Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: business
Monday, 30 April 2012 14:33

Betelnuts without Betelnut Girls

In the Zhonghe district of New Taipei City, just before the Xiu Lang Bridge on the road to Xindian, at 21 Jingping Road is the Amis Betelnut Stall, run by Mrs Yang and her family - three Amis aboriginal women. Mrs Yang's daughter, who studies at the English Department of Soo Chow University, takes the morning shift from 5am until 10am; afterwards Mrs Yang's niece works from 10am until 10pm, and then Mrs Yang works from 10pm until 1 in the morning, when they close.

Written in large Chinese characters on the shop sign is 'yi-mu-zi', the Chinese transliteration of e'moc, the Amis language name for a spice derived from a cinnamon seeds. Only regular customers or industry insiders know what these characters mean given that they're a transliteration of an Amis language word. The betelnut is another name for
areca nut; it gets this name because it is often chewed wrapped in betel leaves sealed with slaked lime. The traditional Amis betelnut includes a grain of e'moc amongst the betel leaves, this is very rare to see in Taipei. Mrs Yang says the slaked lime they use comes from sea shells, and therefore doesn't contain the chemical additives that many other Taiwanese betelnuts contain, which means that older aboriginal people won't have problems with their teeth that can be caused by normal betelnuts.

"We were able to bring up two children thanks to this shop." Mrs Yang tells us. Unlike the infamous "betelnut girls" who dress up provocatively and that are so often reported in domestic and foreign media, the betelnut stalls around here are all small family businesses. Although Yang's betelnut stall is run exclusively by women, it's aura is not one of lewd eroticism. There are two kinds of betelnut stall, one is the kind with neon lights, for which "betelnut girls" are the main attraction, the other kind is the more simple traditional betelnut stalls. Mrs Yang continued, "Here you don't need betelnut girls, in reality there are so many betelnut stores here that even if you do hire a Betelnut girl it's not much use, what sells here is the unique flavour."

Mrs Yang is a devout Catholic, in the display window of the stall you can even see pictures of Jesus. She told us that at Easter she came to mass at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in the Tien Educational Centre. When we arrived, the girl minding the shop took out some chairs and asked us to sit, as this is a gathering place for the aboriginal community of the city, whenever they get off work they normally come for a drink and a chat.

"My finger wrapped betelnut until I developed a work-related strain in it." Mrs Yang says as she points at her finger. Her niece wraps all the betelnuts now, because of repetitive strain of wrapping, so her finger has swollen. Every day the stall wraps 2000 betelnuts, this kind of work isn't as easy as it looks. To keep customers they have to open every day, "If we don't open, customers will go elsewhere and get used to going there, so we'll lose all our business.

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Text by Zijie Yang, translated by Conor Stuart, photos by Witold Chudy

Wednesday, 04 April 2007 00:00

Migrant Workers and Local Development

The migration of young people from the Chinese countryside to cities raises a number of questions about the future of rural and mountainous areas. Will this exodus create deserted areas, without working force and creativity, or will these youth come back to transform and energize their place of origins? Here are a few reflections that come from my experience as an intermediary for developing sourcing of Chinese products by foreign companies. I often say to my clients that the labour cost in China should remain stable in the coming years as there is a large reservoir in China’s countryside – though I am starting to wonder whether the supply is so large after all.


I like to discuss with migrant workers at our suppliers’ place. Generally speaking, they are happy with their situation even if social safety net is lacking. The typical young migrant worker stays in the city for 3 to 5 years and then returns home for marrying a local woman. I remember the night watchman of a small brush joint-venture in Tianjin, he was so happy to have found this job: “My life is very comfortable here, I have heating and a shower, and I can eat 3 hot meals a day, my wife is working in the factory during the day when I sleep; in the evening, when the workers are back home, the general manager gives us the opportunity to produce more brushes. I have the chance to be with my wife at night when she sleeps, I look after the factory and can make more brushes, together we get 4 salaries each month probably 20 fold what we would earn in our village; after 3 years I will be back to my hometown near Yan’an, then I can buy the largest cave house of the village with a small plot of arable land and have a quite life with my friends for the rest of my life.”


These workers learn a lot and will certainly bring back know-how. I believe that the recent development of Chinese countryside comes from such people. Nearly all of them are going home for each Chinese New Year, and many do not come back afterwards, even if they promised to do so. Only the cleverest ones will go up in the hierarchy or start their own company and stay in the city. The ones who speak English will have a greater chance to stay, and will get far higher pay, these as white collars have few chance to go back.

The employers I meet have more and more difficulties to find workers (more in Guangdong who seem to pay less than in Shanghai area), and some decide to move their factories inland to follow the workmanship. Some of my clients hesitate to purchase from suppliers who require extensive overtime from their workers, but the workers prefer to work more during a short period and get a better pay. I therefore ask myself: why should we consider overtime on a year per year basis? Working double time during three years and then having a 3 years holiday at home might come to the same...

Summing up, migration is a decision taken by an individual within the frame of possibilities offered to him or her. It is also largely a side effect of schooling and development, directly or … indirectly: The creation of a primary school in a remote village often goes with the introduction of electricity in the village, electricity allowed for the purchase of TV sets, and TV spread the use of Mandarin language, which enabled people to find jobs out of their home place (statistics tell us that still less than half of Chinese people speak correct mandarin !)

The development of local initiative in the countryside, partly due to the coming home of migrant workers, should be progressive and based on local initiative. Tourism is certainly a service industry with much potential, as can be seen in many places of China. Let me give here some examples:
Songpan: the main attraction is a horse team started and developed by a local; they propose horse treks (2 to 15 days) at 100Y/ person/ day all inclusive, one guide will accompany 2 visitors and supply horse, tent & sleeping bag, the team supplies the food.
TLG (Tiger leaping Gorge) near Lijiang: many simple private inns developed aside the gorge providing food, accommodation and guides. It seems it developed completely from private initiative with the help of some backpackers.
"Nongjiale" in the suburbs of Peking, Shanghai, Chengdu,… designed mainly for town people wishing to spend one week-end enjoying bio fresh food in the countryside, some offering fishing.
Heshun near Tengchong (Yunnan at the border of Burma) is an example of the development of old villages. Heshun is so isolated that it can cater only to Yunnan people. It has 5 to 10 private hotels, many restaurants, it developed some commerce of souvenirs, and reactivated the local customs of which the locals are very proud.
Once again, economic development starts from local developers. Helpers from outside can still organize task forces for support: teaching project management, giving and exchanging ideas, and providing some technical know-how on management and marketing.


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