Where Underpants Come From: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China by Joe BennettWhere Underpants Come From: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China by Joe Bennett

Where Underpants Come From: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China

byJoe Bennett

Paperback | May 6, 2008

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When Joe Bennett bought a five-pack of 'Made in China' underpants in his local New Zealand hypermarket for $8.59, he wondered who on earth could be making any money, let alone profit, from the exchange. How many processes and middlemen are involved? Where and how are the pants made? And who decides on the absorbent qualities of the gusset?

WHERE UNDERPANTS COME FROMtells you all you need to know -- in fact, probably more -- about this mystery of global commerce. Leaving his supermarket trolley behind Joe embarks on an odyssey to the new factory of the world, China, to trace his pants back to their source. Along the way he discovers the extraordinarily balanced and intricate web of contacts and exchanges that makes global trade possible -- and rapidly elevating China to the status of world economic superpower. He also grapples with chopsticks, challenges his own prejudices and marvels at the contrasts in one of the world's oldest, but fastest changing, societies. Funny, wise and insightful, it is another wonderful journey from the author of A Land of Two Halvesand Mustn't Grumble.
Julian Bennett was born on April 20, 1957 in England. He is a New Zealand writer and columnist. He emigrated to New Zealand when he was twenty nine. Before his writing career, he worked as an English teacher at one of Christchurch's leading high schools, Christ's College. During this time, Bennett wrote the words to the musical "Tramps...
Title:Where Underpants Come From: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New ChinaFormat:PaperbackDimensions:272 pages, 9.21 × 6.02 × 0.03 inPublished:May 6, 2008Publisher:Simon & Schuster UKLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1847370012

ISBN - 13:9781847370013

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Read from the Book

Introduction There are 6.5 billion people in the world. Line them up as on a parade ground, then inspect them like a commander in chief. Roughly every hundredth person you pass will be British. Every fifteen-hundredth or so will be a New Zealander. Every fifth will be Chinese. Officially China has 1.3 billion citizens. Actually it has rather more, perhaps as many as 1.6 billion. That's as near as makes no difference a quarter of the world's population. It's also five times as many people as America's got. Having gone to the trouble of gathering 6.5 billion people into one place, do another little exercise. Ask all the farmers to step forward, the people who make their living by tilling soil or tending livestock. Of those, one in three will be Chinese. Dismiss the people and line up the world's pigs. I have no statistics on British or Kiwi pigs, but every second pig in your line will be Chinese. China produces 49 per cent of the world's pork and eats the lot. The figure for ducks is even more impressive, but they're harder to line up. To put it simply, China is unimaginably big. And China is booming. That boom has only just begun. Most Chinese people remain poor but are keen to do whatever it takes to become rich. So China looks set to dominate the twenty-first century. And once it has gained domination there seems no reason why it shouldn't retain it for however many centuries are left to our species. China is just too big to argue with. Only India could put up much of a fight and it probably won't. Already most of us are clothed by China, shod by China, supplied with hardware by China, effectively in debt to China. And yet most of us know very little about China. My experience is typical. I left university thirty years ago, ostensibly educated. My knowledge of China was nil. Such ignorance has precedents. Until the thirteenth century, when Marco Polo got banged up in a Genoese prison and passed the time by telling tall stories to his cell mate, very few people in the West knew anything much about China. Back then, travel was more difficult and ignorance more understandable. Today China is only a day in a plane from anywhere else, and yet for most of us China remains mysterious. The reasons lie in China itself. In the Chinese language two characters represent the country. The first is a rectangle with a vertical stroke through it. It means middle. The second looks like a malformed Christmas tree in a box. It means people. China sees itself and has always seen itself as the centre of the world. To the Chinese, China is all. It is the Middle Kingdom with the mandate of heaven. And the non-Chinese bits of the world have never mattered much. For a couple of millennia China led the world in technology and pretty much everything else. Only since the eighteenth century has the West collectively caught up with China and then overtaken it. But the West's triumph looks like proving brief. China has rejoined the race and is coming up fast on the rails. It will get its nose ahead soon. Then it will streak away. Again. This book recounts my first experience of China. There are plenty of better-informed books about China, but I suspect this is the only one to begin with a pair of underpants. 1 Becoming Sherlock Within living memory, men's underpants were simple. They were white and capacious. When eventually discarded they were more capacious, but less white. Today they are less simple. The displays in The Warehouse in a Christchurch shopping mall hold perhaps a hundred varieties of underpants, from satin boxer shorts with scarlet hearts, to hugging hipsters with pictures of racing cars. I buy six pairs. Five come rolled in a clear plastic pouch and they cost me NZ$8.59. They are the simplest, plainest briefs for daily wear. The sixth pair is for special occasions. They are black with a grey waistband into which the word 'Authentic' is embroidered. There is no vent in the front, but there are two stickers where a vent would be. One says 'stretch' and illustrates the verb with arrows going in all directions. The other says 'double front'. In other words, these pants will accommodate an erection and absorb accidents. Underpants ought to be a swift purchase because the only consideration is practicality, but it takes me a minute or two to settle on the Authentics. What delays me is vanity. I want the pants to flatter me a little. It is a ridiculous concern. No one will ever see these underpants except my dogs and perhaps the occasional sexual partner. The dogs will take no interest, and if a sexual partner and I reach the underpant stage, then, frankly, it's a done deal. It would take more than pictures of racing cars to halt the momentum. Nevertheless I am clearly not alone in taking aesthetic considerations into account, otherwise there would not be a hundred different varieties of underpants. The waistband tells me that my Authentics were made in China from cotton and elastane. Another label says 'CLASS' in capital letters, and on the reverse, 'Mens Lifestyle Underwear combines fashion styling with functional features for all-day comfort.' Despite the word 'lifestyle', the euphemisms, the needless capitalization and the missing apostrophe, I have to acknowledge that the label reflects my reasons for choosing these pants. They are conventional and sturdy, which is more or less how I am, but with a hint of elegance, which is how I'm not. But it is how I would like to be. These pants are aspirational. They cost NZ$5.99. On the way home, with my pants in a bag on the seat beside me, it strikes me as remarkable that underpants can be made in China and transported to New Zealand, passing through the hands of, and making a profit for, I don't know how many middle men, and still be sold to me for just NZ$5.99. And as for the pack of five pairs for NZ$8.59, well, the economics of it is beyond me. It also strikes me that I have effectively no idea how to make a pair of underpants. I know that cotton grows on bushes in rabbit-tail tufts, but not how those tufts become thread, or the thread cloth. Is the spinning jenny involved? And what about the waistband? I suspect the involvement of elastic, and that presumably means rubber, but what is the relationship between rubber, elastic and elastane? My ignorance of underpants is representative of a far wider ignorance. In forty-nine years I have learned next to nothing about the commercial and industrial processes on which my easy existence depends. If some cataclysm were to reduce society to a few survivors, I'd be the one sitting on a heap of rubble with his head in his hands and no idea how to start again. Back home my dogs follow me to the bedroom, where I pose before the mirror in my Authentics. The dogs display every bit as much interest in the pants as you would expect. But I have become interested in the pants, so interested that I send an email to my agent in London. 'Jim,' it says, 'I've got this idea for a book and I need someone to tell me it's a crap idea.' I explain that I want to find out everything I can about a single pair of Chinese-made underpants, to trace them all the way back, if possible, to the source of their raw materials. In the process I hope to discover everything I can about the commercial world on which we all depend but about which I know so little. At the same time I want to learn something about that ever-growing giant called China. And it seems such a fine idea to me that without waiting for a reply I set about the research. 'Welcome to The Warehouse customer service. You're talking with Kim.' 'Kim,' I say, 'I've got a bizarre request', and I sense her steel a little on the phone. 'I'd like to talk to the person who buys your underwear. Not your underwear, of course, but, well, you know what I mean.' Kim laughs. 'I'll put you through to the girls in Clothing,' she says. I don't get the girls in Clothing. I get Sue in Gardening. I explain that I am after underwear. 'I'll put you through to the girls in Clothing,' says Sue. After a brief interlude of tinny rap music I get Kim again. 'Didn't anyone pick up the phone?' she says. I explain about Gardening Sue. Kim asks what exactly I want to know, and then suggests that I try The Warehouse head office in Auckland. And I realize, suddenly, and much to my surprise, that I'm enjoying myself. The head office answerphone offers four options, none of which bears any relevance to my request. I press Customer Service and get Kelly. I explain my purpose, conscious that I am refining the line already in the hope of kindling a flame of interest. When I say that I hope to track these pants all the way back to source, Kelly becomes gratifyingly intrigued. 'The bloke you want is Nick Tuck,' she says. 'He travels to China a lot.' She gives me his extension number. Her last words are 'Good luck.' Nick Tuck's out of the office but his answerphone promises to return my call as soon as possible. It also gives his mobile number. I leave a message, then dial the mobile. As it starts to ring I picture Nick Tuck in an Auckland traffic jam or in a waiting room or a lift. And if, as Kelly suggests, he is the man I really need to talk to, the man who can set this quest properly in motion, the man with contacts in the great unknown of China, then I want to talk to him in more propitious circumstances than a traffic jam. I put the phone down. The following morning I get an email from my agent. 'Joe,' it says, 'it's a crap idea. Best, Jim.' Well now, Jim knows his stuff. But I persevere, partly because it's costing me nothing, partly because I am enjoying feeling like Sherlock Holmes, but mainly because I am genuinely curious. I want to find out about these pants, and I also, just as strongly, want to find out what finding out about these pants will be like. How far will I get? And will I be allowed to see the mysteries? Over the next few days I ring Nick Tuck's land line several times but get no answer and I don't leave the same message again for fear of seeming demanding. Eventually I ring head office again. 'Welcome to Customer Service. You are talking with Tracy.' When I tell Tracy that my research may eventually turn into a book, she too becomes intrigued. 'The guy you want to talk to,' she says, 'is Nick Tuck.' I say that I have tried to talk to Nick Tuck. 'Then let's try Pam Hadlee,' says Tracy. 'She's lovely. She's away today but she will definitely return your call. I'll tell her all about you.' I leave a message for Pam Hadlee. Two days later, she rings back. 'The person you want to talk to,' she says, 'is Nick Tuck.' There's nothing for it. I ring Nick Tuck's mobile. Nick Tuck is in a traffic jam. 'Joe, yes,' he says, and I think I detect a wariness in his tone. 'I got your message. Sorry I haven't got back to you. Hold on while I put you on speakerphone. Now, what was it you wanted again?' I explain, adapting my tale a little once more in a bid to assuage that wariness. I stress what good publicity this could be for The Warehouse. 'Email me the bar code,' he says, 'and we'll go from there.' The bar code is 9401011304278. His reply is prompt and it reeks of relief. He explains that The Warehouse sources most of its underpants directly from factories in China, but it also sells a few lines imported into New Zealand by other outfits. My Authentics belong in the latter category. He gives me the number of the importers and a name to ask for, and he wishes me all the best. Shortly afterwards I get an email from agent Jim. 'Joe, on second thoughts, your idea may not be as crap as all that. Can you send me a slightly fuller proposal? Best Jim.' I send him a slightly fuller proposal. And I resist the urge to crow. The bloke who answers the phone at the importers does not tell me his name or say, 'Welcome to Customer Service.' He says 'Yeah?' then he pages the boss. The boss's voice is purringly educated. I plump up my own accent a notch or two, a chameleon habit I acquired growing up in the English class system, and explain that I am eager to trace a pair of his underpants back to source. 'Why?' he says. I start to explain that the underpants are not so much underpants as a vehicle through which I can discover a little about the world of global commerce and particularly about the growing industrialization of China and its relationship to the West, but the purringly educated voice soon stops saying 'Ah-ha' or 'I see' or even 'Why?' 'Would it be easier if I sent you an email?' I ask. 'Yes.' So I do. As follows: Thanks for being open to my idea. The underpants I'm studying are a pair of men's Authentics. They're black with a grey waistband. My mission is to trace all the constituent parts of the underpants to source. I want to discover how they got from China to here, where they were made in China, where the constituents originated from. In short, I want to know everything that it is possible to know about this particular pair of underpants... I am NOT looking to uncover scandal or to do any sort of hatchet job. I will respect anything that you may wish to keep confidential - name of factory, price paid per item or whatever. Here are some questions that I would be grateful for any answers to: Where are the pants made? Do you deal directly with the factory or through an agent? Who organizes the shipping? Which company actually does the shipping? Where do the ships sail from and to? Can you give me the name of someone I could contact in China regarding a visit? (He or she will have to speak English, I'm afraid.) Is there anything else I ought to know but obviously don't? Gratefully Joe Bennett At which point providence steps in, disguised, as always, as random chance. I used to teach. The kids I taught in New Zealand are now in their twenties or thirties, and being Kiwis they have scattered all over the world. One, I now discover, has gone to Japan where he has made friends with an expatriate Kiwi art dealer. This art dealer is trying to get a book published in New Zealand. My former pupil suggested that I might be able to help, so the art dealer calls me. His name is Michael Gorman. I offer Michael what advice I can, then I ask whether perhaps he might be able to give me some. Briefly I explain my mission. Michael loves the idea. His enthusiasm encourages me. I ask whether he has any contacts in China. And yes, he says, he has abundant contacts, and in particular the invaluable Ning Ning. Whenever Michael visits China on business, Ning Ning acts as his researcher, guide, interpreter and factotum. Michael insists that I make use of her and that she will make everything easy for me. Immediately my mental image of China changes. Until now China has been a vast unknown, a daunting impenetrability. But suddenly I have a name, and with it comes a sense of China being simply a country full of people like anywhere else. Ning Ning replies immediately to my email. She is too busy to take me on. But the good news is that she has a friend Ruth, who, she assures me, speaks English every bit as good as hers and who, she also assures me, will be delighted to help. Ruth, too, replies immediately to my email, and she is indeed delighted to help. I ring her to say that I'll come to see her and China in a couple of months. I say it glibly, but when I put the phone down I realize with a mild lurch that I'm now committed. It is all going to happen. I'm going to China. I rather expected to die without ever going to China. Then I get this: HI JOE SORRY BUT I DO NOT HAVE GOOD NEWS FOR YOU. I INCLUDE BELOW A REPLY FROM MY HK PARTNERS MANAGING DIRECTOR. Alicia forwarded this mail of yours to me. The whole project sounds very interesting. If we are semi retired we should be able to show him around. However, all of us are just too busy to handle the case. There are so many areas involved that even ourselves are unable to cover. Although through contracts we will be able to penetrate into the depth of the aspects, the efforts put in will be enormous. Then your orders and production can be neglected... I don't think we will take up the mission. Kind regards. Ricky THESE PEOPLE AR THE HONG KONG AGENTS THAT WE USE WHO HAVE ALL THE FACTORY CONTACTS. THEY SURPERVISE ALL OUR PRODUCTION FORM ORDER TO SHIPMENT TIME. AT THE FACTORY NOT EVEN I CAN COMMUNICATE WITHOUT THESE PEOPLE ALONG SIDE TO TRANSLATE JOE AND I HAVE BEEN DOING THIS FOR YEARS. SORRY JOE BUT WE ARE UNABLE TO ASSIST IN YOUR REQUEST. GOOD LUCK REGARDS I reply: Thanks for taking the trouble. I don't want to seem a pest, but all I need is the name and address of the factory where these underpants are made. The rest I can do for myself and I'll leave you alone. Is there any chance of just that single piece of information? Regards Joe The reply is prompt and it reads like a door closing HI JOE SORRY I DON'T HOLD THIS INFO. CHEERS At which point Jim writes to tell me that my publisher is keen. I decide to attack from both ends. I ask Ruth to contact any Chinese underpant manufacturers she can find. She is to pretend that I am a prospective buyer from New Zealand. I feel uneasy about the lie, but Ruth seems to have no such qualms. Meanwhile I buy myself another pair of pants and start again. My new pair are called Underdaks. They are grey with a black waistband and have an agreeably soft and stretchy feel to them, as they should at NZ$12.99. Though made in China, they are marketed by Pacific Brands who have a factory on Brougham Street in Christchurch. When I ring the factory, I am swiftly transferred to head office in Auckland and a woman called Paula. Paula listens, thinks the idea fascinating, is sure they can help, and promises to get back to me. Reasonably soon, she does. Hi there Joe I apologize for the delay in coming back to you regarding your query. Unfortunately I have found that company policy is not to provide information on our supply sources - and so we are unable to help you with your project. I wish you well with the assignment. Kind regards Paula Ruth, however, has met with success. Within days she has assembled a list of Chinese pant-makers who are terribly keen to meet me. But I still want, if possible, to follow a single pair of locally bought pants. It turns out that providence wants it too. On a brief trip to London, providence serves up Tim Coles. I went to university with Tim. While we are having a coffee in Great Portland Street he asks me what I am writing at the moment and I tell him about my underpant plans. I mention The Warehouse. 'The Warehouse?' says Tim. 'I know the boss.' The boss is Ian Morrice, a Scot recruited a few years ago to come to New Zealand and take over the company. I've heard him on the radio. Tim and he, it seems, worked alongside each other for a while at, I think, Tesco. Dear Mr Morrice My name's Joe Bennett. I'm an author and newspaper columnist. I also happen to be a friend of Tim Coles, with whom you used to work in the UK. He suggested I get in touch with you. I have a commission from a London publisher to write a book called 'Where Underpants Come From'. The mission is to trace a pair of Chinese underpants from the supermarket shelves back to source. This would mean finding how they're transported here, seeing where they're made, then following the materials from which they're made right back to cotton bush and rubber tree. I started with a pair of Warehouse underpants. I eventually reached your buyer who told me they were bought from a third party importer. I got in touch with that importer but they refused to help. What I would like is for you to give me clearance to follow a pair of underpants that you yourselves import, back to the factory where they're made and so on. The intention is to get to understand and explain the commercial and industrial processes that are a mystery to punters like myself. I am not looking to uncover scandal. The book will be an honest record of my travels and my discoveries. If there were anything you wished to keep confidential, I would respect your wishes. I am confident that the book could bring you good publicity, especially since the cover photo would be almost certain to feature the pants themselves... Any assistance I receive, will, of course, be acknowledged... Sincerely Joe Bennett I never hear back from Mr Morrice. But within three days I get this. Hi Joe Ian forwarded me your email re: interest in The Warehouse. Shouldn't be a problem. Give me a call... Rgds Phil Jamieson General Manager Strategy and Corporate Affairs The Warehouse Group Limited And I'm away. It pays to go to the top. It rapidly transpires that I simply started with the wrong pants. The ones I should have begun with were the humdrum workaday briefs that I bought for next to nothing in a pack of five. Via its office in Shanghai, The Warehouse orders these pants direct from the factory and imports them itself. When I apply for a visitor's visa to China, a friend advises me not to use the words 'writer' or 'journalist'. He also suggests that I give myself a bogus title such as 'Dr' or 'Prof'. 'They love a title in China,' he says. 'They've even got a "Department of Foreign Experts".' I don't give myself a title, but in the section called 'Purpose of Visit' I write 'tourism'. It feels excitingly covert. The visa is granted. I send an email to Ruth. 'I'm on my way,' it says.