A simplistic, often smarmy look at the new Chinese economy by New Zealand travel writer Bennett (Mustn’t Grumble: An Accidental Return to England, 2007, etc.).
The author’s idea to trace the step-by-step fabrication of the “Made in China” underpants he bought in his home country proves entertaining though shallow, and he offers few new insights into the Chinese economy or psyche. Bennett posits himself as a kind of Western Everyman who knows very little about China and nothing about the provenance of the array of commodities produced in its hundreds of sprawling factories. He admits that he read one book on China when he arrived in Shanghai to meet the underwear manufacturers. Passing himself off as a buyer, he visited an underwear factory on the outskirts of the city, observing the legions of young girls from the provinces toiling at their workstations. The author investigates The Warehouse Limited, the big-box New Zealand retailer with factories in Shanghai that made Bennett’s underpants inexpensively and well, thanks to abundant labor, increasing quality control and “reverse engineering” (learning how to make Western products cheaper). Bennett visited the Shanghai port where the huge container ships came through and a factory in Quanzhou. To experience rural China (“I’d like to slap the rump of a water buffalo”), he stopped briefly in Wenzhou and other comparatively small cities. Then he moved on to Thailand, where the rubber for the waistbands originated. In Urumqi, located in the western province of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, he felt the cotton. His observations about getting around, eating unusual food and meeting the curious Chinese people are mostly generous. With a smattering of textbook history, he offers a dummy’s tour of China.
Some guffawing moments interspersed with somber reflections on economic growth, pollution and racism.