The final stop on a nine day tour that began on June 3rd in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province. From there I flew
to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, for a three-night stay. On Monday, I flew to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan
province, before travelling three hours by road to the prefecture-level city of Mianyang. Then, back to Chengdu for
yesterday’s flight to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, from where I travelled directly from the airport to
the prefecture-level city of Xuchang.
I must admit
that when I saw Xuchang on my travel itinerary, I raised an eyebrow. “Where’s that,” I asked. The person I asked wasn’t sure. “It’s in Henan province… or, then again, it might be in Hunan,” was the reply. Their uncertainty made me feel a little better about
having no idea which province it was in.
Before I go
anywhere “new”, I usually spend quite a while learning as much as I can about the place I’m planning to
go to. However, on this occasion, other
than working out that Xuchang is “not far from Zhengzhou”, in Henan province, I simply didn’t have time
to find out more.
So, I’m embarrassed
to admit, I arrived in the city without knowing the first thing about the city. In these situations it pays to go for a walk
and to find some local people to talk to. I
met Mr Ma, who was selling fruit near to the hotel I was staying at.
“Hi, I’ve just arrived in the city,” I said, “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind telling
me something about the place?” Mr Ma
looked at me as if I had just stepped out of a spaceship. I tried a different approach: “What’s Xuchang famous for?” I asked.
“Xuchang,” used to be an ancient capital,” said Mr Ma without any hint of
“Great,” I said. “Where can I see the ancient sites,” I enquired.
“There aren’t any,” said Mr Ma. He shook his head.
“No, not a thing.”
[On returning to Beijing I would find out that in 220AD Xuchang was declared the capital of the newly-formed
“kingdom” of Wei, one of the Three Kingdoms, which were each ruled by an emperor who claimed to have the mandate
of heaven (the right to rule) by dint of his superior lineage, connecting him to the last emperor of the deposed Han dynasty. For some reason, after only a couple of years in Xuchang,
the Wei emperor moved his court to Luoyang (also in modern day Henan) – which, unlike Xuchang, does have some excellent
ancient sites to look around. Oh yes, I
also found out that modern day Xuchang has a population of 4.5 million. And that the city is twinned with Ambo in Ethiopia
although, with due respect to the city of Ambo, that wasn’t the top of mind answer when I asked Xuchang people what
their city is famous for.]
I thanked Mr Ma for the
information and moved into the backstreets of the older part of town to find out more.
A forty-something lady was sweeping the floor of her open-air restaurant. I sat down to have a cup of tea, and to ask some questions.
“Famous for?” Ms Chen repeated the question. She said nothing for more than a few moments, while
she pondered. Then her eyes it up.
“Well, my sister works in a hair factory, and I know
that’s an important industry here.”
“She makes hair?” I asked. As
soon as I asked it I realised what a stupid question it was. Ms Chen was kind:
“No, she makes wigs
and hair pieces out of people’s hair.”
“So people sell their hair here?” was my next stupid question.
“Here and all over China,” Ms Chen said, doing her best not to laugh at my stupidity.
I would later find out that the price of human hair in China
has increased dramatically over the past few years (in 1990, people were paid 10 yuan for each kg, in 2007 the price had risen
to 550 yuan per kg). Locally-bought hair
has become so expensive, in fact, that Xuchang and other Chinese hair product manufacturers are increasingly sourcing hair
from other countries, such as India, where people are prepared to sell their hair for much less.
My appetite whetted, I couldn’t wait to find out just how famous Xucheng-manufactured
hair products really are. I wasn’t
disappointed. In fact, I was amazed. There are more than a hundred Xucheng companies that
specialise in hair products that, collectively, employ more than 200,000 people. I was equally amazed to find out that many of those companies have English language websites.
Most of the companies’ names contain either product
promises or women’s names. The range of promises includes “harmony” (Xuchang Harmony Hair Products); “elegance”
(Xuchang Elegance Hair Products); “dream” (Xuchang Dream Hair Products); and “glitter” (Xuchang Glitter
Hair Products). While I’m sure that many people in need of a wig or hair extensions are looking for “elegance”
or “harmony”, there must be those whose primary need is functionality and are simply looking for reassurance that
the extensions won’t fall out, or their hair piece won’t slip down. Enter Xuchang Dragon Proof Hair Products,
which trades as Xuchang Dragon Proof Fashion Limited. On its website, Dragon Proof describes
itself as “One of the largest hair products manufacture[s] in China.” Its impressive factory complex, which
can be seen on the video that’s embedded on its website, occupies nearly 100,000 square metres of Xuchang’s Economic
and Technological Development Zone. The company boasts solus funding from Hong Kong investors, assets of 360 million
yuan, and a payroll of close to 3,000 people.
As far as companies
with women’s names are concerned, there’s a bevy of them to pick from: There’s Xuchang Cindy Hair Products
(not to be confused with the Xuchang Xindi Hair Product company); Xuchang Diana Hair Products; Xuchang Selina Hair Products;
and Henan Rebecca Hair Products, which is based in Xuchang.
Rebecca is by far the most famous of all the Xuchang-based hair product companies. But why “Rebecca” you
may be wondering. Well, Zheng Youquan, who founded the company in 1993 was, it seems, a bit of a romantic. He
chose the name of the company, he says, after being beguiled by Rebecca, the eponymous
heroine of a Daphne du Maurier’s novel. Mr Zheng’s fascination with the name was such that he somehow even
managed to get the name incorporated into his address (Rebecca Avenue, Xuchang). The company also has a hotel in Xuchang.
The Rebecca Hotel of course.
Rebecca, which employs 10,300
people, sold 1.6 billion yuan worth of hair products last year (using more than 2,000 tonnes of hair) is the only hair products’
company in China to be publicly listed. It is the world’s biggest wig maker with a 15 per cent share of global market. Its export volume is twice that of its nearest Chinese
Last year, 61 per cent of its export sales were in North America, while sales to Europe only
accounted for nine per cent of the volume. The
nature of global hair product demand is changing rapidly though. Sales are rising most rapidly in the African market where,
this year’s contribution to global revenue is expected to exceed last year’s 26 per cent. Thanks to the World Cup of course…