Match industry seeks its place in the sun
Hangzhou firm looks to safeguard China's heritage and expertise in ancient craft
The techniques of making matches were approved to be an intangible cultural heritage item
For thousands of years, the ancient Chinese started fires like other ancient cultures - they used small pieces of wood or twisted rope as kindling; struck flint against rocks containing iron pyrite or steel; or used coals kept burning in shells, bone or horn.
It was in the middle of the 18th century that wooden matches were first introduced to China, thus becoming an essential part of Chinese people's everyday lives.
"Few people are using matches now, but I will keep working as I believe this industry is still promising," Hu Wuyin, director of Hangzhou Match Factory, which stands at a turning point after 110 years of development, told China Daily.
To rejuvenate the traditional business, Hu applied for the official recognition of the techniques of making matches. On April 16, the techniques were placed on the list of intangible cultural heritages in Shangcheng district, Hangzhou
He believes the making of matches is part of the national industry and is something that needs to be preserved for the young generation.
"Preserving the techniques of making matches will let more people learn about the cultural charm behind the small wooden sticks," Hu said.
Founded in 1909, Hangzhou Match Factory thrived in the 1980s. At that time, there were more than 1,400 workers and annual sales surpassed 800,000 boxes.
"My family is closely connected with the factory. My grandmother, mother and siblings all worked there at different times," said Hu, adding that his family has strong feelings toward the factory's development.
However, with the popularization of lighters, the business went from bad to worse in the following years.
Hu took over the factory in 2006 after being a worker there for three years. According to the director, the first few years of his administration saw a plunge in the match business nationwide. In 2008, the production volume of Hangzhou Match Factory shrunk to 250,000 boxes due to the global economic crisis and the number got smaller and smaller.
The worsening situation urged Hu to find a way out.
"I talked with peers in the industry and finally realized we should integrate resources and play the game together." The director proposed to choose some trusted factories, especially in the less-developed regions, to be the production bases for brand holders in a bid to create space for factories' business and to support the brand development.
This mode has worked well. The 0.7-hectare production base of Hangzhou Match Factory in Chun'an county of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province was pulled down in 2018, giving way to the construction of Hangzhou-Huangshan Railway, but the brand has been well preserved as Hu has cooperated with other factories in areas such as Henan and Fujian provinces for match production.
"Instead of practicability, we are now paying more attention to creativity and innovation of our products," said Hu. His team cooperated with designers from the China Academy of Art to polish the cultural and artistic style of match boxes and packages.
"We have developed more than 50 series, presenting the landmark scenery and culture of Zhejiang such as the 10 views of West Lake, the Tale of White Snake and the Butterfly Lovers on match boxes," the director said. In addition, high-end boxes made of metal, mainly for collection, are another business concentration for today's Hangzhou Match Factory.
Match boxes are also spaces for advertisements. Hu said that in recent years, estate agents are more than willing to advertise on their products, a much-needed booster to the factory's business.
Two thirds of the factory's products are sold abroad, especially in Europe and the US. The annual export value exceeds 100 million yuan ($14.01 million), according to Hu.
Hangzhou lies in the heart of China's e-commerce sector and many local enterprises have jumped on the bandwagon. Hu's factory was no exception. As early as in 2006, Hu turned to e-commerce platforms such as Alibaba for business expansion. The director said today, the annual online sales value of the factory's products is more than 10 million yuan.
About the future of his match business, the 58-year-old "match man" still has a grand vision. He plans to open a museum showcasing the history of Hangzhou Match Factory and organize a group to promote the match culture at the grassroots.
"The factory now has a history of 110 years. I hope it to be well developed and promoted for another century," Hu said with expectation.
Qin Jirong in Hangzhou contributed to the story.
September 29, 2020
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