In and around a Chinese Shipyard

Xiamen harbor from Gulangyu

The setting is Xiamen in 1985. Derek and Elizabeth are a lively, gregarious couple in their late forties. Like many New Zealanders, they have a wonderful sense of adventure and a desire to try all sorts of new things—from sailing around the South Pacific to taking off with the rest of the foreigners for the new restaurant in town.  Both Elizabeth and Derek have been around boats all their lives. 

Derek: When I was working in Australia as a boat building supervisor I got a telegram asking if I’d like to build boats in China. Would I?  So we sailed off to Guam in the middle of the typhoon season. Then we left the boat in Guam because of the weather and later sailed it to Hong Kong, where it’s sitting in a marina at great expense.

The company’s only been building pleasure boats here for three years, and the standard is quite reasonable. It’s still slow progress because the workers don’t really understand what they’re making.  It’s a boat, but it’s not to be used for work. The first question they asked was what type of fish this yacht was built to catch. We had a terrible job to explain to them, “Look, people won’t pay for a rough piece of timber. It’s got to be sanded and varnished until it really shines. They’re going to pay a lot of money for this yacht.”

The concept is totally foreign, a toy for your leisure. Somehow you’ve got to show the worker what he’s building it for. But just taking them for a sail wouldn’t help that much. They don’t understand the money that goes into leisure. Our boats are finished off three times as well as the houses they live in. A yacht that’s put on the market has to be perfect—the upholstery, the varnish, the engine installation. It’s got to have a refrigerator, a freezer, a freshwater system, hot water on tap. The workers haven’t got any of that in their houses. So how can they understand putting it in for a person who’s only going to use it once a month? You can teach them how to build a truck. They know what a truck is and what a truck does.  A luxury item is totally different.  But they are doing it, and they’re doing pretty well.

Elizabeth:  They want to do things their way, though. In New Zealand the first thing an apprentice learns is to clean the jagged ends off any metal he cuts. You always run a file round, and it takes all the ends off. It’s a second’s work. Derek showed them and showed them, but they wouldn’t do it. Then one day the senior engineer pulled himself up under some metal that hadn’t been cleaned. He had no shirt on, and he tore his back badly. He’s got quite a bad scar there now. Derek just looked at him and said, “Well?” Now they clean off the metal. Once it does sink in, you hear, “Ah, but we’ve always done it like that.”

They have a metal drill which you pull down with a lever, and it drills through the metal.  You do it very slowly because it heats up, and you’ve got to keep the bit wet and sharp or it just polishes and the metal gets hotter and hotter. Once Derek walked in and saw the drill wasn’t going through, so they’d put another length of tube out from the handle, and they were swinging on it about eight feet out in the air, swinging with all their weight trying to get the bit to go through the metal. All they were doing was burning it. So Derek tore in and showed them how to do it again.

Derek:  To my knowledge they don’t have trade training here, just the master worker system, so if a worker has been poorly trained by his master worker, those faults are perpetuated right through the line of tradesmen. The only kind of training we offer is just sheer persistence. The workers resist change very badly, the older ones particularly. I guess that’s probably so everywhere. You show them what you want, and then you go back later and say, “No, that’s not right. Do it again.” They keep using up your precious raw materials until they get it right. Then you sort of relax and think, “Well, that’s OK, they’ve got that under their belts.” Then a week later—or nine months later—you’ll find that they’ve reverted to the old method and the results are poor again. You ask them why, and they admit they don’t know. So it’s been a long, hard struggle.

One thing we’ve noticed is that some people in China work terribly hard. There are these young girls, young, thin little things carrying these great slabs of concrete. Building stones are brought in by ship. At the yacht factory we have a little dock there where we launch the yachts when they’re finished. The skipper will bring in this boat loaded with stones, forty tons of granite. All he does is drive the boat and tie it up. Two girls unload it. They pick up a slab of granite suspended from a bamboo carrying pole and lean against one another while they walk down two very springy planks, sometimes at quite a fair angle, with this granite slab held between them.  They do that for hour after hour, and they’re talking and laughing and chattering all the time they’re doing it. It obviously doesn’t worry them.

Yet in the shipyard there are guys who do absolutely nothing. The cadres [party leaders] or group leaders just drink tea. I can’t see the equality in the system. The master shipbuilder has one long nail [a Confucian status symbol because it’s a sign he doesn’t work with his hands]. He has a thumbnail several centimeters longer than his other nails. He uses it to point out things on the plans.

Ninety-nine percent of our materials come from somewhere else. What we’re exporting from China is labor. We have two types of workers in the shipyard. The iron rice bowl workers are the lowest paid but have a guaranteed job for life. Then we have a temporary unit who are not members of our danwei [work unit]. They get paid considerably more, but they do not get any benefits, no sick leave or retirement. I don’t know whether they’ve elected to become independent workers or have been thrown out, but they are now private enterprise people working wherever they can get work.

From what I understand, Deng Xiao Ping is trying to get rid of the iron rice bowl.  That’s the best thing that could happen to China. The iron rice bowl breeds laziness–of course it does. If you know that you will get paid and you can’t be sacked, you sit around and do nothing. We’ve got some of the laziest people I’ve ever seen here, but I can understand why. You can kill yourself with overwork and still get no more for it and no thanks.  Only the cadres can get any political points for working hard.

Elizabeth:  There are a lot more free workers now because they can earn more.  If they work hard, they get a lot more money.

Derek:  We were the first in town to put in a time clock.  The Chinese management were very much against it and accused us of bringing in capitalistic ideas, using workers as slaves and so on. The funny part is that now when it breaks down, as it does from time to time, the Chinese management come to us in a great state and urgently request spare parts. They can’t figure out the wages without the time clock cards. So it’s obviously been a success. They can now see the benefit of an impartial means of keeping track of the workers.

Elizabeth:  But it makes you laugh. Everybody’s washed, clean, ready to go, on their bikes with their belongings all loaded up and ready to ride away, but they can’t touch the time clock until five o’clock. The girls have changed from work clothes to colorful, nice clothes. Everyone is standing around having little jokes and laughing, and at five o’clock there’s a dive for the time clock. They’re fast off the mark, just like we are when we want to get home.

Derek:  Of course they still sleep during the lunch hour. We have a two-hour lunch break. The ones that don’t go home for lunch or go to a cafeteria pull out sheets of plywood and their pillows. The stores [supply room] people just shut the stores door and go in and sleep. They have quite a long sleep at lunchtime—an hour and a half. We find that if they don’t get their sleep, they’re absolutely useless in the afternoon, totally useless and grumpy. Usually, the workers in the yacht factory are easy enough to get on with. We tease a lot. I’m standing in the store and a guy will come up and he’ll touch the hairs on my arm and go “WHHUV,” and I’ll touch his arm and say taitai [lady] because the Chinese are almost hairless. So we have a laugh.

Elizabeth:  They’re repulsed by your hairiness, really, though you’re not very hairy.

Derek: They have quite a few fights among themselves. They shout. They’ll harangue at one another and talk and shake their fists and point their fingers and waggle, and then they’ll walk off two paces and think of some other devastating insult, and they’ll turn round again and file in back at the guy. This’ll go on for half an hour sometimes, but only once in eleven months have I seen someone actually try to swing at somebody. He took his shirt off and gave it to his friend to hold.  He was obviously going to pummel this guy, but some of the group leaders got in and separated them. I don’t know whether they really are or whether it’s just their style, but they sure appear to be very angry.

But gosh, they’re terrible smokers, aren’t they?  I read somewhere it’s estimated that there are two hundred million smokers in China. One in five smokes. It’s unusual to find a man who doesn’t smoke. They offer cigarettes all the time. They don’t hold out the packet with the cigarette in it, they take the cigarettes out individually and hand them to people.

I asked the company interpreter, “Why is this?”

“You can’t start a conversation or do any business unless you offer a cigarette first.  That’s the key that unlocks the door.”

Non-smokers carry cigarettes to offer. That’s the way they get a clerk in a government department to do something for them. They’ve got to offer a cigarette. They don’t see how we could conduct business without offering a cigarette around.

There’s constant smoking and spitting.  In the shipyard everybody spits, women and girls as well.  They seem to clean their bronchial tubes from the toenails up. In the engineering shop, I just told them I find it totally unacceptable. I don’t care if it’s their custom, it isn’t mine, and I don’t want to be exposed to their germs. Please spit outside. So now they go hrhrhrhrhwuugyycht, and then they walk to the window and go ppucht out the window. At least that’s better than all over the floor. Right through the fiberglass factory and the joiner shop they’re just spitting on the floor all the time. [People spit at work and in the classrooms but not in their homes.]

There’s got to be something significant in this—the Chinese managers of the shipyard have built their office over the top of the toilet block [which may be flushed out only once a day or so].  Now of all the places to build an office, over the top of a Chinese toilet is not it. The stench is absolutely incredible, and it wafts up into the office through the windows.

I asked whether the toilet drained into the harbor. Oh, my goodness, no. It’s sold. There’s a contractor who comes and empties the tank every now and again, and he carts it away for the gardener who buys it.

Last week we talked to some of the people in the shipyard about distributing a bonus to the workers and give us a list of the people who got money. They said, “We can tell you where 80% of it’s going and give you a list of workers, but the other 20% will be going to ‘friends of the shipyard.'”

“What do you mean ‘friends of the shipyard’?  They’re not doing me any good.  I want all the money to go to the workers.”

“I’m sorry, we cannot do that, and we would rather not distribute the bonus if you insist on it.”

“OK, where does the other 20% go?”

The “friends of the shipyard” are people who look after transport, the people who transport the raw materials here, and the people in customs and immigration department who help us to make things easier for us. This is the payoff of government departments. Otherwise there’d be blockages, and we wouldn’t get supplies or wouldn’t get them quite as fast. When we get supplies in, the yacht parts all come through, but the office supplies don’t. Invariably, we will find that several packets of ball-pens are missing, or scribbling pads or marker pens. We say, “Where are they?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  That carton was broken.”

My God, you can see it was slit open. Customs are taking their tithe as it comes through.  And there’s stealing on the railways.  Every sixth crate mysteriously happens to drop and burst.  I’m not saying we’re any better. But with all their idealistic speeches, I had expected more.

We sail the boats the three hundred miles to Hong Kong because we can’t ship them from here.  At least we can say the product is ocean-tested. Then in Hong Kong they’re picked up and put in a crate and on a freighter for the States. When we sail from here, politics demands that we take two Chinese seamen with us because the yachts are registered here as Chinese vessels. So our delivery crew consists of a waiguoren [foreign] skipper and two Chinese seamen. We’ve got to have special permission from the Chinese to take them to Hong Kong, and of course Hong Kong’s paranoid about people hopping the border, so we have to look after them until we can put them on the next boat. They used to have to live on the yacht until we could put them on the next boat out. But now we just guarantee that they will catch the boat. These are responsible guys with families in China, so it’s hardly likely that they will skip off.

When you enter a foreign port, you’ve got to have several papers. You’ve got to have your clearance certificate from your last port, sometimes a health certificate, a crew list, a manifest of the cargo and sometimes a de-ratting certificate, which means that your vessel has been declared free of vermin. The Hong Kong officials don’t worry about that. I suppose they think there are so many rats in Hong Kong they couldn’t care less about a few more Chinese ones coming. But the Chinese insist on giving us one.  It costs 40 kuai [yuan].

We say, “We don’t want your de-ratting certificate.”

“No, we insist.  You’ll need it at your next port.”

“Hong Kong doesn’t need a de-ratting certificate.”

“Oh, yes they do.”

“No, they don’t.”

“Yes, they do.”

They want their 40 kuai.

The last time, we paid, got the certificate, and the skipper tore it up in front of the officials and dropped it over the side.  They looked astonished.

As in any country, government departments are a bit obdurate and obtuse. But generally we receive reasonable treatment.  One of the directors of the shipyard is also a director of the development corporation, so he helps smooth the way through the various departments.

We’ve just received an order for two training boats from the Shanghai marine college.  They’re going to buy these two modern Western yachts, and they’re going to teach their people how to sail modern four and a half rigs. We seriously believe that they will be competing for the America’s Cup eventually.  They’re obviously going to enter international yachting competition.  It will take them many years, if they make up their minds to do something, they’ll do it.

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AuldGreyHag ;-)
AuldGreyHag ;-)
14 years ago

This is really interesting, particularly since I saw a special on
BBC about Chinese yacht building recently. They went on as if there had never been yachts built in China before 2004, how, in the last 5 years, China had decided to go into the yacht-building business and was now turning out these beautiful ships. Granted, they were power-boats, not sailing craft, but the requirements for ‘finish’ work, not rough carpentry or metalworking is still the same.

Jonna Laster
Jonna Laster
14 years ago

What a fascinating collection of insights into a part of the world I have not yet traveled to but have always been curious about. Personal viewpoints and adventures by knowledgeable explorers, travelers and observers makes for a great read. Thanks.