My First Visit to China

My First Visit to China

Written by Roy Hall

[This article was first edited by Art Dudley and published by him in the May/June 2002 issue of  Listener magazine; I thank Art for his help. Originally titled, “In a Shanghai Speaker Factory (or, Never Get Your Hair Cut in China)”,  this was the first piece I read by Roy, and provided the impetus for me to get him to write for Copper. Roy was reluctant, claiming he didn’t have many stories. Well, we’ve had more than 50 from him so far, and he shows no sign of running out. In terms of the events, places, and brands mentioned—just remember that a lot has changed since 2002, and a lot continues to change. Finally, the accompanying photos have been reproduced from the printed magazine, so forgive the quality, please—Ed.]

I was feeling wonderful. The young hairdresser had been shampooing my head for over an hour. She had also massaged my neck, shoulders, arms—even my fingers. I was in Tangxia, in Southern China, and my host had taken me out for a haircut. “Different from western one. You see.”

I saw. After the massage was over and my hair finally washed, I was led to the haircutter. He was a young man with lots of scissors. I explained what I wanted. Not too short, just a trim and some shaping at the sides. The difficulty was in the explaining. He spoke no English, I no Mandarin.

No problem.

I’ve traveled to many countries where a common language was missing and had survived admirably. With hand gestures and lots of pointing I made myself understood. He smiled, I smiled, and he started cutting my hair. He did a fabulous job, exactly as I wanted.

No problem.

Mike Creek and Mark Whitlock, my traveling companions, were watching, impressed with my translating skills as well as the hairdresser’s deftness. He was just finishing up by trimming the sides of my head with an electric razor. On seeing what a good job he had done with it, I explained that I wanted him to trim my beard. Just like the sides of my head. He understood.

No problem.

With two deft passes, half my beard was gone.

Now you have to understand, I started growing this beard on September 15, 1970, and had never removed it. I had often trimmed it, but never cut it off. Michael’s and Mark’s jaws dropped. The hairdresser beamed, and I started laughing. What else can you do? He finished the other half, and there, staring at me in the mirror, was my father’s face. I paid the bill—about $4—and left.

Good value.

I had come to Tangxia after visiting SIAV 2001, the Hi-End Hi-Fi Show 2001. Mike Creek of Creek Audio had asked me to join him in Shanghai, as he was about to appoint a new Chinese distributor, work the Shanghai show, and then visit the factory in Tangxia that assembles Epos speakers.

I arrived in Shanghai feeling fresh as a daisy after 24 hours of traveling. (This place is really far away from home.) I had booked a room in a very nice hotel and arrived there only to find that they had no notice of my reservation. “So sorry: We do not have your reservation.”

Usually I get quite aggressive in these situations, but this time I was very calm. It was either the thrill of being in China or the fact that the sleeping pills had not quite worn off. I asked for the manager, and a smart looking young woman arrived. I explained the problem, showed my confirmation from my travel agent, and she also told me, “So sorry…”

She left and returned a few minutes later and said, “Would you mind if we put you on our executive floor? The room comes with free breakfast in the Executive Lounge, and we will charge the same rate.”

Selling birds in People Square; Roy, as he was back around the turn of the century.

Would I mind? I checked into a rather lovely room with great views of a cloudy and polluted Shanghai. I had a shower and decided to explore. I really believe that you can never really get lost in a strange city. Shanghai has a main shopping street, Nan king Road [these days called Nanjing–-Ed.].  It goes east from my hotel for about 2 miles and ends up on the Bund, which is the waterfront along the Huangpu River. I decided to take the road less traveled.

Moving in the general direction of the river, I started to explore. Shanghai has lots of highrises interspersed with older, normal-size buildings packed closely together. I soon came across “People Square.” It was crowded with people buying and selling songbirds. Everyone seemed very serious while examining the birds. There were lots of discussions and arguments. Suddenly the crowd dispersed. The police had arrived. Perhaps they were selling endangered species? Perhaps they weren’t allowed to sell birds in the park? I don’t know, but the place cleared in seconds.

By this time, I was getting hungry. As I passed a dumpling shop, the owner yelled at me to come in and was so thrilled when I responded that he sat down beside me and started to chat—he in Mandarin, I in English. We were doing just fine until he touched my thigh.

Now, I have no problem chatting to people who don’t understand me. I am, after all, from Scotland and in the hi-fi business. But touching my thigh…?

Then I suddenly understood. I was wearing shorts, and he found the fact that I had hairy legs hilarious—Chinese people have little body hair.

With obvious glee, he started telling everyone in the restaurant. This brought howls of laughter, and he started describing me to four women in the back who were making dumplings.

One of them, with great trepidation, approached me and looked at my legs. Then I opened my shirt and exposed my chest. She shrieked and fled to the safety of the back room. This performance prompted more hilarity from the owner, who immediately gave me an extra helping of dumplings. They were delicious and came with a bowl of soup. The whole thing cost me two dollars.

Street food; a procession.

As I found out during my stay, China is not the place for the picky eater or the faint of heart. Meals are multi-course and communal. Double dipping is de rigueur. Anything that moves is eaten. Strange things appeared on the table, some of them vaguely familiar (crayfish, prawns, etc.). Others, like a dark green blob that glistened in a red sea of chili oil, were less obvious. One interesting dish was “Drunken Prawns.” This is a dish that is brought to the table at the start of the meal. It consists of a lidded glass casserole filled with live prawns swimming in rice wine. They don’t like it and try to jump out, but they of course hit the lid with a thump. This show goes on all through the meal, as it takes a long time for death to come. At the end, the casserole is removed and the contents are cooked in the wine. Quite tasty!

I did hear of a restaurant that served dog, but I declined the invitation.

The Shanghai Hi-Fi Show
There is an uncanny similarity among hi-fi shows anywhere in the world. I shouldn’t really be surprised by this, as there are only so many ways to display stereo equipment in a hotel room.

Somehow I thought China would be very different.

As with all shows, most of the sound was dreadful. Of course, the Creek/Epos room sounded good. Cabasse and Tannoy also had very good demos. Most of the Chinese systems were pretty bad. One room sported a piece of equipment that was proudly labeled “Extremely Standard Graphic Equalizer.”

I did come across a room that was making quite a good sound. I read some of their literature and was intrigued with the English:

“This unit is small and exquisite for appearance, display window is rotundity and the HDCD indicator light is indigo that exhibited the elegance and costly for the unit, this sound give expression to naturalness and sense of reality. It’s Treble is pleasant and gentle, the Bass is sense of warmth, and the Mediant is softness and satiation. The control force and analysis forces is very finess for this sound, so this unit is a Hi-Fi equipment for overflow.”

That’s what I want: Hi-Fi equipment for overflow. In fact, it is exactly what I want. This company makes very good CD players, and I am exploring the possibility of a new Music Hall CD player. So far, initial samples look very promising.

Classical music was heard all over the show. No pop, no rock, no country, no female singers. How can you evaluate a system without an earthy woman’s voice to make you cry? I also heard plenty of modern Chinese music that sounded like music played at the Eurovision Song Contest: lots of emotion and passion trying to compensate for a lack of melody. Non-Americans will know what I mean.

The downstairs area was a hoot. The dictionary describes cacophony as “a combination of harsh sounds.” There are no words to accurately describe what was going on down there.

The entrance hall was quite big. There were maybe about 50 different open booths showing or selling their wares. The only problem was that they all were playing music. The noise was mind numbing. As the day progressed, the sound level increased. And then the live shows started. All singing, all dancing, girls and guys showing off the latest home theater system. One had the gall to call it “Natural Sound.” People were milling around, some with kids in strollers, asking questions, listening to systems. Future audiophiles, no doubt!

It’s obvious that noise pollution has not yet been noticed in China. How people worked in that din day after day I will never know. Perhaps this is why the show ends at 4 pm every day.

The Factory
Tangxia in Guangdong Province is one of many industrial areas in China. It seems to be full of large factories, staffed by thousands of employees who live there, year round, in dormitories. Their modest salary is supplemented with full board and lodging. They return but once a year to their families. This usually is at Chinese New Year, which makes traveling at that time nigh impossible. Most of them live very far away, and their salaries are sent home to support their families. The money earned is vital to the overall economy of China.

The Factory I visited is ISO9001—and ISO14001—approved. This means that they meet very high international standards for quality and safety. Apart from Sony and JVC and Epos, this factory produces speakers for Mordaunt Short. When we arrived, a large Mordaunt Short order was being processed, and let me tell you. Even though they are the competition, that is a beautiful speaker. It is very cleverly designed, most handsome, and assembled very well.

The factory was spotless and had many large assembly lines with dozens of young women manning (womanning?) them. They were producing tweeters.

I once visited the Goodmans factory in England and watched a line of about 30 women making tweeters. The conveyor belt moved quite rapidly, and the very animated women were very proficient at doing their tasks while chatting and kibitzing. At the end of the line, tweeters poured off at high speed.

In contrast, the lines I saw in the Tangxia factory moved at a snail’s pace. The women, all wearing the same outfit—blue shirt, blue headband, and dark pants—very somberly did their task in complete silence. As I walked by, no one looked up or even acknowledged my presence. At the end of the line, tweeters poured off—albeit slowly. The factory worked a 45-hour week. Overtime is technically illegal, as the government would rather a second shift was hired, but in reality, people do work overtime. I don’t think the employees have much to do in their spare time, so overtime means more money. They may be communists, but money is king.

The factory seems to have a workers’ hierarchy. The assemblers wore blue, the wood workers wore beige, and the engineers white. The latter appeared to be middle management and worked a less structured day; plus, they had access to modern CAD/CAM computers and software.

Interestingly, a Taiwanese company owns the factory, and most of the top personnel are also from Taiwan. Near Shanghai, there is a large industrial area completely owned by Taiwanese businessmen.

The Chinese Government’s posturing is disingenuous. Taiwan is one of the economic engines that drive Chinese industry.

The factory where Epos speakers were made; finished cabinets, awaiting drivers.

Mike Creek was there to further develop the Epos center-channel speaker and also to look at a new Epos speaker, the M22, so we spent some time looking at the Epos production. They are very well made speakers with 1-inch sides and lots of cross bracing—really solid speakers. It’s no wonder they sound so good. There will be some killer speakers coming later on.

I spent two days at the factory, then moved on to Hong Kong where Mike discovered—in, of all places, an antique furniture store—wooden tiptoe-like cones made from blackwood, a particularly hard Chinese wood. We decided to call them “Peg Legs,”and they should be available soon. Later on I found the perfect gift for my old nemesis Sam Tellig of Stereophile Magazine. Sam, who adores things porcine, will love this: a silk tie with pigs doing the deed in various outrageous positions. I can’t wait to give it to him.

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