Taipei, Taiwan – Inside one of the many small factories near the Taiwanese capital Taipei, a group of about 30 students sit in front of traditional sock rings, learning about knitting methods from a bygone era.
It’s the way Andrew Wu’s grandfather, Nai Yang, used to make socks when he set up the business in then-Japanese-occupied Taiwan in the 1930s: pull the thread through the hook with a needle, attach it to the ring, then turn it over. . 200 times.
In Nai Yang’s time, workers could spend six to eight hours on a pair of high-quality socks, a luxury product at the time that sold for about 4,000 New Taiwan dollars ($135) in today’s currency. But at Wu’s Wufuyang Sock Museum, tourists can knit their own socks, water bottle holders, stuffed animals or scarves in just one hour while learning the history of sock making in Taiwan – and seeing how the process is done today with advanced machines .
“With our DIY classes, we teach them how to connect anything,” Wu told Al Jazeera. “So they actually know how long it takes to make socks. So they value their stuff more.”
Wu’s “tourism factory” is part of an effort by Taiwan’s Economic Development Bureau to boost local tourism by directing funds to infrastructure that already exists: its factories.
Once considered the “factory of the world,” Taiwan hopes its industrial tourism initiative will encourage some factories to keep operations local rather than follow the international trend of moving to China or Southeast Asia, where land and labor costs are low.
The 20-year effort has resulted in more than 150 government-approved “tourist factories” and “productive culture centers” and up to 100 other independent examples. Curious tourists can visit museums for shoes, robots, suitcases, pencils, even condoms, and return home with a DIY product to remember their visit.
The hope is that a greater emphasis on service – rather than production – will build stronger brand loyalty and trust in Taiwanese companies in an increasingly competitive international market.
“It’s a sustainable concept. of [idea of] travel factories should be remodeled, not built,” Susan Lin, a professor of museum studies at Fu Jen University, told Al Jazeera.
“With tourism factories you have to educate people about the manufacturing procedure of your products. They see how [for example] save the food, that it is healthy and that it is very safe.”
Guo Xuemei’s first Barbie dolls came from her aunt, who worked every day at the Meinong factory in Taishan, a suburb of New Taipei City, to produce the toys for export. All the other kids were jealous—the Taiwanese could make Barbie dolls for export, but they couldn’t buy them domestically.
Workers were given Barbies as New Year’s gifts from the factory. But when a doll had even the slightest blemish — a blemished lip or eye — factory workers couldn’t help but bring it home rather than see it go to waste.
“I don’t know if the Barbies that my aunt brought me were taken or given to her, I don’t know,” Guo told Al Jazeera. But those dolls and their beautiful outfits inspired the rest of her career, first as a seamstress and now as a volunteer and teacher for the Taishan Barbie Doll Industry Cultural Center.
During Aunt Guo’s time, the small town of Taishan was known as the “Barbie Town” of Taiwan.
At its peak, more than 8,000 workers were employed at the Meining factory to produce half of the world’s Barbies for Mattel. An additional third of the city’s population became subcontractors for more detailed work, fixing loose threads and fixing bows from home workshops.
“Taishan people had a saying, ‘We grew up with Barbie,'” Guo said. “Barbie is what represents Taishan best.”
Taiwan’s economic miracle of the 1970s and 80s can be attributed to factories such as Taishan’s Meining Doll Factory, whose success as a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) earned them designations to exclusively manufacture products for a contractor, like Mattel in the case of Taishan.
Taiwan’s SMEs – often family-owned and operated – produced most of Taiwan’s exports at the time and became experts in supplying goods and parts to foreign firms at competitive prices. They thrived with the help of lax government regulations, vigorous land reform, and US economic aid pumped into the Taiwanese economy in the 1950s. In the 1970s, economic growth averaged 10 percent a year, and in the mid- ’80, some estimates suggest there was one firm for every eight Taiwanese adults.
“The strength of most Taiwanese firms lies in their ability to supply goods to companies that have created demand through design, marketing and branding, but lack the capacity to produce products at a price the market will bear,” writes Shelley Rigger. in it. The book of 2021, The Tiger Who Leads the Dragon.
Today, that strength is best exemplified in companies like Foxconn and TSMC, which supply phones, chips and other technology to the world’s biggest tech companies.
But the opening of China’s special economic zones in the 1980s meant that low-tech products like Barbie dolls could be produced at a lower cost overseas. Taiwanese companies moved their operations across the strait, helping to fuel China’s economic growth. By 1987, Mattel had left Taishan for China and Malaysia, leaving Taishan workers behind. Taiwan’s annual economic growth rate fell to 6.3 percent in the 1990s.
“The impact was huge, and it wasn’t just at work,” Guo said.
Six years after the closure of the Meinong factory, the mayor of Taishan moved to keep Barbie culture alive through Barbie-related cultural classes and activities, including DIY classes led by former factory workers themselves. Today, as many reach their 70s and 80s, Guo has taken on that role. The Barbie Industrial Cultural Center in Taishan is one of the few industrial tourism sites in Taiwan that no longer manufactures its displayed goods.
Companies that decide to continue manufacturing in Taiwan, even as the rest of their industry moves abroad, are usually not driven by the profit earned from tourism. Some fear intellectual property would be stolen if operations move to China; others see staying local as a long-term investment that they hope will pay off in the local market. To survive competition from China today, they focus on smaller orders and niche markets where more money can be made.
“We all know that the museum part is not really a part where we can make a lot of money. Sometimes you can even lose money depending on the industry,” said Wu, the sock maker. become familiar with a brand name.
The first time Jessamine Lai learned anything in school about the local culture of Yilan, a county in the northeastern part of the island, was on a field trip to Orange Country, a kumquat candy factory that has been offering tours since 1979.
Ding-gang Lin, Lai’s classmate and lifelong friend, was the son of those factory owners and the grandson of kumquat farmers who sold their fruit to local candy factories. Seeing China’s economic growth, Lin’s parents decided to open their factory and offer tours in a marketing effort to show customers how they used new, modern methods to dry and preserve kumquats. He proudly claims that his parents created the first “tourism factory” in Taiwan.
But when Lai and Lin were in school, they learned nothing about where they came from, as a result of the Kuomintang party’s 30-year period of martial law and strict imposition of Chinese education and language — an experience that resonates today with China’s military training. and trade restrictions targeting the democratically ruled island, which Beijing considers its territory.
“Our textbook, geography, was all of mainland China,” Lai told Al Jazeera. “Taiwan, there were about two chapters. Where is Taipei, where is Kaohsiung, where is the central mine, this is it… We were not allowed to speak Taiwanese.”
Under the management of Ding-gang Lin, a cafe and DIY classes have been added to Orange Country. For Lin, the priority is connecting people to what he sees as their disappearing local culture, not attracting more customers.
“I always invite my friends, my classmates to join me to help the locals understand, feel what our culture is. Ours, the people of the country. When you taste it, it’s our home style,” Lin told Al Jazeera.
Guo has a similar attitude. Barbie became an indelible part of Taishan’s identity, but since she began working for the museum and cultural center in 1993, she has tried to make Barbie more accurately reflect the people of Taiwan.
At the museum, Barbies dressed as Sakizaya, Amis, Atayal and Seediq—some of Taiwan’s 16 indigenous tribes—take up two entire display cases. Later this summer, she will lead a class on Hakka-style doll clothes in collaboration with the Hakka Studies Center in Taipei.
“Back then, people only made Barbies for export,” Guo said. “So when I started teaching classes, I wanted to make Barbies with Taiwanese features.”