The fate of the ‘black gold’ manufacturing city in China: Once the ‘center’ of the whole world, but gradually died out because of the ‘internetization’

Xuchang city, in Henan province, central China, is known as the “wig capital” of the world. With more than 300,000 residents earning their living at various points in this supply chain, the city produces half of the world’s wigs and supplies them to more than 120 countries. Thousands of tons of hair are transported here every year. At the height of the industry, about 20,000 of these locals gathered hair from all over the world.

According to the records of this city, during the reign of King Gia Tinh (1521-1567), people here began to make wigs for singing troupes. After that, a local named Bai Xi had a partnership with a merchant from Germany to buy hair and they opened China’s first “hair bank”. They buy hair from merchants in the countryside, then comb it, tie it into bundles and sell it abroad.

However, now, this business is no longer so easy.

“Black gold”

Xu Mengge, an 11-year-old girl, has long, black hair. Her father, Mr. Xu Hai, considers it a “gold mine”. She has never been to a barber shop because she often cuts herself at home. Mengge’s hair is now waist-length and also very thick. Even with lice and dandruff at the roots, the ends are still very smooth, straight and without split ends.

The girl’s hair is cut, then neatly bun, placed on the scale. Hair buyers in the village offered the usual price of 600 yuan ($89). Seeing that Mr. Xu Hai was not satisfied, this person opened his backpack and showed him the bundles of hair he had bought. The person said: “Look, here’s what I gathered. I’m an honest buyer, her hair is not permed or dyed, it’s the right length, so 600 yuan is a fair price.” So the amount has been “fixed”.

The fate of the black gold manufacturing city in China Once the center of the whole world but gradually died out because of the internetization | Living

Illustration of a little girl cutting her hair for sale.

Mr. Hai lives with 3 children in a house in Tan Thai district of Ha Nam province. Here, the women in the village from a young age have sold their hair to earn extra income for the family. In Mengge’s class, at least 2-3 children do the same. She shared, the highest price here is 1,600 yuan.

1,600 yuan is more than Xu Hai’s family can earn from growing corn. Mr. Hai only attended primary school, both his parents and his wife died at a young age. He also underwent a major surgery on his abdomen, so he was unable to do hard labor. However, Mengge does not want to sell her hair.

Although buyers set a fixed price for the whole village, they offered different prices to factories based on the weight and length of the hair. Just a few centimeters longer can cost several hundred yuan more. Therefore, collectors often cut from the part near the hairline because this is where the hair is strongest.

At Mengge’s school, it’s easy to spot which kids sold their hair. The children’s hair is short, jagged and exposed the scalp. Mr. Hai doesn’t think it’s a big deal. According to him, looks are not worth much, if it is so bad he can buy her a hat.

He treats his daughter’s hair like a plant. “It takes time and care, not to mention money, and shampoo is expensive,” he said. When selling hair, winter has come, but Mr. Hai’s 3 children still wear slippers, so this is the right time to use that money to buy warm clothes.

The buyer tried to convince Mengge and told Hai: “If she changes her mind, you have to sell it to me.”

Little did they know that, 230 km away in Xuchang, wig factories were in dire need of this bun. The wig they sell can cost more than 1,000 yuan.

A crisis is “igniting”

On the streets of Xuchang, hair-related businesses appear everywhere. Barber shops offer high prices for long hair. Wig factories put up ads on the walls and hand out flyers in every window.

Zhou, a local resident who has been collecting and processing human hair for 13 years, said: “Getting ‘black gold’ is very simple. You just need a pair of scissors and do it on the street.”

When he started his business, all Zhou had was a pair of scissors and a canvas bag. After buying hair from people and collectors, he cleans it, untangles it and sorts it into bundles, then sells it to wig shops.

Since the job didn’t require too many complicated skills to begin with, wig factories and hair collection centers sprang up in Xuchang in the 1990s. He opened a factory in China due to the high cost of labor in his home country. Xuchang has become the “wig center” of the whole world, thanks to its dense population, cheap labor and abundant raw materials.

Zhou recalled that, in the heyday of the industry, there wasn’t even a single young man in the village. They are busy buying hair all over the country, arriving in Anhui province in the morning and then in Jiangxi province in the afternoon. They move almost every day, except for Tet. At its best, their profit margins are as high as 70%, says Zhou.

The fate of the black gold manufacturing city in China Once the center of the whole world but gradually died out because of the internetization | Living

Photo of workers transporting hair sacks at the end of October in Xuchang.

However, the outbreak of Covid-19 has greatly affected foreign trade activities. Companies in Xuchang are unable to import hair from abroad, leaving them in a supply chain crisis.

In 2020, Xuchang is home to 4.38 million people, with 1 in 14 people working in the wig industry. Competition is also fierce as there are many competitors and growing e-commerce allows buyers to compare prices to choose from. Smaller workshops have less advertising budget. Regular customers only come because of aggressive marketing strategies and price wars also take place.

Many locals have no choice but to leave Xuchang, trying to replicate this business model in other cities. Densely populated provinces and megacities such as Sichuan, Hunan and Chongqing are increasingly popular destinations due to their availability of relatively cheap labor. Although Xuchang is still the “wig capital”, many people believe that the golden age is over.

However, Liu Qing – Mengge’s teacher, thinks that this is not entirely the heart of the matter.

Hair is no longer… much

This is the fifth year Liu has come to this village to teach. She found that what caused the hair business to decline was because fewer people were selling hair.

Liu was born around the 1980s in a rural village in Henan province. She said that her mother, sister, and aunt all sell hair. And the hair of teenage girls has the highest price because it is the strongest hair.

Liu shared: “Now that the rural economy has improved, parents are more and more interested in their children’s education and hope they can go to the city to make a career. In order not to be distracted, right away. From the beginning, many parents did not allow their children to grow their hair too long.”

Zhou also sees this crisis clearly. With each passing year, more and more young people leave their hometown and the remaining women in the village are middle-aged or elderly. Because of their interest in beauty, they began to perm and dye their hair. This is why companies have to import hair from abroad, Zhou explains.

The fate of the black gold manufacturing city in China Once the center of the whole world but gradually died out because of the internetization | Living

Mengge and Teacher Liu.

Yang Cheng – a barber shop owner in Xuchang, once whose main income was in the hair business, said that now his job is not cutting hair from the root but styling. In the past, the hair business was very convenient so they did not need to learn how to style and only needed 1 basic tool to multiply. Now, while the shops on the outside haven’t changed since the 1990s, inside are posters of the trendiest hairstyles and scissors of all shapes and sizes.

Recently, Yang has had to use the internet to diversify the hair supply channels. Both Yang and Zhou learned to use social media to advertise their stores, but with little success. Now, a person who wants to sell hair will easily contact multiple buyers to compare prices.

They will ask the buyer to bid first based on the video they send. Zhou said that it is difficult to determine the quality, weight and length of the hair through video. But he had no choice but to adapt to the times.

What worries Zhou more is that many large factories in Xuchang now have enough capital to innovate, using synthetic materials instead of real hair for production. Yang shrugged and said, “When things get this far, I think we’ll be out of work.”

Back to Mengge. The girl decided not to sell her hair. Mr. Xu Hai said that the girl should not have long hair, should sell it and focus on studying. In the end, teacher Liu brought Mengge to town and cut her hair to shoulder length, then sold it for 600 yuan, an amount equivalent to a few months’ income for her father.

Refer to Sixth Tone

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