Li Zhen and I had great fortune and luck 运 (yun4) on Monday at Wai Gao Qiao. Our 运 began when we met Cathie Xu, a woman who works for Mallory Alexander International Logistics Company. Cathie is an engineer by training; she works near Wai Gao Qiao and manages the movement of goods to and from China, from the shipper to buyers. Because she occasionally works with cotton, she was able to take us to three different cotton warehouses for a look around. These are ‘bonded warehouses’, where cotton is sent before it is sold. If cotton has a buyer already, it is shipped from its origin (Bennettsville, South Carolina for example) straight to the mill that has made the purchase. However, if cotton doesn’t have a buyer, it can be shipped to a warehouse in a Free Trade Zone like Wai Gao Qiao where it might be purchased in transit, or after it arrives to the warehouse. Today we saw cotton from Oklahoma, Texas, India, Mexico and Mali. It expanded the story for me to lay eyes on cotton from around the world, collected in the same room. At first glance, a bale of cotton is a rather uniform thing; but these hundreds of bales stacked one on to of another were undeniably unique: bound neatly or with broken wire; colored yellow, brown, or pinkish; dirty and clean; wrapped in plastic, burlap, or a cotton sack. Each bale possesses its own history, an object with a kind of “embedded energy” (to quote my friend Ellen Kochansky). The work of cotton growing and harvesting is an uneven playing field around the world. It’s gathered by hand or by $500,000 machines. But it all ends up here, in relatively the same place in the global market. I find this interesting to think about.
One of the things Cathie said to us was “You should have made your film in 2006!” There was a lot of cotton on the global market then, and a lot of it was in China. Even though China is still importing cotton from around the world, textile production has greatly slowed given the global decline in demand. Still, Mr. Yuan’s warehouse (left) was pretty full. The second warehouse we visited had only cotton from India (the above photo); they were unloading big shipments of granulated polyvinyl chloride when we arrived. The third warehouse we visited was the largest and newest, with cotton stacked about 9 bales high. I didn’t pay careful attention to the PBI tags we saw, but in her interview Cathie mentioned Oklahoma and, I think, Charlotte. We did a couple of interviews here at the warehouse, one with Cathie and one with Mr. Chen Bin, the warehouse manager. It was the end of the day, cold and raining, and the light was falling fast. We weren’t able to do much, but it was a start. I am eager to return here in particular to film these enormous stacks and amass a visual collection of ID tags from around the world.
Mr. Chen Bin was incredibly helpful, and even gave us a ride back the edge of Shanghai. In the car he happened to mention that his wife works for a textile company in Yan Pu District, which is in Shanghai. He gave us her number and we will follow up to see about a tour. Even though I hope we will also be able to return to Ningbo, having access to a location closer to Shanghai will be great.
All warehouse managers agreed to invite us back for more filming between now and July. We’ll be able to document how shipments of cotton rise or fall, depending on the global economic situation, as well as how long cotton sits before buyers come. Our final stroke of luck came when Cathie Xu introduced us to a cotton broker, Mr. Wang Li. He works in customs clearance and does CIQ inspections at a location in the Free Trade Zone. Mr. Wang invited us to come with him to film the inspections and related activity at the port; we’ll also be able to connect with cotton’s transport out of port by truck drivers. In addition to American cotton, I want to attend inspections of cotton from around the world. I am interested in how all this cotton, which is grown under such wide-ranging economic circumstances and conditions, is able to compete or not once it’s here. For instance, many of the cotton bales from India were disheveled and falling apart, with exploded brackets. Cotton from India looks like cotton from a developing nation.