A Tribute to a Paperweight Maker
A good friend passed away recently. We had none each other for many years, we had laughed and shaken each others hands and greeted each other with such pleasure, and a feeling of true welcome. He had always been there, he had two sons the same as me, and about the same ages, in fact we were the same age, he shared his family and his sons and daughters in law, and his grandson with us, yet besides my name and the many ‘ganbei’s’ over the years at the many lavish evening meals in the very best food halls in Boshan. Our talks were through my agent, or through our smiles and gestures. Yes he and his family lived and built up our paperweight factory with us in China.
When we first started trading it had to be through my very good friend who lived in Qingdao and worked for the Chinese Trading Company, who sold his items through their warehouse. Qingdao itself always made feel me at ease, due to my good hostess. And the good hotels, the seaside, and the Chinese similarity to my nearest home town Weston-super-mare in Somerset, both are tourist areas, and yes it was the same Qingdao as in the recent Olympic Games in China, but in those days it had great character still, and the streets were very narrow and congested, totally unrecognisable in the Games.
Until the Expressway was built the only real communication between Boshan and Qingdao was by train, built in 1904 to link the industrial complex and the port. The route by both rail or by expressway is quite long, but interesting with the many types of agriculture, the people working in the fields, the small villages, and the earth banked greenhouses. The area is very different to the paddy fields of Jiangsu, where our other glass items are made, as this is Corn Country, the cobs stung together and hanging from every available building, and the sides of the expressway make ideal drying surfaces for drying the loose corn on mats, the same sea grass mats as we use to sun ourselves on the beaches. My friend’s family is a farming family, like many industries the first small factory was funded by the local farming community. My friend knew of my love for fresh sweet corn, so there was always a constant supply of fresh cobs cooking around the kilns for the workers and myself. He knew I loved grapes, so there was always bowls of fresh grapes from his lands, being a farmer he had been allowed to have his two sons. The craftsmen were equal in men and women, while the packers and loaders for the containers were all women, always laughing and smiling, this was a happy community, each artisan expert in there own handed down art of paperweight and large glass item manufacture. The amazing way in which such artistry is carried out, if totally by hand with the use of pins, needles, the long rods going backward and forward to the kiln until the red glowing article is perfect, then the large cutters to extricate the paperweight, the article then carefully taken to the cooling trays, before being checked for cooling cracks or any imperfections, then the sanding of the base, the polishing, then the packing, all by hand.
It is difficult to explain the feeling of seeing the first of the new designs, and new colours and colour variations, after the items have cooled, yet I have done nothing other than have my companion draw up the design and the colour variation, each fountain, coloured droplet.
I can still remember the first dolphin paperweight, very small at first, as we had tried to do the insertion so many time and it had either fractured in cooling or came out malformed, and the very first fish paperweight, then there was no stopping us now, crabs, lobsters, turtles, then teddies and dogs, you name it we did it.
Then there was the introduction of the gold leaf into the paperweights, gold had historically been used to create the reds and pinks, but we were doing a lot of business with the Arab Emirates at the time, and they wanted gold in their paperweights to be sold in their tourist market, as did our customers in Kuwait and in Malta. All the paperwork and the duty to be paid, as at the time the leaf had to be imported from Japan, and in those days importation was only allowed for items for re-export.
When we first started importing the paperweights there were severe quotas in place, with lots of forms and records to be kept, and you literally allocated you quota to your very best customers. At this time there were very few western designs, and before my friend set up, there was only two very old and famous factories, who made the wonderful glass flower paperweights, originally made for the Emperors and later during the 1920’s and 1930’s to collectors in the fashionable Shanghai playground for the rich, along with the fabulous beads and blue glass items, similar to those excavated from the area, made in the 5th century BC, although glass making is more commonly dated from 700 years ago in Boshan.
My friend would arrange for us to ‘go up the mountain’ to ‘the small factory’ which makes the traditional moulded glass bottles, jars and plaques, This was one of my favourite trips out passing through the villages with their agricultural daily life, as it must have been in our countryside prior to our Industrial Revolution, the wonderful views, the ancient terraces, there since the earliest civilisations. The Cable Cars taking originally worshipers to the Monastery, now a Chinese Tourists to the World Heritage Site, the remains of the ancient aqueduct, believed to be as old as old as the Roman Aqueducts to feed the terraces from the mountain. The people in the shallow river bed, sorting the smooth pebbles, ready for packing in the bags and glass plastic tubs to be sold in Garden Centres and Interiors Shops all over the world, and the large stones to be hand carted for building. We are climbing more and more and then we are there, the moulds are made by hand and the new plaques are cast and costed, it is high up here so even in the sun it is cold, and the factory is frozen in during the winter, so production times are limited. We are given some biscuits, as this all they have for Westerners, then its back down the mountain and back in time to freshen up and then to another famous eating house for another meal and the Qindao Beer and the Baijiu in the little toasting glasses, which is the famous very strong white liquor. The whole family are there along with relations who do everything from being drivers and arranging the shipping, and a good time is had by all, and I have to ‘ganbei’ with every person except the children, so I am glad to be taxied back to my hotel along with o big box of bananas and grapes.
We set out next morning to the ‘Glass Animal Paperweight Factory’, which is in the countryside in a different direction from the day before, through the ancient corn villages, corn hanging everywhere as we pass through all the little villages, in the middle of nowhere, we stop at one of the villages, I can never remember the right village, there are Mules and belt driven tractors pulling carts over laden with corn cobs and huge piles of the stalks for animal fodder. We pull up outside some big wooden doors, the director explains that all the workers are out gathering the crops, but has his cook and a couple of his oldest and most experienced makers are there for us, this happens this time of year every time we visit. The factory also makes our glass fruits, grapes and vegetables as well, the very first time we visited I was very wary of the meal offered, but the chef, no white hat here, cooks up a wonderful amount of vegetarian cooked dishes for me and my companions, we are joined by the head of the village cooperative of farmers who financed the factory and the Qingdao Beer is flowing for everybody except my friends son who has given over the day to drive us, as they are old friends. In this factory the workers are all farmers, but everything is made by hand, again the level of skill is fantastic, the fusing of colours in the carrots, the grapes, and the detail in the pineapples and mini fruits.
We return back to my friends factory, as it is our last night we leave tomorrow, so we check all the costings and organise the order of production, the packing, and order the silk lined display boxes. We have our last night meal in the most expensive and ‘Latest Night Club’ we are greeted by beautiful hostesses in the Traditional Dress, and taken to our table, and the cabaret stats with a group of western dressed young ladies singing live to backing tracks of popular western songs, followed by a band of musicians playing a mixture of Western and Chinese Instruments, the result was very good, and so another good visit is over, my host has looked after us so well again, how I shall miss him.
There are other articles about the history of this area on our website, and other stories of my travels to our friends in the factories in the world, over the years since 1971. You can find some of the handmade glass paperweights & glassware in our shop. Peter. http://www.realalternativesite.com
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