The Business of Leather

I have left my creative summer in Beijing and begun the second half of my Fulbright year in Shijiazhuang.  Nothing could have brought me here other than shadow puppetry; the entry in the Lonely Planet guide book only recommends ONE scenic sight, despite it being Hebei province’s capitol city.

Stepping off the train, you can tell it’s not a city that warrants tourism.  Not a single cab driver angling for a steep fare or a requisite tourist map for 1 yuan.  Instead, you’re simply spit out of the exit into an overwhelmingly large public square and left to fend for yourself.

Wang Cuiluo meets me in front of the train’s KFC, in a cream chiffon summer dress and her husband in tow.  The last time I saw her was at their apartment in Xi’an a few months ago – when I first began to research the leather making side of shadow puppetry in China.

I step into their new Kia after throwing my things into the trunk.  Wang steps into the drivers seat and for the next 50 kilometers east of the city, her husband coaches her intermittently while telling me all about their leather making business.   Wang is just learning to drive – which makes for an interesting traverse over some particularly rain-hammered dirt roads.

Wang’s husband, Qin Minqiang, is a good natured salesman.  Within minutes, he’s told me to ask around when I get home to see if we might need leather hides for car coverings and shoes.  He assures me the prices are rock bottom.

We arrive 50 minutes and a few bumpy roads later, at a modest one-level tiled home just off a small row of street restaurants and fix-it shops called Nanmacun

Just inside their house’s mammoth front gate are piles of cowhide.

Further inside is the same story; rooms full, floors stacked and roofs laid with the stuff.  All of it, from what I can see and smell, is machine made.  I lay my things down, take a look around and follow them up the ladder, onto the roof.

For the first time in 6 months, I have a flash of home; cornfields as far as the eye can see.  The sun is setting low in the west and crickets are all around us.

The breeze up here is the kind of thing that makes you want to sit and talk and waste time.  In a few breaths, the entropy of Beijing seems to have seeped out of me.  I’m shaken out of my daydream by sharp laughter and the clang of metal.  Up here, a group of elder woman workers are stretching the soaked machine hides for a final stretch and dry.  They work patiently and with much chatter.

After they are done we descend.  It’s dark out already – so we hop into the car and head into the city for dinner.   One hearty belly full of sheep’s stomach, potato and handmade noodles later, we search for a hotel.  The first few they had in mind aren’t open or aren’t where they thought they’d be – and after a few minutes they sheepishly invite me to sleep at their house.  “It’s dirty and messy, we were afraid you wouldn’t want to sleep there.”  But of course I do; family homes over hotels any day.

We head to bed as soon as we arrive back. Wang Cuiluo, her daughter Xinxin and I, fall asleep quickly together on the big bed in the main room despite the tireless flies.

At 7 the next morning, we awake and hop in the car again for a breakfast of soft tofu soup and fried dough along the side of the road.  Wang’s husband tells me he’s taking me to see how leather is made today and doesn’t forget to remind me to see if the US needs any cheap leather hide from China.

I have come to this little corner of Hebei province to see the larger shadow puppet leather making industry.   From all of the makers and artists I’ve talked to, 95% of them source their leather from elsewhere.  Most of it comes from right here; Shijiazhuang area and, to a lesser extent, from Sichuan.  In my ignorance, I have been busy theorizing why these areas might be producing the most shadow puppet leather, while the most active shadow puppet areas remain in Shaanxi, Tangshan and Gansu.   It’s nothing complicated, in fact, it’s just business.  Shijiazhuang was dubbed the leather-making hub a while back and has remained so to this day.  The hides come from all over the country to be processed here in any number of ways: leather for cars, shoe leather, and of course – leather for shadow puppetry.

The first stops on our trip today are leather-finishing factories owned and operated by Qin’s relatives.  These places are surprisingly clean, warm and easy-going.  I wouldn’t have felt squeamish pulling out some porous snack and digging in right there.

Here the workers add a top coat to the leather hides; a flexible heat-set paint.

The heating machine sets the paint.  The rollers take the leather through within a minute or so.

We leave after a tour, a cup of Welcome Tea and drive further into factory land.  As the road leads on, we pass leather factory after leather factory.  Cows, cowhides out to dry and large, daunting warehouses that look ominously closed to the public.  Qin warns me before we arrive at his chosen destination, “don’t bring that big camera in with you.  They’ll think you’re a journalist and won’t want you taking pictures.”  The worry is water pollution.

Within a minute, I can smell why.  As we open the car doors, my nostrils are hit with a noxious mix of flesh and sulfur.  Good thing I have a tough stomach.

With no one to stop us, we walk through warehouse after warehouse of 20 ft high barrels churning fresh hides in (what can only be translated as) sulfuric acid to break down the hair and fat lining.  (I’m sure there are more chemicals in the process, but I wasn’t given any more details.)  New hides lay on carts waiting for their acid bath and pink hairless hides lay in lifeless piles of inch-high muck.  Men in rubber aprons and gloves move the hides with large looking steel-claws.  While much of my mind was preoccupied with not slipping in the muck and keeping the fear off my face, I do remember being struck by just how thick cowhide is.  A regular cowhide, without fur, measures about ½ and inch thick.

While still puzzling about this, we came upon the cutting room.  Ah.  The freshly turned hides are then split up to 3 times horizontally; essentially making 3 hides out of one.

We wander around long enough for them to let me snap a few photos with my small point-and-shoot camera.

A warehouse with hide ‘washing’ barrels.  

Turned hides are piled and readied for the cutting warehouse

The newly cut hides are taken away to the next step of the process

A pile of freshly turned cowhide

Cutting warehouse

As we left, the heaviness sank in.  The comparison between the hand-making
leather process I learned in Tangshan
and the leather industry here is heartbreaking; not just for us but for our homes, our world.  But we’ve created this demand, haven’t we?  And you can hardly blame Shijiazhuang for stepping up to meet it.  Both Wang and Qin told me about the area’s poverty before they had a leather industry and their current pride in success is palpable.

I had hoped to see Wang and Qin fulfilling the large handmade leather orders, but they work in cycles.  This cycle is machine-made leather for machine-made puppets in Shaanxi.  For machine-made shadow puppet hide, they source raw hide made similarly to the ones pictured directly above and process them themselves at their home with another bath of sulfuric acid and a short stretching and drying process.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to catch them on my way back around to see how they make those beautiful handmade donkey hides.

The trip has solidified my desire to source and create my own hide when I return to the states.  And if this proves to be too much for me, I will make every effort to purchase only handmade cowhide from known sources.  I think it’s the little things that make the big difference.

Thanks for reading~


One response to “The Business of Leather

  1. Annie,
    All your images make it look like summer. Do they have nice weather all the time or was it just the parts of the country you were visiting? I can’t imagine how you prepared for your trip, knowing you’d be gone for a year, four seasons ready?

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