Steep steps led higher into the Potala Palace in the already heart-poundingly punishing altitude of Lhasa.
This Tibetan woman wasn’t stopping for breath as she stepped confidently up ahead, her red shoes revealed briefly as she climbed. The colours and symbols of Buddhism had been cleverly woven from plastic on the path beside her, turning a no-entry barrier into a celebration. Inside the Potala, the quiet susurration of chants and prayer wheels created calm.
But travelling to such places inevitably brings dilemmas…the tensions in the region are well documented and visible on the streets. Police checkpoints surrounded the traditional circular worship routes that hug the ancient Jokhang Temple. Soldiers with guns watched the procession of prostrating Buddhists from the roofs.
We got there by train…three nights and four days from the south of China – the route itself a controversial development across the pristine Himalayan Plateau. The stars were crisper and brighter than I’d ever seen. But they lit up the mass movement of Chinese trucks leaving Tibet, laden, a fellow passenger said, with quarried minerals.
It was winter-time, so many Tibetans had come in from the countryside to the city. It was vibrant and lively and intensely colourful. Even teenagers were in full Tibetan dress, although with jeans on underneath against the sharp, dry cold. The air was ripe with the smell of yaks. Huge slabs of yak butter and cheese were being carved from cloth-wrapped blocks in the market. The smoke from butter lamps and incense seeped into our clothing.
Modern life was evident too. Today’s Tibetans have added mobile phones to their traditional dress and many have replaced old-style stiff leather boots with soft, Ugg-like synthetic replicas. Local crafts are being kept alive, however, with the support of some fair trade artisan organisations and new markets. We took home several thick, Tibetan rugs. Made for the harsh Himalayan climate, they seem quite at home in Shetland.
When you live on an island, stuff matters. The sky seems bigger somehow; the sea horizon more intriguing; the elements more powerful. Islands bring out the poet, the artist, the philosopher, the inventor.
They are creative places inspired in no small part by the distance that everyone and everything must travel to get there. Limitations of climate and geography must be considered in almost everything from building homes to running a business to educating a small and scattered population. When you live on an island, you are always aware of it.
Self-sufficiency takes on a new importance when high shipping costs are added to every purchase. Whatever is brought in – from cars to washing machines to mail order clothes to groceries – has to have some sort of exit strategy attached for when their usefulness is spent. Better, then, to think up ways of reusing junk and cutting down on waste. Or buy less stuff.
Islanders the world over have had to become experts at upcycling, recycling, and reimagining all kinds of articles that in bigger places are often shoved in the bin or left on a street corner for collection. The old boat becomes a shed roof; the fish boxes are vegetable planters; salmon cages are turned into greenhouses; old enamel baths are water troughs; seaglass becomes jewellery.
I live in an archipelago which is quite good at recycling and self-sufficiency but not yet brilliant. The charity shops are plentiful. The art, the music, the poetry thrives. The hills support sheep and cows, the sea gives fish and many people grow a few vegetables.
Most food, though, is shipped in by supermarket chains, its journey and its packaging adding significantly to the costs.There is still an over-burdened landfill, although a waste-to-energy furnace provides some power, and one of the UK’s biggest district heating schemes pumps hot water throughout the main town.
Beaches vary between stunning shards of silvery sand and mad tangles of rope and plastic and old junk, depending on the tides. Some of the rubbish is seaborne from further afield than these islands, but too much we generate ourselves. There’s a community-wide spring clean of shores and roadsides, but a few windy days and a tide-mark of debris is left once more. Careless consumerism has a visible impact here.
Even so, when your home is on an island living lightly seems to come a little more easily, nudged as it is by need and neighbourliness as well as environmental concerns. There’s a shared sense of responsibility that can be lost in the noise of urban life.
Since moving here from a flat in Berlin, I no longer buy clothes on impulse, drink coffee from disposable cups or work in a place where I don’t know everyone by name. Instead, I grow a few veggies, plant a few trees, use the same mug all day and teach in a small, two-classroom school.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s no idyll. The weather can be harsh and the winters long and dark and there are days when I desperately miss city living. But here, everything just seems a bit closer to home; cause and effect of modern life more obvious. If I drop a plastic bag in a ditch near my house, it will sit there for a dozen years or more unless the wind gets to it first. No-one cleans up after you on an island.
Forget spending silly money on a dress destined to be worn once – sensible Chinese couples borrow their dream outfits for the day and get that perfect wedding album to share with friends and family.
The Western-style dresses may look a little pre-loved close up, but clever lighting and a bit of digital help and not even the jeans and trainers will show up on the finished picture. Best of all, you don’t have to find room in a wardrobe for a (hopefully) never to be worn again outfit.
Wander in any fine-looking Chinese park on a sunny day and you’ll spot these new brides and grooms, posing in often odd and contorted positions, smiling against a backdrop of old stone bridges, branches of blossom and sparkling lakes. The allure of the west has seen couples in recent years choose to include glamorous white frocks in their wedding album, often alongside the traditional red Chinese cheongsams.
The idea of dressing up and looking every bit the beautiful bride without having to invest in a new dress is fabulously green. The fabric of choice every time is silk, of course. Exciting, strong and long-lasting. Like a great marriage.
And the perfect environmentally-friendly wedding gift? A set of Susurrus organic silk pillowcases, beautifully boxed, and made to last. A gorgeous present for those who are newly married.
Or what better way to celebrate a 12th anniversary – traditionally marked with a silk gift. GOTS-certified organic, our pillowcases promise wedding-day glamour, night after night. Take me to the silk shop
The photo above shows a common scene in a small city in southern China. That day there was a group of elderly people – two women and a man, sitting hunched on plastic chairs and surrounded by hundreds of pairs of jeans. They looked to be finishing zips and pockets and were all squinting at the fabric, although none were wearing glasses.
The jeans seemed to spill and tumble from a hatch in the side of the building, just out of this shot, right out onto the roadside. The sheer scale of their workload was daunting. I could not imagine my own grandparents having to toil like this.
I took this photo four years ago, when I was working as a teacher, and it made me determined to seek ways of showing another, more positive, side to Chinese craft-making and manufacturing. The “Made in China” stamp has long been associated with poor work and cheap labour. But that is not the only story in a country so vast and varied. Organic and fair-trade companies exist too and there are hundreds of examples of local workshops and artisans producing beautiful, natural products using methods that have been practised for generations.
But there is no doubt that millions of people are working in awful conditions around the world, forced by circumstances to accept low pay, scant benefits and denied a voice to bring change. Thank goodness organisations exist to scrutinise and hold to account companies who operate this way, putting profit far, far above people. A quick search shows report after report on factories in China and other places, despite the existence of labour laws, minimum wage, rights to education and international agreements.
I make no claim to inside knowledge on these places, but I lived for some years in Guangdong Province, in Southern China, where a huge percentage of all manufactured goods and clothing that are sold in the West, are made. I would pass mile after mile of massive factories on my way to the train station at Dongguan. As work shifts changed, hundreds of people in identical uniforms would stream out along the wide boulevards of the industrial province, seeking out the noodle shops and restaurants along the roadsides.
From the outside it was not possible to tell if their working conditions were good or not. Certainly, many thousands of young people move to the region from rural parts of China every year seeking work, often staying for years and returning with family members to the same factories. This human side of China’s economic growth is described so well in “Factory Girls” by Leslie Chang (published in 2008 by Picador). In it Chang portrays the living, sleeping and working lives of factory workers in Dongguan, many often struggling to cope with social change and life far from the rural villages they grew up in, while at the same time loving their new wealth.
Chang’s stories may be changing a little as world economic growth slows down and the West slowly wakes up to this awful inequality. The elderly lady in my photo would, I expect, no more want to be sitting sewing mountains of jeans than my own granny. But this same tale will be told for as long as high streets continue to encourage fast, cheap fashions and we continue to live disposable lives.
While factories can be inspected and legitimate supply chains verified, it is so much harder to monitor the mass manufacturing work that happens away from the big, new premises. It was commonly said, although I never saw them for myself, that whole villages – men, women and children – were routinely engaged in producing one product or one small part or pattern piece, often for large, Western companies. Of course, no-one was going into each home to check on the ages of the workers or to ensure they took breaks or worked safely.
Changes have begun, but it will be up to us, as consumers, to ask questions, support those organisations who check workplaces and supply chains and to take responsibility for knowing which companies to trust. I know that there are many, many people in China, as elsewhere, who want to see positive changes and who are quietly doing their bit to work fairly and without harm to the environment or people.
China, like anywhere, is a land of contrasting stories: rags and riches; kindness and cruelty; big dreamers and small minds. Next time you see a “made in China” label, have your eyes open, but please don’t always assume the worst.
KW, ShetlandThank you to Trusted Clothes for inviting me to be a guest writer. http://www.trustedclothes.com/blog/2016/02/22/n/
Nothing says New Year in China more than the acrid, tear-inducing smoke from a thousand rattling red firecrackers, convulsing relentlessly along a village street like an irascible dragon.
These tiny tubes of firepower spew out flames and red paper so fast that the lighter has to be deft on their feet to move back from the explosion. Drifts of spent capsules and unscorched paper pile up along the pavements; a sort of edgy blossom for Spring Festival.
Anything further from a firework display set to music and accompanied by a live orchestra, and possibly a fountain, you couldn’t imagine. The louder, smokier and wilder the firecrackers, the better the chances of chasing off any pesky bad spirits for the coming year. A Catherine wheel and a couple of sparklers just wouldn’t do the job.
Firecrackers are a crucial part of the celebrations, but they can be so dangerous that many Chinese cities have banned them altogether. Little wonder then that millions of people are willing to make the long, slow and crowded journey back to their families in the countryside to see in the New Year.
Amidst the madness and the infernal racket of explosives, families are reunited for a short time. And the smoke lingers well after the last festival dumpling has been eaten.
Happy New Year to all, but especially to my fellow Monkeys.
There’s something natural and comforting about curves in buildings. In my perfect world, all buildings would be round, like the ancient Pictish brochs we have here in Shetland, or igloos, or Mongolian gers. It’s a good shape to live in, clearly.
The endless, sweeping circle of this earthen Hakka house was designed to safely envelop an entire community. Inside the whorl of mud and brick there are several floors of private spaces, all circling the shared courtyard below and linked by wooden balconies.
This photo was taken from an upper level, looking down on the clay tiles of the inner courtyard, which is open to the air. It was in a remote part of Fujian Province, in a hilly landscape of bamboo and forest that was dotted with the looped ruins of these cavernous wheels.
Left to decay for many years since they were first built, some hundreds of years ago, local people are now drifting back from the cities to live there again. We stayed overnight in one that had sort of been turned into a guest house. Although, looking back, it may well just have been someone’s house. It wasn’t round, but phoenix-shaped, with wings. Two families lived there; they shared the fires and the storerooms and sat chatting and playing mah jong late into the night.
We climbed the rickety stairs lit by a series of red lanterns to a small room with sloping wooden floors, that filtered the soft light and voices. It was a bit like going to bed when there was a party going on downstairs. We drifted off to the sounds of quiet laughter and rose to the watery rituals of washing and brushing teeth.
A young teacher was scrubbing vegetables at the communal tap in the courtyard. She had just moved home, after living in the city for 10 years. Some of her other friends were returning too, she said, so the elder generation wouldn’t be left alone. They could also see new opportunities for tourism, she admitted, welcoming visitors to their circular kind of life.
Susurrus silk is environmentally-friendly, of superb quality, and chemical and pesticide free. The silk farm has created stable jobs for the local community and has led to improved and protected natural habitats for wildlife.
Panda Country. Our silk is created in Sichuan Province, in Western China, an area of diverse and beautiful natural landscapes from bamboo forests, home to the world’s only wild pandas, watery rice terraces and mountainous Himalayan terrain.
All organic. All aspects of the silk production, from the organic mulberry farm, through the harvesting, preparation, weaving and dyeing of the silk, to the finished silk articles, have been rigorously inspected and awarded the Global Organic Textile Standard. GOTS Certificate.
Organic does mean best quality. There is a direct relationship between the quality of the mulberry leaves that silkworms are fed and the quality of the finished silk filament. Our silk is created from the best quality, organic mulberry leaves. This means the cocoons grow big and strong, leading to extra-long silk filaments that can be unreeled in almost endless threads and spun into silk that is even in texture and colour.
Socially responsible. The GOTS certificate is the world’s leading textile processing standard for organic fibres. It is backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain and includes social criteria as well as ecological criteria. http://www.global-standard.org/the-standard.html
The company which runs the organic farm, the silk production, the dyeing and the product manufacturing, Alkena, provides stable employment for local people, from farmers to skilled tailors. They have also planted many trees other than mulberry to create nesting sites for birds and to encourage wildlife diversity.
Human connections. We try to make connections with the people who are involved in producing our gorgeous fabric and turning our designs into products: sharing photos; asking questions and finding out what we can about each other’s lives.
This organic approach is unusual in China’s silk industry. But at Susurrus we believe it is the only way to make sure luxury products like ours feel great for everyone.
Photos rarely tell the truth. Memories are even worse. But between the two, a sensory-saturated moment in time can be recalled in startling clarity. To organise your travel snaps is to head grinning with relish into a forgotten instant. What better task, then, for a dark and quiet January on a northerly island.
This series of photos is about China, where we lived for a few years. Some are quietly observed; others are snapped in haste. Travelling with a family meant learning to notice these instants, and to enjoy – sometimes only fleetingly -the excitement, calm or bewildered curiosity they inspired.
The first photo was taken in southern China, in a region of limestone mountains of fantastical shapes near Yangshuo. The round, red lanterns seemed to glow like planets, with the karst outlines in the distance. This countryside was like a thousand Chinese paintings; mountains inked below a rice-paper sky.
That night we were staying in the Giggling Tree hostel, a bike ride from the nearest noisy and neon-lit town. The evening was cool but we ate outside and drank beer and talked nonsense and watched the children race around the old, stone courtyard with their visiting cousins. I snapped this picture on a trip to the loo, mesmerised by the light and taking a moment to enjoy the cool, jasmine-scented peace of dusk.
We had a full moon that trip too, and watched it slide into the circular frame of an eroded rock – a detail I’ve only just remembered.
Anyone anxious about their social media presence can take comfort in the wise words of Chinese philosopher Confucius: “Worry not that no one knows you; seek to be worth knowing.”
Of course, it was alright for Confucius. He was writing in 500 BCE at a time when blogging would have involved making ink from pine soot and ground horns before laboriously brushing inspiring ideas onto thin bamboo strips. They’d have to be worth it. The really important stuff was carved onto vast stone columns; a communication method that would seriously chip away at the number of daily mundanities currently recorded by humankind.
This compelling fascination with living out our brilliant lives in public, and adding a glossy finish to everything, must have deep roots, for Confucius also remarked: “We take greater pains to persuade others that we are happy than in endeavoring to think so ourselves.”
It’s an endlessly perplexing business, chiseling away online in the hope of being noticed. Sharing our best side; hiding our bad times. What’s too little? What’s too much? How do we avoid sounding pompous? or flippant? or worse still, desperate? How can we make sure we are, in Confucius’ words, ‘worth knowing’? And why do we need so many friends when we rarely have time to talk to the ones who stay nearby?
Having lived in the factory-belt area of southern China; seeing elderly people sitting amidst massive piles of jeans on the street, squinting as they stitched details on pockets, I knew I wanted my business to be fiercely ethical and fervently kind. But that alone doesn’t make me worth knowing. It probably makes me a bit annoying, if anything. And it certainly doesn’t tell me how to succeed at it.
Luckily, Confucius also left a bit of a hint in another of his famous tweets. In it he identified five qualities to aim for…all obvious, but often undervalued.
He said: “If you are courteous, you will not be disrespected;
If you are generous, you will gain everything.
If you are honest, people will rely on you.
If you are persistent you will get results.
If you are kind, you can employ people.”
Does this translate to the modern world? Not in the minds of any of us who’ve worked for less than kind bosses or those many who slog away to no avail. But it clearly worked for Confucius, who has, after all, ended up spawning an entire philosophical movement with followers in numbers we can only dream of.
A word of caution, however, before you rush to download the entire Confucian tome, The Analects. In what was obviously the equivalent of a tired rant after several goblets of rice wine, the great man is also supposed to have declared: “A man without a mustache is a man without a soul.” Thank goodness our modern musings are no longer set in stone.
A new study says time spent in nature builds better communities. What finer way to prove science right than by indulging in a little organic guerrilla gardening and digging your way to a better festive frame of mind.
Requisition a spade from a neighbour’s shed and start tilling the soil in secret for the sake of humanity. Clear away the weeds and feel the festive fog lift inside. Your efforts now could turn that local wasteland by the bus stop into a wonderland. Wear gloves though. Humanity can be unenchanting sometimes 🙂
Silk less serious. That’s the spirit!
(for more on the study, see http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/65/12/1141.full )