Following the flip-flop trail from Kuwaiti oil fields, to Korean petrochemical plants, the trail moves along to the epicentre of plastic production in Fuzhou on the SE seaboard of China, as the plastic granules from Korea arrive at the port. As ever the trail, and the city through which it passes, are illusive, always becoming, just around the corner disappearing out of sight, as I get close.
While tons of Korean plastic granules are run through Fuzhou’s port and adjacent technical development zone, these are the plastics that make high density, high-value objects like car bumpers and trim, not lower value objects like flip-flops and plastic bags, made from polyethylene and EVA granules. The flip-flop trail, I discover, does not run through the zone as I thought: significantly it bypasses these drivers of new Chinese ambition.
Does the trail pass through the city itself then? Virtual evidence, in the form of websites claiming to manufacture and supply wholesale flip-flops, suggests that it might. I follow the corridor created by the Min River North-Westwards from the port and the zone to ‘Liberation Bridge’, which crosses the Min River on the South side of the city. Here, the bridge creates a junction-point in the city in two senses: firstly, it connects an older crumbling version of Fuzhou on the South side with the modern commercial centre to the North, and, secondly ‘liberation’ connects China with struggles-past. Thus the bridge offers a viewing platform onto the city, connecting, as it does quite different urban topographies, and by this means displaying some of the layered landscapes composing the city itself: cities are not simply described. Trailing through the city I find only indirect traces of plastics: plastics turned into architecture, design and activity, insurance and banking. I can’t quite find the trail, only its reverberations and proximate territories.
It is time to visit one of the city sites comprising the flip-flops web presence: Dai Wei’s office/showroom. I’d tracked down Dai Wei – this, of course, is his not his real name; I don’t want to get him into trouble – from my research on the internet. Emailing from London hundreds of what presented themselves as flip-flop factories I’d got one of two replies. One, ‘how many flip-flops do you want to order?’ Two, ‘if you think we are letting a Westerner roam our factories when your press is full of horror stories about Chinese factory conditions, you are crazy’. I persisted and found Dai Wei, who may have been curious about what I was doing and had time on his hands. He may also have been convinced that academics are more benign than journalists and understood I meant no harm. His office/showroom – presented like the others on the web as bright and airy ‘factories’ – is modern and well furnished. He displays to international wholesalers literally hundreds of flip-flop designs at all price points, as well as plastic clogs and boots: a whole world of plastic shoes on display.
I had hit a significant part of the flip-flop trail, if not the factories. Like his international customers I couldn’t find the factories without him. Dai Wei is the translator – translating orders world wide into small-scale factory production: connecting the vectors of consumption with making. Alongside his web presence he displays a mobile number and an English name – ‘call me Bob’: he operates confidently in English, making it easy for those who don’t know how to operate in China, and in Chinese, to place orders. Dai Wei then commissions flip-flop from the matrix of factories with which he has formed what he calls ‘partnerships’. He is a vital link in the flip-flop trail, and, driving South to the city periphery in his shining black Cherry we takes me to the factories while we discuss Mao, the Cultural Revolution and the new post Deng Xiaoping China in which he is fast becoming a prosperous business man. The trail through this city is impossible to navigate without a guide as it mutates into its zones and peripheries, and somehow, through a mix of luck and persistence I had hit on the right guy.