Simon Carr: The Kitchen Capitalist

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The Independent Online

The story so far: the author has sold his house to finance a manufacturing project in the hope of making a small fortune to finance his old age...

Oh, it's hard, business is very hard. The road is always upwards and we travel with sacrifice. For instance, the prospect of flying standard class to China fills me with depression and anger. Who are these people sitting next to me? Have we been introduced? I don't think so! And there's a seat in front of me: it's far closer than I am used to and it is touching my knees! This is going on for 14 spirit-crushing hours in the only real squalor modern life affords us in the bourgeoisie.

But - or so -when I get to Dongguan, I don't want their luxury, five-star, $25-a-night hotel, I want to sleep in a worker's dormitory with five other men.

The comfort, ultra-hygiene and in-flight service of a 21st-century 747 cabin is our only experience of slum life; the peeling walls of worker's dormitory is something quite energising, for a night or two.

Poverty tourism? Decent people frown on it, but at my lower level of moral evolution I find it quite interesting. We meet so few people outside our own milieu. We are so circumscribed by our background and occupation, the way we talk and what we think. EM Forster found that gay sex was the only way he could meet working-class men. Maybe this manufacturing enterprise is like gay sex with random grooms.

But that's partly the trouble with Dongguan itself. It's not different enough; it's like standard class on a chartered flight. It's one of those light-industrial Special Economic Zone cities with wide boulevards, lighting, motorways, and low-rise units. It's grubby without being filthy, crowded without teeming, active without being busy, depressing without being despairing.

And a good thing too, I agree. Who would wish misery and despair on these people?

But I would like to see somewhere that represents Manchester in 1845; the industrial revolution in all the pity of the human spirit as it marches from subsistence labour to recreational DIY. And we know how it ends: it goes through horror and squalor and five-to-a-bed and finishes up in B&Q.

So, while I'm over there I wanted to go and see the largest city in the world. No one over here seems to have heard of it. Have you? Can you name the largest city in the world? It's got 36 million people in it, at the last guess. It's not even a city, in fact, it's something that's sprung up in the past few years. It's called Chong Xing. Or something. Now it has Swedish car manufacturers, and it makes most of the world's motorcycles and Italian handbags - but it also has a layer of backstreet, devil's kitchen, live-chicken, kitchen capitalists. That's what I'd like to see. China is the home of kitchen capitalism after all. It's what took people out of their packing cases on the Hong Kong hillsides and into the high rises, in a generation. There are millions of us out there.