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EDITIONS
Friday, 28 December, 2001, 16:33 GMT
Coffin-maker resurrects tradition
Senior coffin weaver Xie Zhenan
Woven coffins are popular with environmentalists
China starts implementing new globally agreed trade policies on 1 January 2002. But will they open China to smaller firms, helping to loosen the grip of giants like Motorola, Volkswagen and Nestle? In the first of three reports, BBC News Online's Mary Hennock examines the lessons of a successful start-up.

Over the 15 years it spent negotiating to join the global trade body, China has rushed to transform itself into a modern economy, with glittering high rise cities and shopping malls crammed with Western goods.

Old court-yard style houses have been demolished to make way for high rises. And furniture firms B&Q and Ikea are doing brisk business in styling the homes of the fashion-conscious younger Chinese.

As for traditional bamboo furniture, you'd be hard-pressed to give it away.

But as China goes modern, interest in Chinese tradition has mushroomed in the West.

Weaving a path

Feng shui, acupuncture and herbal medicine are just some of the older Chinese approaches to balancing the health of one's body and the environment which have become part of fashionable Western lifestyles.

Bamboo coffin
The bamboo eco-coffin

But one man has taken his fascination with environmentally-friendly crafts to the grave. William Wainman designs, makes and exports bamboo coffins.

He began by devising a new process for treating bamboo in order to start a furniture-making business, which exports to Europe and the United States.

But woven coffins have doubled his sales in little more than a year, impressive for a product that doesn't attract repeat customers.

Green funerals

"The great thing about the coffin business is it's been a question of the market coming to us, but with the furniture it was always a question of us saying 'We've got this, do you want it?'."

The coffins got an unexpected advertising boost last summer when Nicholas Albery, a prominent environmentalist campaigner, was buried in one after being killed in a car crash.

I had an idea...it was a fairly environmentally beneficial material

William Wainman

Mr Albery was the founder of the Natural Death Centre, which promotes burials in woodland rather than cemeteries and "inexpensive, green, family-organised funerals".

'Better than imagined'

Mr Wainman set up his small factory in the central Chinese province of Hunan about seven years ago after becoming fascinated by bamboo during a year spent teaching English in the small city of Changde.

Mayor Wei Li Gang (centre), William Wainman (left) and his father-in-law
Local officials backed the factory

"I had an idea in my mind that it was a fairly environmentally beneficial material - in fact, it's even better than I'd imagined it could be," he says.

Bamboo never needs replanting, it grows back rapidly after being cut - up to a metre a day for some species. It is strong, pliable, with greater tensile strength than steel, and produces more oxygen than any other plant for its size to weight ratio, he enthuses.

But his environmentalist beliefs were not the only reason Mr Wainman wanted to start a business in Hunan. He had fallen in love with Zhang Weimin, now his wife.

Bureaucratic battles

"I wanted to go back to the same sort of area but I found the only way I could do that was to create my own employment - the only international companies were all in Beijing and Hong Kong."

Changde is a poor place - a farming area where the average income is about 500 yuan a month ($60; 42).

Cutting bamboo canes
Techniques are simple

Local officials welcomed his plans, but that did nothing to lower the bureaucratic hurdles to starting a company. And China's WTO entry is unlikely to reduce the number of regulations.

"They still had numerous rules and regulations to follow to the letter, and to make sure that I followed to the letter," he says.

It took three months to collect half a dozen company licences from different government departments, while his UK company licence took just 24 hours.

Weiming Furniture - named in honour of his father-in-law, who is now his export manager - employs about 35 staff in China, has a small office in Britain and annual sales of just under 100,000 ($145,000). Coffins account for more than half of that.

Weiming's workers are mostly part-time subsistence farmers aged over 50. Just like elsewhere in rural China, younger people prefer to seek a more prosperous life in the urban fast-lane.

China's low wages have been a major attraction for manufacturers, building its reputation as a cheap assembly point for consumer goods. Subcontracting work among small rural factories can be cheapest of all.

But Mr Wainman is anxious not to be seen as a low-wage employer.

The next stage in his business plan involves the sort of workers co-operative which is increasingly rare in China's drive towards a market economy.

The biggest obstacle to his profit-sharing scheme is his local Chinese partner: "I think he will come along...it's just a question of explaining everything very carefully to him."

The coffins are cheaper than more conventional caskets - starting at about 140 ($202) - so he is confident they have a wider market.

He expects China's entry into the World Trade Organisation to change little for him.

"Hopefully our type of goods is not one that would be involved in a tariff war. That's one advantage of being quite small and in a niche market".



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21 Dec 01 | Business
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