THE SILK ROAD
By Candice Reffe, Core Concept Team
In May, we sent a small team to China on the path of our silk supply chain to find out what it means to manufacture one of the world's oldest fabrics. We needed to immerse ourselves in the culture before we could fully understand a process that starts with a mulberry bush and ends in your closet.Read More:
"At breakfast atop a white tablecloth, the butter knife is balanced on its serrated edge to the right of the table, like China is balancing on the blade between dirt roads and paved boomtowns, cities erupting out of nowhere."
"Skyscrapers crammed into the skies like scissor-hands. Crammed too, laundry crisscrossing nearly every balcony. And still bamboo scaffolding creeps over the streets."
"It's less about a set arrival, than a constant flow, like air or water, continuous, a perpetual invitation, a readiness for good fortune to stop by and step across the threshhold."
During the dynasty of the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors a new material spun itself into the mortal world. Silk. A sacred burial cloth restricted to royalty—it would take centuries before it became part of everyday life, a commodity on the global market.
The Chinese believed that the silk pupa became a mouse and went to heaven. Thus the leap: after death, like the pupa protected by its cocoon, if an emperor was wrapped in silk at burial, his soul, too, would be protected, escorted safely to the afterlife.
Our road trip along the path of our silk supply chain was securely bound to earth, where reality can be kaleidoscopic, personal—so many of my own spun assumptions about China and its people altered.
The object diary
Each day I picked one. I waited for it to rise, make itself visible: I knew it when I saw it. A rusty bolt pocketed at one of the ubiquitous construction sites. Spent incense from a temple. Candy in shiny wrappers, the omnipresent office offering. A feather found me at the doorway of a silkworm farm. A ritual toothpick after our nightly meal. Each object a signature of the day.
05/06. Rest stops
When we cross by car from Hong Kong to Shenzhen the security guard boxed in the glass booth stacks our passports, a deck of cards she deals to herself. A matching game: photos to faces, past to present. Her eyes, strict as rivets, lock onto each of us. When my turn comes, she pauses a little too long—as if identity itself were in question. The moment passes. My face stamped: Made in China.
This trip's a map of crossing and re-crossing, a blur of boats and planes, vans and buses, official forms multiplying like cities across China. A netherworld of rest stops. Squat toilets with a coil of lit incense. A row of broken sinks. Mystery hot dogs, a college student's dream of instant noodles, brown-veined boiled eggs that look as if they've been excavated from the earth.
05/08. Sepia moments
When I take a snapshot of any woman I encounter—mulberry farmer, factory cook, dye house chemist—she raises her hand like a veil across her face and giggles. Or, arms up in a V, her fingers splayed in double peace signs, a pose imported from trendy Japan gone viral here. More giggling. But when our photographer gets down to it, individual or group, the traditional pose trumps: stick-still, arms and legs rigid, sealed to the body, lips flatlined. Eyes fixed between blinks: History recorded.
It's the sepia tinted pose of my grandparents, great-grandparents, lost in my mother's Kodak generation.
05/09. Everywhere I turn: Three views from the road
1. At breakfast atop a white tablecloth, the butter knife is balanced on its serrated edge to the right of the plate, like China is balancing on the blade between dirt roads and paved boomtowns, cities erupting out of nowhere.
Pop-up cities, neon-dazed cities, neon on steroids, cities on speed. Across a main artery, brake lights a red smear in the car swarm. Bicycles, scooters streak through like successive flash photos.
My brain short-circuits, reverses, but as days pass seems to rewire itself, fast- forward. I can't get enough neon: thump, thump goes my digital heart.
2. Skyscrapers crammed into the skies like scissor-hands. Crammed too, laundry crisscrossing nearly every balcony. And still bamboo scaffolding creeps over the streets. On one street, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Rolex. On another, a string of makeshift shops: Cheap baby clothes packaged in plastic, clipped to a clothesline, heaps of watermelon, chili peppers, soap, corn, fuel. I pick my way along a path outlined by hills of broken brick, pulverized concrete. The dust I kick up sifted through sun blades.
3. On foot waiting at an intersection, here's the scene. Red light: A woman crossing in a polished white shirt, red shorts, high heels, her right hand clamped around the feathered neck of a dead rooster, the rooster dangling like an umbrella looped at her wrist. Kitty-corner, a cigarette loosely stuck to his lips, a man bent at a 45-degree angle hauls a wooden cart mounded with mulberry leaves.
Green light: Bareback, in denim cut-offs, a bicyclist pedals, earbuds in. In his front basket, an oversize plastic bag burgeoning with bean sprouts; in back, a tray of deep-fried tofu. A scooter accelerates past him, boyfriend driving, his girlfriend's right hand wrapped around his waist. Balanced on her thigh, an electric fan, the metal blades turn.
05/12. (What you eat is what you become)
Every night is pork night. So is every afternoon. And every morning.
Snout to tail:
Eighteen days. Fifty-four meals.
In which we eat every part of the venerated pig.
- Pork knuckle (slow cooked in sweet black vinegar)
- Pork belly (braised, barbequed, a two-inch square of steamy, sweet and saucy fat)
- Pork feet (front feet stir fried, back feet deep fried)
- Pork butt (honey brushed, delectable fork-roasted strips)
- Pork ears (sliced cold or charred crispy curly crunchy chips)
- Pork skin (salted soaked diced stewed—simple)
- Pork penis (blanched, sliced, base for broth)
- Pork tail (spicy peanut soup)
- Pork head (snout-side up, roasted, glazed whole)
- Pork heart, liver, spleen, lungs (team hotpot)
- Pork brains (double-boiled pig brain soup)
- Pork blood (coagulated, cubed, fried with chives, garlic, spring onion)
Everywhere we go someone is sweeping, keeping order.
Any trace we leave behind becomes invisible. When the elevator door opens, a young woman inside, in a lime green suit, is sweeping, sweeping. When we exchange places with her, she polishes the bronze down button we just pushed. Returning to the hotel by subway—its gleaming steel cars, glass doors—we exit into hallways shiny as a gold Buddha.
The subway station morphs into an indoor mall: fast food, fast clothes, fast water in plastic bottles labeled "Watson's." Ice cream! A toddler's arm tilts, splat. There goes the top scoop of his cone. Then the next. Then the cone. Ten seconds later, the floor's as flawless as before, the child's holding another cone, the hive once again ordered.
05/15. Below the table
Standing in the middle of the factory, I hear the sound of a hundred sewing machines, like rain on a metal roof. Above the factory tables I see the uniform: blue shirt after blue shirt.
Below the tables: A strand of plastic pearls stitched onto the waistband of a jean, low slung. Rhinestone-dotted capris, rhinestone thighs and knees. Sparkle as personal neon. Metallic gray sequins smoke the hem of a chiffon miniskirt. Below that: spangly turquoise wedges, jeweled flip-flops, six-inch high red patent heels. A tapping iridescent purple sneaker with coiled green laces: flicker of an ankle, flash of a hummingbird.
Outside the door, it's magpie city. Sparkle is queen of the streets. Nearly every woman wears it. A reflection of what's happening in China, the speed of modernity: it's the shiny new thing that attracts.
05/16. Without translation
Huang Li waves hello to me. I wave back. It's lunch break at Hangsheng Factory, where our silk is cut and sewn. Without words she teaches me the young, hip way to say hello. Two hands waggling back and forth, blurry as a dog's tail. I convert my lazy wave: two hands at ear height, as if connected by springs to my wrists, vibrating like a bobblehead doll. Li grins. After I leave China, it's one of the things I miss most, warbling hello.
05/19. The God of Mud, the God of Happiness
In rain-drenched Sichuan we joke the god of mud prevails. Mist falling down a mountain, spilling over stepped rice paddies, tobacco fields. Impervious to the all-purpose charms of protection that dangle from the rearview mirror: an evil eye embedded in jade, red tassels wrapped in gold and knotted for longevity.
Back in Shenzhen, it's the bearded god of money, Zhao Gongming, who reigns. Devotion marked by a shrine erected in offices, outside small shops: offerings of oranges and apples, coins splashed on an altar beside a fistful of incense burning for prosperity.
But it's Fu, the golden mandarin character that stops me. At Chinese New Year it's affixed to doors in villages and cities across this vast country. Right side up it means happiness, good fortune. Upside down, it signals Fu is coming.
It's less about a set arrival, than a constant flow, like air or water, continuous, a perpetual invitation, a readiness for good fortune to stop by and step across the threshold.
The first Fu symbol I spot is taped upside down to Huang Li's dormitory door. My understanding of it alters when she teaches me another phrase, Chi Ku. Translated: eating bitterness. Its meaning shimmers below the surface. Not only hardship, but its undercurrent, how you endure it, how you carry yourself through it, remain intact.
Huang Li's name too signifies: flying through its characters is the golden oriole from her homeland in Jiangxi province. I hear its fluting song in her laughter when she admits she can't cook, when she spies a thumb-size toad along a path. It sings through her young hands tending a garden on her dormitory shelf, a bud-heavy gardenia about to break into blossom.
Day after day one story after another, my own assumptions about what matters dissolve. Faces that could be defined by tedium become singular. I learn something about how a person shapes the life they're given, how they live inside it, and place their steady fingers around the rim of happiness.