Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Author Joe Bennett Discovers WHERE UNDERPANTS COME FROM

Shelf Awareness raves about Where Underpants Come From: From Cotton Fields to Checkout Counters--Travels Through the New China and Into the New Global Economy:

"Joe Bennett looks from a pair of underpants to their price tag and back again. He is puzzled that anything made in China and transported thousands of miles to New Zealand could sell for 87 cents and be so nice. In dogged determination to understand, he decides to "trace all the constituent parts of the underpants to their source," and covers a vast amount of territory in the process. He journeys to Urumqi (in Xinjiang province in China's far west), where long-staple cotton grows, is harvested, baled and turned into thread; he visits Quanzhou (in Fujian province, a two-hour flight south of Shanghai), where the fine cotton thread is knitted into fabric and made into underpants; he drops by the port of Shanghai to watch technicians pack goods into containers ready to ship, and more.

At every stage of the manufacturing and distribution process, Bennett finds rampant entrepreneurial mania. As if the instinct to do business was unleashed with a vengeance in China after 40 years of Mao, he writes, "While the corporate West salivates over the Chinese market with its billion potential customers, the corporate Chinese salivate over the Western market with its billion actual customers."

Much more than an intrepid investigator reporting how his underpants found their way to his body, Bennett is a delightful guide on an off-the-beaten-track-tour of the New China. Other visitors to Shanghai would hightail it to Pudong (in 1990 the site of vegetable gardens and pig farms) to gawk at the array of flashy high-rises rivaling Manhattan; Bennett treks out to Tangshan Free Trade Area, Shanghai's new container ship port, the biggest in the world. In Bangkok, while Western tourists troll through the sex emporia, he searches for the elusive tree that produced rubber for the elasticized waistband of his underpants.

Because of his wildly idiosyncratic itinerary, the restaurants he patronizes and the people he meets are far from run-of-the-mill: enjoy his every bite of a freshly killed millipede; make the acquaintance of a whole slew of previously uncelebrated factory workers, engineers and entrepreneurs. The good time he has on his adventures from one end of China to the other is infectious. Of all that he sees, though, nothing captures his imagination like Chinese driving habits. "China doesn't have motorbike gangs. China is a motorbike gang," he says with veiled admiration of those who drive like paramedics and regard rear-view mirrors as purely decorative."--John McFarland

Shelf Talker: A delightful and informative tour of the New China through the lens of the fancy underpants of a very funny New Zealander.

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