by Xinhua writers Cao Kai, Li Binian and Wang Linyuan
ZHENGZHOU, May 10 (Xinhua) -- In a small workshop in Xuchang, central China's Henan Province, Huang Fengrong, 51, is sorting hair from Myanmar, a skill she learned when she was 15 years old.
Huang lays the hair straight, measures it with a ruler and separates it into different bunches according to length, just as her mother and grandmother had done for decades.
Xuchang is around 800 kilometers from the nearest port, Qingdao in Shandong Province. The city's wig industry began more than 100 years ago when a German wig trader collected human hair there.
Over the years the origin of the hair has shifted from the Chinese mainland to Southeast Asia, including India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, due to lower costs in those countries.
Henan Rebecca Hair Products, the world's largest wig manufacturing company, is based in the city, but more than 60 percent of its human hair comes from India, said Zheng Wenqing, the company's general manager.
A 1-kg bunch of 30-inch-long hair is worth more than 4,000 yuan (579 U.S. dollars), earning it the nickname "black gold", Huang said, adding that it is difficult to find such long hair in China now.
Huang makes about 30,000 yuan a year sorting hair in her spare time, enough money to care for her grandchildren while her son works in a different city.
Many wig workshops in local villages provide raw materials to modern factories in the city which will transform them into fashionable products to be sold worldwide.
Xuchang, an ancient capital during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), has become the largest wig manufacturing base in the world, with an export volume of more than 1 billion U.S. dollars in 2016.
A GLOBALIZED INDUSTRY IN HINTERLAND
The wig trade began as early as 1900 in Xuchang, however, it was disrupted during world wars I and II.
In the 1980s, hair processing workshops sprung up in Xuchang. By 1990, entrepreneur Zheng Youquan, united a number of small workshops and set up a larger company which became Henan Rebecca Hair Products. In 1993 he established a joint venture with an American company.
"We recruited professionals from the coastal regions which enabled us to begin producing our own finished products," said Zheng Youquan.
The company's exports to the United States grew remarkably. In 2003, it listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. It has now expanded to markets in Africa and Europe, and sells its products to 40 countries and regions as well as more than 100 Chinese cities.
Due to the sluggish global market after the financial crisis, Xuchang's wig industry suffered.
Henan Rebecca Hair Products' export volume dropped to 179 million U.S. dollars in 2016, down by a quarter from the previous year.
Rising labor and material costs, financing difficulties and a shrinking global market contributed to the recession in Xuchang's wig manufacturing industry. About a third of the city's wig-making businesses went bankrupt, said Wang Xixiang, executive secretary general of China Hair Products Association.
Faced with these difficulties, Henan Rebecca Hair Products responded to the Belt and Road Initiative and relocated its factories to Cambodia, Nigeria and Ghana, cutting costs and situating their products closer to the markets, said Zheng Wenqing, 36, who inherited her father's business.
"We stock brands like Noble, Nature, Charming and Chocolate. They are all quality Chinese products," said Emeka Chineke, a wig trader in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
"Our business is successful. The challenges we face are due to the recession, the changes in price, such as the rise and fall of the dollar," said Chineke.