The always delightful to read Peter Hessler (author of River Town and Oracle Bones) has a nice long article up on the National Geographic site on the Wenzhou entrepreneurial spirit, the factories that sprout up and get torn down with equal speed, and … bra parts. One choice bit:
After its arrival on the mainland, where production costs are much cheaper, "the Machine" essentially minted money. The boss got rich, and then a worker named Liu Hongwei got an idea. Despite his lack of formal education, Liu was a skilled mechanic, who worked closely with the Machine. Meticulously, he memorized the assembly line, piece by piece, and in secret he sketched out blueprints. When the plans were complete, he contacted a second boss at a company called Shangang Keji, in the city of Shantou.
In 1998, Boss Number Two hired Liu and took the blueprints to Qingsui Machinery Manufacture Company, in Guangzhou, which custom-built the assembly line. Initially, the new Machine didn’t work—nobody’s memory is perfect, after all—but two months of adjustments solved the problems. Shangang Keji began producing bra rings, but then Liu found Boss Number Three, at a company called Jinde. Every time Liu jumped, he demanded money for his blueprints and expertise; some believe he made as much as $20,000.
Without knowing it, the man was following a path blazed by other societies that had also experienced sudden manufacturing booms. In 1810, a wealthy American named Francis Cabot Lowell traveled to England, where he used his connections to tour the world’s premier textile mills. British law forbade the export of machinery or blueprints, but Lowell had an excellent memory. He returned to the United States, where, in the words of his business partner, he re-invented the Cartwright loom. Lowell became an American hero, with a Massachusetts factory town named in his honor.