichotomy has only become more pronounced.
Not that I'll find a perfect analogy to bring us up to the current day...but I did purposely come across a pretty damn close one today right here in Seattle. The Alexander Wang Pop-In Shop@Nordstrom...a brilliant bit of marketing overseen by the enigmatic Olivia Kim...currently open through mid-October. I troll through the department stores regularly no matter where I am. Nordstrom is one of my favorites, and not just because they're based here. I'll admit shopping there, too. When it's justified. Recent Nordstrom pop-up shops...which amount to temporary sections at just a few big stores set up to feature a specific company or designer...have drawn my attention and business. I love my Warby Parker sunglasses and wear them way more than I should. I just wore my new Olivia Kim-designed chukka-style maroon Vans and they're on their way to becoming faves, too.
Alexander Wang designs for a very different consumer, though.
Plus, Wang uses fur.
Just a few years ago I heard outright denials from Seattle Nordstrom employees that they even had any fur garments in stock. Today I saw the following $1000 Arctic Fox neck pillow. I was told it's made in NYC. Unlike most of his designs, which are made in China. Cue the irony music. But rather than explain more fully what I mean, I'll post a few pics.
My point for the day may seem convoluted. If I was being forced to pull it together into a simple daily thesis, I'd crack under the pressure and fall back on an unanswerable favorite. Dichotomies are everywhere. False ones, classical ones, and even some real, economic ones. Don't ask me which is formally which. That's why we use the Google. But I'm left to ponder...how did a country that during the Cultural Revolution sent millions of people to their deaths in re-education camps for any embrace of capitalism in a just few short generations become the world's magnet for both the manufacture and consumption of luxury goods? Or, closer to home, how did a company that responded not long ago to the threat of being visited by animal rights activists for selling fur goods with a blanket denial that they don't sell such things become the sort of place that's celebrating a fur neck pillow that costs more than the median monthly residential rent in the U.S.? Obviously, I have many many more questions. Some might even have answers.
Thanks for checking in. That's all I've got today. Good night, good grief, and good luck, World.
Five years ago today, I began a journey. I went to China, an enchanting nation I'd not visited before. Or since. I traveled with a group of 40 people - predominantly Americans and Canadians, with a light sprinkling of other nationalities. We were going to visit some of the facilities and relevant examples of an economic engine overtaking an industry previously dominated by North American interests. It was for me one helluva fascinating way to begin work on a much larger project than I'd envisioned at the outset.
As I will begin to unpack herein through the upcoming months, I'd done plenty of work prior to heading to China five years ago. I was then trying to wrapping my head around an idea I had for a book. I still am, admittedly. In the nuttiest of nutshells, I wanted to explore the "global fur trade" from a new perspective. I needed to see it firsthand, as much as possible. I wanted to keep my eyes, ears and heart open. In the process, I hoped to fill in the massive gaps in my own understanding of the subject. Did I have a set of biases that would close off certain conclusions? Certainly. Take any complex narrative layered over with generations of shared and lived experience, and perceived and unseen biases will be uncovered. Yet I had a unique chance at hand as I boarded that flight from Seattle to Beijing. I would come to see things firsthand within the trade and, eventually, from a fascinating mix of outside perspectives. Along the way, I met, interviewed and connected with people who showed me kindness and, in some cases, anger and distrust. As I survey my current perspective and begin to share my narrative, I wish I occupied a position to say that I've got it all figured out. This, however, will not be that sort of story.
What began as an "investigative memoir" has out of necessity evolved into something much broader. I firmly believe, however, that I've found that a surprising and (hopefully) entertaining story of humans endeavoring in league with animals. No matter your take on the question of whether there should even be a trade involving fur-bearing animals...and I acknowledge right off the bat that the opinions on both sides of that debate are vociferously intractable...I think there's something I can tell you about what I found that will be of interest. Even if only the very real, entirely true stories of the people involved...or for that matter animals...appeals to you.
I'm somewhat astonished to see...even though I knew it all along...that it has been just over two years since I stepped away from this blog. Regardless, I'm pleased to announce...to almost no one aside from you...that I'm back. To share. To entertain. To ask and answer questions. To step into the line of fire. Today. And tomorrow. Please check back. Thanks for showing an interest, no matter where you stand.