Entering the kite factory, we caught a glance "behind the scenes": a courtyard filled with ageing bamboo. As our guide explained, the best kites are made from Sichuan bamboo that has aged for several years. Whenever a new piece is needed, someone goes out into the yard and saws it off.
The factory's location inside a museum demonstrates the creativity of Chinese capitalism. The factory owner probably realized that he could make more money by calling it a "museum exhibit", which would net him not only a US$10 admission fee per head but also tax-free status!
We weren't the only tourists - a group of People's Liberation Army officials was visiting at the same time, cameras at the ready. I thought all Chinese would know how kites are made but they were as fascinated as we were!
Since this was an up-close-and-personal factory tour (the best kind!), we were able to take our time to learn about each step in the process.
Painting the "skins" of the kites took place in another room. Each painter placed a pattern below a piece of silk-paper from Suzhou (China's silk capital), then quickly traced the pattern with a pencil. We never saw anyone use an eraser!
The painting was done assembly-line style, with each worker using a different color paint. Some of the steps required a fair bit of skill (like the blue lines of the left), while others involved broad swipes. Interestingly, all of the broad-swipers were men! Big-picture guys, evidently. Not into details.
At first, it seemed like outlining the colors with fine strokes of silver or gold was unnecessary given all the bright colors. But it quickly became clear that this detail made all the colors "pop"! The work looked very tricky - a slip or tremor could blot the whole piece and ruin all the work that came before. (Back to the women, of course).
After the skins finished drying on a rack above rhe radiator, they were glued to the bamboo frames. This step looked pretty straight-forward, and perhaps as a result, these women were the most talkative bunch. I winced when I watched them trim off the excess painted paper that had required so much labor to create, but I guess there is no way to avoid it.
Some of the "skin-fastening" was a bit more tricky. The insect bodies shown below, for example, required several different pieces. These were first skinned with plain silk, then painted while on the frame. We saw at least half a dozen kite styles in process, and our guide said the factory makes literally hundreds of different kinds.
Unlike the phoenix kites we had seen being painted in the other room, each dragonfly was painted by one person, rather than in an assembly line. I got a kick out of seeing how prosaic the basic ingredients and tools were (note the sawed-off Coke can on the right), in contrast to the beautiful end product.
The finished dragonfly bodies were beautiful -- full of color, and complete with bug eyes that rotate in the wind. Each was also signed by the final worker. As the picture on the right shows, this one was made by worker "29."
It turned out that the Folk-Art Museum in which the kite factory was housed also had a famous New Year calendar factory. It didn't have anything to do with kites, but we were curious about this other ancient craft tradition.