The first main stop of the day was a cloisonne factory about 40 minutes from our hotel. This is the first, but not the last, "exclusive shopping opportunity" we were to experience on this trip. In Egypt, we only had two of these: the rug factory and the papyrus place. On this trip we were to have no less than seven such "shopping opportunities":
Lacquerware and Furniture
This was a bit much. Some of my fellow travelers looked like overladen burros by the end of the trip, with bags and boxes depending from various parts of their anatomy by strings, straps, and possibly staples. But since this was the first, we were in a good mood and up for it.
And it was quite interesting on its own level. They showed us through the factory and let us see each step of the process, which produced some extremely fine cloisonne as the final product.
Our guide, Herbie (yes, Herbie!) began the tour showing us the steps of the process. He had about six or eight demo vases showing:
1) the naked copper vase, 2) copper partitions glued onto the base, which will ultimately outline the pattern, 3) the vase after the first layer of enamel pigment was applied and fired, 4) the vase after all six layers of enamel were applied and fired, 5-7) the vase after polishing with an emery stone, a whetstone, and a piece of peachwood charcoal. The final product is a heavy vase with a very thick and smooth enamel layer. Also, though some cloisonne has only a single color in each "chamber", the artists here are very skilled at creating delicate shadings of color in the "chambers".
Next, we toured the factory. It's important to note that these factories are not really geared up for large-scale production. They're "demo" factories designed to show the tourists the steps of the process. Large-scale production is done farther out of the cities at less decorative facilities!
This lady is a gluer:
She bends flat copper wire into the shapes required by the pattern:
and then glues them to the copper vase blank:
This is Herbie, by the way:
He is showing us that the flat copper wire comes in wide strips so the gluers can bend 10 identical shapes then separate them and glue them on the vases.
In the next room the vases are enameled:
All those little open dishes contain enamel powder which is apparently mixed into some kind of paste (with water?) and packed into the chambers of the objects:
It was at this point that some of my fellow travelers started asking Herbie questions about the pay and safety of the workers, especially the ones working with the colored pigments which might contain toxic metals, and which certainly were small particulates you shouldn't breathe, which the workers were definitely doing because there were no masks in sight:
Herbie seemed not to understand our questions.
We did find out that because this is a state-owned factory, all the workers make a standard salary, plus bonuses which I think are based on piecework. Some very beautiful pieces result, however:
The kiln room came next. You put the object on the kiln platform:
and send it down the elevator into the flames:
After a minute at most, it comes back up:
and is set aside to cool:
Then the item is polished in the polishing room:
by being put on a sort of a water-cooled lathe and rubbed with successively smoother materials.
After the manufacturing process, they took us to the showroom which is a low-ceilinged room of echoing vastness filled with shelf after shelf of cloisonne objects:
Here I begin another collection to go with the Dogs of China collection:
Things I Didn't Get For My Buddy Robert.
There's a story behind this, of course. I have a dear friend - actually a whole family of dear friends - who, in addition to being awesome in their own right, freely and out of the goodness of their hearts watch my dogs for me when I need to go out of town. To give you an idea, they housed my pooches for two whole months in the summer of 2006 when I went home to help take care of my mom when she was sick. So these are some pretty good friends. I planned to bring each member of the family some nice souvenirs as a thank-you, and I had some ideas for most of them. I was talking to Robert himself, however, a few days before leaving, and I asked him what he'd like for a souvenir. He said, "Anything with goldfish on it. They love goldfish over there; there should be plenty."
Well. You just know that was the kiss of death.
Every time we went somewhere I'd look for goldfish-bearing souvenirs only to come up empty, or if I did find something it was wildly out of my price range. This lovely vase ran something in excess of $300. So if I couldn't afford it, at least I could photograph it and amuse him with the knowledge of what he wasn't getting!
Once I realized that I couldn't afford anything in the store, and once I'd worn out the charms of Recreational Admiring, I wandered outside to wait until we were to re-board the bus. That's when I got a bonus:
This pretty boy belongs to the owner of the factory. He's a lot taller than 14" - that's because we're outside the city limits of Beijing, so the ordinance doesn't apply. He appeared to be quite happy lolling in the dappled shade watching the crazy tourists. Bob the Dog Lover made friends with him while we waited: