A week in China

During my third trip to Dongguan in November, I kept a diary of my trip. For anyone who wonders what it's like to venture to the manufacturing hub of South China, I hope this helps to paint a little picture of my experiences.

 The view from the hotel room

The view from the hotel room


At breakfast I sit amongst a sea of Chinese men talking loudly on their mobile phones, ignoring their breakfast companions. Chewing away on pork noodles and chocolate muffins and picking at their crooked yellow teeth. These men are used to getting what they want. They call the waitress with a wave of the hand and gesture rudely for more coffee. 

I take a car to the factory with two of the managers. One is staying in the same hotel as me with his family from Israel. It's about 30 seconds before Brexit comes up in conversation. That's all people know to ask a Brit. They don't understand why everyone is unhappy with the outcome; they have never met anyone who voted to leave. I tell them that the people who voted to leave are not worth meeting.


At lunch we eat out. Finally I get to eat Chinese food (Usually I am stuck eating Israeli food in the sister factory canteen). My host Gally orders for me: beef with rice. We are served glasses of warm citrus water that I don't know whether to drink or wash with. I instinctively drink. Luckily the others do the same! 

The tables are too high. I feel like a child. I need a booster seat. The food is good though, delicious in fact. Simple food cooked well.

The weather is cooler than on my previous trips. We can drive with the windows open, the smells beat the stale AC air for sure (at least in this section of town). 

Tomorrow I will go to Hong Kong. I am excited about that. 


 The textile factory team helping out with the final suitcase tweaks

The textile factory team helping out with the final suitcase tweaks

I'm on the bus on the way back to the centre of town with all the other engineers and managers of the plastics factory. Back to the international epicentre: Dongcheng, a series of high rise hotels, fast food chains and Irish, Italian and American restaurants that make the wealthy immigrant factory managers feel at home. I am welcomed warmly as I get on the bus; they did not know I was coming. 

There is a typhoon coming. I am no longer sure I will make it to Hong Kong. This means another weekend stuck in Dongguan alone. 

It's almost 8.30pm now. I won't get back to the hotel before 9pm for sure. I don't understand how the engineers who live on this side of town can handle the relentless 14hr days. I would chose to live in Shipai Town next to the factory if I worked here. It is not productive to be so tired all of the time; you can see it on their faces that they feel the same. But this is a good opportunity for them; it is a good factory. 


Very tired this morning. Slept terribly. Jet lag always hits me on the second day. I pack up my suitcase in the hope that I will be able to make it to Hong Kong tonight. Turns out this is wishful thinking. The train lines are closed. The typhoon is approaching.

I have a productive morning. At lunch the marketing manager Paul takes me through many of the projects he has worked on in the past. He tells me with great pride of his work with Laura Ashley and how he used to make cake toppers of The Snowman. He is a very likeable man with a round belly and a big smile. His wife is making cake this weekend; I am invited over to try some.

For lunch this time I let Paul decide: Sweet and sour pork. More sweet than sour, but good nonetheless. I decide this is definitely better than the Israeli food I eat at the other factory.

Nicole shows me some videos from Shenzhen where the typhoon is at the moment. Shenzhen is only an hour south and it's being ravaged by the wind and the rain. Soon the typhoon will hit here in Dongguan. Perhaps I should leave early and get back to the hotel. while I still can..?

Women walk through the streets carrying their umbrellas almost at 90degrees against the growing wind and rain. I left my umbrella in England. I doubt I have the skills to prevent it blowing inside out anyway. 


Back in the fluorescent box oblivious to the carnage happening outside. I click away, moving models around on the screen. Adjusting fillets and imagining the final product in my head. It's warm in here. I'm feeling very sleepy. The lines blur on the screen... I need coffee.

The coffee tastes like piss, but it fuels me for another few hours. The American client has woken up and, like a pesky child, needs attention. I feed him the good news before the bad news: I won't be taking the samples home with me; they won't be finished in time. 

I am going to have to work tomorrow. 


Another restless nights sleep and I am back in the hotel buffet deciding between noodles, sushi, eggs or rubbery pastries for breakfast. Usually I avoid all and just take a yoghurt and bowl of fruit, but today is Saturday, I go with toast, bacon and a fried egg. Washed down by the super strong coffee. 


 Caffeine: fighting jetlag since 1920

Caffeine: fighting jetlag since 1920


At work we make good progress in a short time. The factory is quiet and I have the full attention of the managers and my super helpful liaison Nicole so we manage to solve all of the textile related issues on both projects and make a plan for the next samples. I am happy. It is only 10.30am. I can still make it to Hong Kong, but I left my luggage in the hotel so I will need to go back to get it. Should I still go?


Back at the hotel. 1.30pm. It is very quiet. The typhoon has passed and the sun is attempting to break through the permanently hazy sky. The white noise of the traffic 13 floors below is soothing. It's cool enough now to have the AC off. There is just enough breeze from the small window, although I have to stand on a chair to open it. Stops people jumping though I suppose.

I have decided to stay in Dongguan. I have work to do; a proposal for a big potential client. It needs my full attention. Plus this will not be my last trip to China. I am tired and that back right wisdom tooth is aching again. Maybe I should get it removed?


 Blue skies after the typhoon

Blue skies after the typhoon

Early afternoon I go for a walk to find something to eat. The humidity is high and the temperature back in to thirties so before long I'm sweating in my black jeans. I've done this walk before. In fact, I've walked most places around Dongchen. There's not much to see in this part of town. It just looks like any other big city. In the shopping centre I browse through Zara and Calvin Klein, Bershka and H&M laughing at the slogan tshirts that read meaningless things like 'sometime someone' 'babes' and 'random'. I pass by a giant play area made up of rope bridges, rope swings and high wires that looks enormous fun, but clearly only meant for kids under 8. I wander around the SPAR looking in wonder at the brightly colour packets of ... god knows what?! Chicken feet, pig skin, dried meat, mouldy looking eggs and other strange food items. I buy myself an ice tea and a couple of kiwis for snacking.

I have to admit, as a 25 yr old girl travelling alone I am not particularly adventurous when it comes to finding places to eat. Feel free to judge me as I walk into McDonalds and point at the McChicken Burger and fries. Sometimes you just don't want to have to think about it. At least I know this is actually chicken... Right?

I have been invited to one of the engineers house for pizza. Corona, Papa Johns pepperoni and Frozen playing on the TV for the kids. I could be anywhere in the world right now. It feels good to talk about things other than work. They are very kind people and I feel very welcomed in their home. It's a lovely evening.


Sunday I do nothing. Without my 7.30am alarm I sleep until 1pm. This is probably a mistake but I feel much better for it. I've missed breakfast so I eat a spicy beef pot noodle for breakfast and catch up on work emails. I have two important proposals for potential new clients to put together and by the time I've read up enough on revenue shares and equity deals it's dark outside. 

There are several restaurants in the area. One For The Road: an English pub with shepherds pie on the menu and 90s music videos on a big screen outside; Holly's: a western restaurant with beautiful Phillipino waitresses and non-stop karaoke-esque live music that's slightly too loud; O'neills: an Irish bar with steamed up windows and Guinness on draft. If you want Chinese food, this is not the place to be. 

I choose to go up to the American burger bar up towards the park. I quite like it there. It's certainly not cheap, but the meat tastes legit and the beer is good. 

'For one?' The waitress asks me. Why do they always seem so surprised? The only problem with the American restaurant is the Americans. Fat middle aged men with slim pretty Asian girls on their arm trying to one up each other, their southern drawls slurring more with each cocktail. One of them catches my eye and smiles a greasy smile. A white girl sitting all by herself, why surely they would be doing me a favour by keeping me company? I put my headphones in and switch on Jon Ronson. It's a story about assisted suicide. 


 Just a few of the suitcase components

Just a few of the suitcase components


Back to the plastics factory. I have to solve the last few tooling concerns. When you are working with an assembly with this many components and with over 100 iterations since we started it's so hard to keep track of all of the files. This factory is super strict with part numbers and revisions. I now understand why. 

After lunch I get a car over to the metal factory. This factory is my favourite. It's loud and dirty and power of the machines is truly impressive. The raw aluminium in 10m lengths stacked ready to go into the huge extrusion machine from which comes the most intricate of parts cut perfectly to size in a warehouse that goes almost as far as the eye can see. Then there is the cutting, punching, welding, anodising, sandblasting and polishing. And at the end of it all, from the heat and the smoke, the beautifully finished parts sit shining in boxes ready for transportation to the assembly line. I'm here to arrange some new samples. A five minute conversation with the manager; they will be ready tomorrow. 

The speed in which things can be achieved out here is amazing. You have to poke and prod the right people of course, but you can have complex prototypes made in 24hrs for money that wouldn't even buy you dinner in London. As much as these trips out to China exhaust me, it would not be possible to get this all done remotely. 


It's morning and the sun shines weakly through the hazy cloud. This is probably as much clear blue sky as is possible in this part of the world. On the way into the textile fabric the manager begins raving about how much he loves 'prat'. It takes me a while to realise he's talking about 'Pret' the sandwich bar. "Amazing sandwiches, amazing. Avocado, salad, so good, so fresh!" I don't dare tell him that it's not all that impressive when compared to the vast array of options available back in London. 

There is another customer at the textile factory today. At lunch we talk at length about design and crowdfunding and working with startups, as well as the ups and downs of the product development journey. It's refreshing to speak so with someone in a similar situation to me. 

The afternoon is a rollercoaster of emotions. The workshop manager is one long thin moustache away from being the evil Chinese guy in an old school spy movie. And he has the temper to match. I like him though: he is very passionate about his work. But he is very difficult and extremely stubborn. He insists that the assembly of the product I'm working on cannot happen in the way I say it must. But he has underestimated this 5'2 little white girl from England. I've given 6 months to this project; noone knows this suitcase better than me.


 Lunchtime at the factory

Lunchtime at the factory

At dinner I'm back at the plastics factory eating a Chinese take on Israeli food. After the tasty Chinese food at lunch, I'm not taken by the warm salad and dodgy looking chicken. Last time I came to China I was sick for 5 days. I take a plate of plain rice and potatoes. 

A long debate with one of the engineers sees me miss the bus home. After an exhausting day the last thing I want is to be stuck in a hot factory. Luckily I manage to blag a lift back to my hotel with one of the managers. On the way back I ask why the lights across the road flash every time you drive past. "They are taking a picture" he says. These dazzling bright lights are positioned every 30yards, and flash distractingly every time you pass. A huge database in Shanghai stores the images of each and every car travelling around the country and is able to track exactly where a car, and its passengers has been and are going. If that's not invasion of privacy I don't know what is. "But don't the Chinese people have an issue with this?" I ask. "They don't know any different."


 My plane back to London

My plane back to London


As my final day draws to a close I switch to Edith Piaf on Spotify. 'Non Je Ne Regrette Rien'. It's a special song for me and it's become a tradition for me to listen to it after I have achieved something I'm proud of.  Half an hour ago I signed the golden sample of the textile for the suitcase; it's been confirmed, no more design changes. The responsibility is no longer on my shoulders. It really does look amazing and I rarely say that about anything. After 6 months of design and development, I'm really very happy with how it's all turned out. Now comes a long process of testing, pilot production, assembly analysis, quality control and then mass production and delivery. But for now... the team and I can take a breather whilst the tools for the plastic parts are made. 

It will be the third week of December when the fully assembled product will be put through the final round of testing. I've already sent Santa a list of what I want for Christmas!


As a celebration I go to Holly's. With the generosity of the factory feeding me most days I have some RMB to spend. Wednesday is an early finish so I have time for a few drinks and decide to order a steak. The manager is here is very nice. A tall grey haired man in his 50s he is obviously a little surprised to see a young female eating alone, but he is professional about it. I expect it doesn't help that I dress like a 15 year old boy when I'm not working. 

The food is excellent. But I would expect that at these prices! A fine way to round off another successful trip to the East. I have to say... I'm starting to like it here.

Jo BarnardComment