Journey down the Nile

Mao w

Mao Zedong was not a frequent overseas traveller. His two trips outside China were to Moscow. So netizens and media were surprised to find his face this month on a movie poster suggesting his presence was felt in Cairo in 1943 at the historic conference held by Churchill and Roosevelt.

The Cairo Declaration is a big-budget war movie produced to commemorate Japan’s defeat 70 years ago. However, the Chinese leader who attended the event was Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek not Mao, leading some to conclude the film’s producers had taken a few historical liberties with their poster.

Even the Global Times described it as “inappropriate”. In explanation a spokesperson for the Cairo Declaration told the newspaper its Mao poster was designed to “pay tribute” to the Communist Party’s contribution to the war.

The subject of Chinese nationals who actually have gone to Egypt got extensive coverage this month too in the New Yorker, which ran a long investigative article by Peter Hessler on their business activities in the country. What he discovered on his travels was a network of Zhejiang natives running a highly successful business selling lingerie and underwear in some of the most religiously conservative parts of Egypt. He visited 26 such shops in different towns, speaking to the dealers, and watching them make sales. Typically an Egyptian husband would turn up with his (covered) wife to pick up things he liked; or else a mother would take her daughter to buy sexy underwear ahead of her wedding.

Hessler describes it as a booming business, with the shopkeepers boasting to their customers ‘this is made in China, good quality’. On the language issue he notes that the Arabic phrases the Chinese have picked up tend towards the functional. Comments Hessler: “One important phrase is ‘I have this in a wider size.’ Chinese dealers use this phrase a lot.”

Enterprising Chinese lingerie sellers have also branched out into other businesses, such as recycling the plastic trash dumped in the streets. “Here in Egypt, home to eighty-five million people, where Western development workers and billions of dollars of foreign aid have poured in for decades, the first plastic recycling centre in the south is a thriving business that employs 30 people, reimburses others for reducing landfill waste, and earns a significant profit. So why was it established by two lingerie-fuelled Chinese migrants, one of them illiterate?”

When Hessler spoke to the Chinese recycling factory owner, he said that all his compatriots found their major challenge in Egypt was recruiting local workers. Unlike China there isn’t the supply of young women to work on the production lines. Indeed, when Hessler asked the factory boss what the biggest problem was in Egypt, he said: “Inequality between men and women. Here the women just stay at home and sleep. If they want to develop, the first thing they need to do is solve this problem. That’s what China did after the revolution. It’s a waste of talent here. Look at my family – you see how my wife works. We couldn’t have the factory without her. And my daughter runs the shop. If they were Egyptian they wouldn’t be doing that.”

On a less serious note, WiC’s favourite Chinese-made lingerie brand Hessler found is called ‘Sexy Fashion Reticulation Alluring’. The eye-opening article is worth reading (The New Yorker’s August 10 issue).

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