The Personal Cultivation of a Cotton Buyer (Part 2)
CHAT tells the story of textile through voices spanning generations, industries and disciplines. Here at CHAT, we invite different stakeholders to respond to and activate the stories from the CHAT Memory Bank based on interviews with these former factory workers. In this article, CHAT’s 2021 intern Grace Tsang brings to life the story of Alan Chan, a former cotton buyer.
The Search for Cotton
How were buyers and producers able to receive updated information about cotton, back when the spread of news and information was much slower? It is all thanks to a publication titled Cotton Outlook that provided daily updates of cotton prices around the world. Whenever there was a decrease in price, buyers could pay more attention to see if there was a bump harvest in the area, which implies opportunities to purchase cotton at a lower price. Buyers would take references from Reuters’ reports and contact the seller via a long-distance phone call. Then they would continue the communication through telegraph using shorthand to minimise cost, which was billed by time.
Mill 2 at Yuen Tun Circuit
Sometimes, these transactions involved an agent, who played a vital role in the process. As there was no direct transit from Hong Kong to Mexico, they had to rely on agents in Japan to contact sellers in Mexico. In some cases, sellers would take the initiative and make the first move. In the 80s, the Cotton Export Corporation of Pakistan (CEC, established by the Pakistan government) set up a company in Hong Kong to explore business opportunities here.
Packaged cotton showcased at Welcome to the Spinning Factory! exhibition
Alan’s most memorable trip was going to Tanzania and Sudan to look for cotton sellers. He had a layover in Switzerland, where the temperature was -10°C, before arriving at the Sudan airport at night, where the temperature was 36°C. With temperatures reaching up to 40°C in the daytime, the people of Sudan would take a break between the hours of 1:00-5:00pm in the afternoon. Dressed up in a suit and tie for his business meetings, Alan was completely drenched in sweat not long after leaving the airport. As he walked on, he found it more and more difficult to walk — the asphalt on the road had softened in the heat and was stuck to his shoes!
Alan has overcome challenges that most have not experienced. Yet, the biggest challenge for many buyers is the discrepancy between what they ordered and the final goods that were delivered. Despite travelling all the way to other countries to perform the inspections, they cannot always guarantee that the sellers would hold up their end of the bargain. Alan recalled a spinning factory who went to court against a supplier who delivered stones instead of cotton. The lawsuit is still ongoing after 20 years without any settlement. To protect their own interests, buyers usually work with state-owned companies and make contracts only with trusted agents.
Yarn cones at Welcome to the Spinning Factory! exhibition
Following the closure of the Nan Fung cotton-spinning factory in 2008, Alan’s story as a cotton buyer also drew to an end. His story not only helps us better understand the career of a cotton buyer but also offers us a glimpse into the lesser-known side of the industry at the time. Alan’s devotion to his job is fully manifested in his eagerness to learn languages, as well as his profound knowledge that we can see when he enthusiastically introduces cotton standards in different countries. He admitted frankly that it was no easy job, but he got the chance to see the world thanks to Nan Fung Textiles’ global vision. Being a cotton buyer allows him to travel around the world and gain multifaceted working experiences, which is a rare opportunity that he treasures to this day.
Alan bore witness to the rise and fall of an empire – the once glorious textile industry in Hong Kong has become a sunset industry fading out from our daily lives. Textiles produced in Hong Kong have gained a worldwide reputation and would not have been possible without Alan and his peers at Nan Fung, who helped safeguard the quality of cotton products. As times have changed, despite Alan’s wish to keep working as a cotton buyer, there is no demand in Hong Kong anymore. He is still working with Nan Fung handling home mortgages. When he looks back on his time as a cotton buyer, there are more than words could say.
Read Part 1 here.
If you or anyone you know has worked in the textile industry and would be willing to share your stories, we would love to hear from you. Please get in touch by emailing email@example.com with the subject line ‘CHAT Memory Bank’ or call +852 3108 2399.