Internet & Tech

Canon fodder

After 32 years Japanese icon shutters Zhuhai camera plant


Photography once seemed to be a dying art, especially among the generation born from the mid-1990s. Generation Zs have only known the digital world and the instant gratification of much of its technology. Smartphones shoot streams of immediately-available photos, most of which are instantly deleted. But a coming of age is bringing the polar opposite for some millennials, who are hunting for authenticity. They are readier to take their time to savour a skill or experience, enjoying even the imperfections. Hence the new interest in “old-fashioned” choices like the single-reflex lens (SLR) and manual camera. Younger photography fans are even choosing to buy their own film (and process it!), much to the delight of old-school brands like Ilford Photo.

The trend still hasn’t been enough to save Canon’s camera production facilities in China. On January 12, it announced it was shutting a factory that’s been based in the southern city of Zhuhai since 1990. The company blamed the ubiquity of the smartphone – which has brought a reduction in demand for compact digital cameras – as well as other challenges like the pandemic and a shortage of chips.

Much has changed since Canon’s then-president Kaku Ryuzaburo received a visit from Deng Yingchao in 1979. Deng, who was chairwoman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (and the widow of Zhou Enlai) went to Japan looking for investment. She asked for Canon’s help in developing a precision industry on Chinese soil.

Just under a decade later, Canon established its first Chinese joint venture. Its China head Nakayama Shoshiro remarked that the local employees were delighted with the Japanese working practices, including merit-based promotions. Many were attending Japanese language classes.“We told the workers from the first that everyone is on the same starting line,” he said.

As Sina Technology relates, the ensuing Zhuhai factory was a model enterprise. “Its employee welfare was second to none,” it remembers. “The dormitories were newly built and they had air-conditioning, as well as washing machines and water heaters.” Yet these same dormitories have been rented out as student accommodation since 2019 and the final closure of the plant follows a similar decision from Nikon, which shut its Wuxi-based facility in 2017.

Canon still operates other Chinese plants producing printers and copiers. And the next time you touch your smartphone to take a photo, you’ll still be relying on Canon technology (of sorts) as it has a dominant market share in the chemical vapour deposition machines needed to make OLED displays.

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