Joe Bennett Where Underpants Come From

ISBN 13: 9781847370013

Where Underpants Come From

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9781847370013: Where Underpants Come From

When Joe Bennett bought a five-pack of 'Made in China' underpants in his local New Zealand hypermarket for $8.59, he wondered who on earth could be making any money, let alone profit, from the exchange. How many processes and middlemen are involved? Where and how are the pants made? And who decides on the absorbent qualities of the gusset? WHERE UNDERPANTS COME FROMtells you all you need to know -- in fact, probably more -- about this mystery of global commerce. Leaving his supermarket trolley behind Joe embarks on an odyssey to the new factory of the world, China, to trace his pants back to their source. Along the way he discovers the extraordinarily balanced and intricate web of contacts and exchanges that makes global trade possible -- and rapidly elevating China to the status of world economic superpower. He also grapples with chopsticks, challenges his own prejudices and marvels at the contrasts in one of the world's oldest, but fastest changing, societies. Funny, wise and insightful, it is another wonderful journey from the author of A Land of Two Halvesand Mustn't Grumble.

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About the Author:

Joe Bennett was born in Brighton and since leaving Cambridge University has taught English in a variety of countries including Canada, Spain and New Zealand. He lives in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


There are 6.5 billion people in the world. Line them up as on a parade ground, then inspect them like a commander in chief. Roughly every hundredth person you pass will be British. Every fifteen-hundredth or so will be a New Zealander. Every fifth will be Chinese.

Officially China has 1.3 billion citizens. Actually it has rather more, perhaps as many as 1.6 billion. That's as near as makes no difference a quarter of the world's population. It's also five times as many people as America's got.

Having gone to the trouble of gathering 6.5 billion people into one place, do another little exercise. Ask all the farmers to step forward, the people who make their living by tilling soil or tending livestock. Of those, one in three will be Chinese.

Dismiss the people and line up the world's pigs. I have no statistics on British or Kiwi pigs, but every second pig in your line will be Chinese. China produces 49 per cent of the world's pork and eats the lot. The figure for ducks is even more impressive, but they're harder to line up.

To put it simply, China is unimaginably big. And China is booming. That boom has only just begun. Most Chinese people remain poor but are keen to do whatever it takes to become rich. So China looks set to dominate the twenty-first century. And once it has gained domination there seems no reason why it shouldn't retain it for however many centuries are left to our species. China is just too big to argue with. Only India could put up much of a fight and it probably won't.

Already most of us are clothed by China, shod by China, supplied with hardware by China, effectively in debt to China. And yet most of us know very little about China. My experience is typical. I left university thirty years ago, ostensibly educated. My knowledge of China was nil.

Such ignorance has precedents. Until the thirteenth century, when Marco Polo got banged up in a Genoese prison and passed the time by telling tall stories to his cell mate, very few people in the West knew anything much about China. Back then, travel was more difficult and ignorance more understandable. Today China is only a day in a plane from anywhere else, and yet for most of us China remains mysterious. The reasons lie in China itself.

In the Chinese language two characters represent the country. The first is a rectangle with a vertical stroke through it. It means middle. The second looks like a malformed Christmas tree in a box. It means people. China sees itself and has always seen itself as the centre of the world. To the Chinese, China is all. It is the Middle Kingdom with the mandate of heaven. And the non-Chinese bits of the world have never mattered much.

For a couple of millennia China led the world in technology and pretty much everything else. Only since the eighteenth century has the West collectively caught up with China and then overtaken it. But the West's triumph looks like proving brief. China has rejoined the race and is coming up fast on the rails. It will get its nose ahead soon. Then it will streak away. Again.

This book recounts my first experience of China. There are plenty of better-informed books about China, but I suspect this is the only one to begin with a pair of underpants.


Becoming Sherlock

Within living memory, men's underpants were simple. They were white and capacious. When eventually discarded they were more capacious, but less white. Today they are less simple. The displays in The Warehouse in a Christchurch shopping mall hold perhaps a hundred varieties of underpants, from satin boxer shorts with scarlet hearts, to hugging hipsters with pictures of racing cars.

I buy six pairs. Five come rolled in a clear plastic pouch and they cost me NZ$8.59. They are the simplest, plainest briefs for daily wear. The sixth pair is for special occasions. They are black with a grey waistband into which the word 'Authentic' is embroidered. There is no vent in the front, but there are two stickers where a vent would be. One says 'stretch' and illustrates the verb with arrows going in all directions. The other says 'double front'. In other words, these pants will accommodate an erection and absorb accidents.

Underpants ought to be a swift purchase because the only consideration is practicality, but it takes me a minute or two to settle on the Authentics. What delays me is vanity. I want the pants to flatter me a little. It is a ridiculous concern. No one will ever see these underpants except my dogs and perhaps the occasional sexual partner. The dogs will take no interest, and if a sexual partner and I reach the underpant stage, then, frankly, it's a done deal. It would take more than pictures of racing cars to halt the momentum. Nevertheless I am clearly not alone in taking aesthetic considerations into account, otherwise there would not be a hundred different varieties of underpants.

The waistband tells me that my Authentics were made in China from cotton and elastane. Another label says 'CLASS' in capital letters, and on the reverse, 'Mens Lifestyle Underwear combines fashion styling with functional features for all-day comfort.' Despite the word 'lifestyle', the euphemisms, the needless capitalization and the missing apostrophe, I have to acknowledge that the label reflects my reasons for choosing these pants. They are conventional and sturdy, which is more or less how I am, but with a hint of elegance, which is how I'm not. But it is how I would like to be. These pants are aspirational. They cost NZ$5.99.

On the way home, with my pants in a bag on the seat beside me, it strikes me as remarkable that underpants can be made in China and transported to New Zealand, passing through the hands of, and making a profit for, I don't know how many middle men, and still be sold to me for just NZ$5.99. And as for the pack of five pairs for NZ$8.59, well, the economics of it is beyond me.

It also strikes me that I have effectively no idea how to make a pair of underpants. I know that cotton grows on bushes in rabbit-tail tufts, but not how those tufts become thread, or the thread cloth. Is the spinning jenny involved? And what about the waistband? I suspect the involvement of elastic, and that presumably means rubber, but what is the relationship between rubber, elastic and elastane?

My ignorance of underpants is representative of a far wider ignorance. In forty-nine years I have learned next to nothing about the commercial and industrial processes on which my easy existence depends. If some cataclysm were to reduce society to a few survivors, I'd be the one sitting on a heap of rubble with his head in his hands and no idea how to start again.

Back home my dogs follow me to the bedroom, where I pose before the mirror in my Authentics. The dogs display every bit as much interest in the pants as you would expect. But I have become interested in the pants, so interested that I send an email to my agent in London. 'Jim,' it says, 'I've got this idea for a book and I need someone to tell me it's a crap idea.'

I explain that I want to find out everything I can about a single pair of Chinese-made underpants, to trace them all the way back, if possible, to the source of their raw materials. In the process I hope to discover everything I can about the commercial world on which we all depend but about which I know so little. At the same time I want to learn something about that ever-growing giant called China. And it seems such a fine idea to me that without waiting for a reply I set about the research.

'Welcome to The Warehouse customer service. You're talking with Kim.'

'Kim,' I say, 'I've got a bizarre request', and I sense her steel a little on the phone. 'I'd like to talk to the person who buys your underwear. Not your underwear, of course, but, well, you know what I mean.'

Kim laughs. 'I'll put you through to the girls in Clothing,' she says.

I don't get the girls in Clothing. I get Sue in Gardening. I explain that I am after underwear. 'I'll put you through to the girls in Clothing,' says Sue. After a brief interlude of tinny rap music I get Kim again.

'Didn't anyone pick up the phone?' she says.

I explain about Gardening Sue. Kim asks what exactly I want to know, and then suggests that I try The Warehouse head office in Auckland. And I realize, suddenly, and much to my surprise, that I'm enjoying myself.

The head office answerphone offers four options, none of which bears any relevance to my request. I press Customer Service and get Kelly. I explain my purpose, conscious that I am refining the line already in the hope of kindling a flame of interest. When I say that I hope to track these pants all the way back to source, Kelly becomes gratifyingly intrigued.

'The bloke you want is Nick Tuck,' she says. 'He travels to China a lot.' She gives me his extension number. Her last words are 'Good luck.'

Nick Tuck's out of the office but his answerphone promises to return my call as soon as possible. It also gives his mobile number. I leave a message, then dial the mobile. As it starts to ring I picture Nick Tuck in an Auckland traffic jam or in a waiting room or a lift. And if, as Kelly suggests, he is the man I really need to talk to, the man who can set this quest properly in motion, the man with contacts in the great unknown of China, then I want to talk to him in more propitious circumstances than a traffic jam. I put the phone down.

The following morning I get an email from my agent. 'Joe,' it says, 'it's a crap idea. Best, Jim.' Well now, Jim knows his stuff. But I persevere, partly because it's costing me nothing, partly because I am enjoying feeling like Sherlock Holmes, but mainly because I am genuinely curious. I want to find out about these pants, and I also, just as strongly, want to find out what finding out about these pants will be like. How far will I get? And will I be allowed to see the mysteries?

Over the next few days I ring Nick Tuck's land line several times but get no answer and I don't leave the same mes...

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