Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From the Canton Trade Fair to under Your Tree ; Chinese Middlemen Scour the Globe for Product Ideas with Foreign Appeal

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From the Canton Trade Fair to under Your Tree ; Chinese Middlemen Scour the Globe for Product Ideas with Foreign Appeal

Article excerpt

Connie Liu's products are designed to go under American Christmas trees. She is in the giftware business - items that combine metal, wood, sea grass, and bamboo or rattan. Last year Ms. Liu's small Xiamen firm, Sunflower, made decorative bamboo animals. This year the creatures got a light bulb - making a glowing menagerie of giraffes, llamas, and dolphins. She also makes mosaic-tile tables. Liu says quality, not just low cost, is now attracting overseas buyers.

To get under the US Christmas tree, Liu comes to the Canton trade fair in Guangzhou. Every April, as big firms decide Christmas product lines, corporate buyers from 200 countries flock to Canton to peruse samples from jewelry to pottery, appliances and textiles, shown by 13,500 exhibitors, mostly from China's coast. One is Connie Liu.

Liu's is a typical story about how Chinese goods move from concept, to Canton, to under the Christmas tree.

Liu, who grew up in Sichuan and who started her business in the late 1980s with her former husband, travels the world for design ideas. She faxes blueprints to a mountain village where her foreman builds a prototype. Final samples go to the sprawling halls in Canton.

Liu's business also illustrates how, after years of "racing to the bottom" for ever cheaper products, China is diversifying, and responding to a market demand for quality, as well as cost. Last year China exported $179 billion in consumer products to the US, up from $63 billion in 1997. This week, moreover, China released statistics suggesting its economy is $300 billion, or 16 percent, larger than previously estimated.

Small businesses like Sunflower partly account for those increased figures. Yet of late the market is tougher and more demanding than ever for "middlemen" like Liu. More buyers are going directly to factory foremen with their design ideas, squeezing the Connie Lius - who must respond with smarter, higher-quality concepts.

At the Canton trade fair thousands of exhibitors like Liu jostle to be seen, and buyers huddle in small groups.

"I am here to buy patio and garden," says Robyn Tailor, who represents an Australian supplier, and has come since the 1980s to the Canton fair, China's oldest, dating back to 1957. "Quality is back for sure. Everyone is playing off the big boys. If Wal-Mart goes super cheap, then we bounce it up a notch.... I'm buying moss pots. It used to be if the pot was $2.50, say, we'd all buy it. Now we are going to $3.50 and even $4 for bulk orders, for a better pot."

"My talent and knowledge is what I've got," says Liu. "I can go 30 percent cheaper, depending, or 30 percent better, than what huge US firms want."

Liu has converted a huge warehouse and living space a ways off from the crowded beaches of Xiamen. There she can control her environment and live with some creative independence. She works with a well-known local artist for special designs.

But her main design regime is to travel on exploratory trips. Two years ago, she went to Greece and Italy. She goes to the Australian outback and minority regions of China like Xinjiang and Tibet, to pick up on folk designs and colors. Liu incorporates the designs into household products - lanterns, chairs, ornamental chests, standing lamps, pots. …

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