Yesterday Li Zhen and I went on our first shoot in Ningbo, China at the Weike Mian Fang factory. To get there we had to drive about 3 hours, which included the shortcut of the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, the longest bridge in the world. Kenny Zheng drove us to Ningbo and expertly navigated once we were there. The image here is from the Hangzhou Bay Bridge at night, on our return home.
Surprisingly, we were granted permission to film at Weike Mian Fang right away, which we weren’t expecting. Li Zhen explained to the factory manager that we would like to film longer, to talk to the workers and spend more time in the location. He did not initially understand this but told us that once we finished shooting, we could discuss this possibility. We couldn’t find him when we finished for the day, so our next step is to follow up with him to determine if it will be possible to return.
Weike Mian Fang is part of the larger Veken Textile Company, but they only produce cotton thread and some kind of polyester fabric. One side of the factory was devoted to the processing of large bales of polyester from Malaysia. In this same large room cotton was also being processed. Large machines slowly combed through piles of raw cotton to separate the trash. The clean cotton becomes thread and the dirtier cotton is separated for other products, like blue jeans, or it is thrown away. A room adjacent to the area where raw cotton arrives from the Port of Ningbo contains large bags dirty, raw cotton that has been discarded by the thread manufacturing process.
What is consistent from the U.S. all the way to China is the smell of cotton. Weike Mian Fang smells just like the gin in Cameron, South Carolina and the warehouses in Savannah, Georgia. I was not expecting this, and yet I recognized it as soon as I stepped onto the factory floor. Cotton has an “organic” smell, like crushed, dried twigs mixed with fresh air. I was also caught off guard by how few workers I saw in the factory; Weike Mian Fang appeared almost empty to me and people were scarcely to be seen. I caught glimpses of workers, manning the larger machines. But when raw cotton is being spun into thread, the machine dominates– it fills the room. Isle upon isle of small, robotic arms rhythmically do the work of spinning threads - 沙 (sha1)- and then making these threads into one, long line on a spool: 线 (xian4). Even if it would have been possible to speak to any of the people we saw in the factory, they would have scarcely been heard over the din of the machines.
At the end of the production line in a room (thankfully) lit by daylight, about 4 or 5 workers were packing the 沙 into cardboard boxes. This 沙 is heading to Japan. In this room we did a small amount of filming and we also spoke to one of the workers on camera who became immediately shy. We did learn that she is from Ningbo and has worked here for a long time, perhaps about 30 years So, she would have worked here when Weike was a state-owned enterprise. Now it is partnership between state and private, we think. Li Zhen will research this.
I think Li Zhen and I had a good start on Friday, but the kind of filming I did felt like practice: it was an opportunity to be in this environment for the first time, to get a visual understanding of the space, and to see what it is like for raw cotton to become a product. It was also a chance for Li Zhen and I to practice working together, and to get a sense of how we will proceed. I also had some technical trouble: the factory floor is very dim; I had to boost gain and shoot wide open the entire time. The florescent lights that vaguely lit the factory were also off ballast, so the images are pulsing with a fuzzy, black bar that scrolls from bottom to the top of the screen. (Thanks to Mark Gamble for standing “on call” in Columbia to research how I might fix this problem next time!) We will ask Mr. Zhou if we can return to Weike Mian Fang, and we’ll also ask if they can enable access to the Port of Ningbo, so that we can see the raw cotton’s arrival and transport to the factory. Weike Mian Fang was using American cotton, by the way– the bales we saw were from Mid Valley Cotton Growers, in Tulare, California; gin number 96208.