Striking A Chord | China Unlocked

By Ma Yong

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Zheng Chuanjiu inspects a guitar on February 28, 2019.

Zheng Chuanjiu is an unlikely guitar icon. “I didn’t know how to play the guitar at all until this year, and I still can’t read music,” he admits. However, the tanned, stout man has been making guitars for over two decades, and the instrument completely changed his hometown of Zheng’an in southwest China’s Guizhou Province. The guitar has helped transform the national impoverished county into Zheng’an International Guitar Park, a miracle in the mountainous region of southwestern China.

The miracle started sprouting when Zheng Chuanjiu and his elder brother Zheng Chuanxiang tried their hands at building guitars.

Starting from Scratch

Zheng Chuanjiu never imagined earning a living by making guitars. Growing up in a rural area surrounded and even confined by high mountains, he never witnessed any musical instruments except the erhu (two-stringed Chinese fiddle) and the pump organ. Poor transportation and barren land meant food and clothing were often hard to come by, so Western musical instruments were the furthest thing from locals’ minds.

In 1993, Zheng Chuanxiang left the countryside for Guangzhou, capital of the southern province of Guangdong, for work. A relative referred him to a job in a guitar manufacturing factory. The job went so well for Zheng Chuanxiang that his younger brother Chuanjiu soon joined him.

Crafting a guitar is a time- and labor-intensive process that both brothers were naturally drawn to. They quickly became quite good and demonstrated outstanding skill in applying lacquer, polishing and hand crafting. Within a few years, the brothers had mastered every skill of the process of guitar making and were earning a monthly salary of about 5,000 yuan (US$702).

After evolving into guitar-making masters, the Zheng brothers decided to go out on their own. “We could do it as well as anyone else,” they thought. After working towards the plan for over a decade, in 2007 the brothers recruited relatives and workers from their hometown, rented land and bought equipment. The 18 workers, or “shareholders,” collectively invested 1.25 million yuan (US$175,520) in seed money and opened Guangzhou Shenqu Musical Instruments Manufacturing Co., Ltd. However solid their production skills, they were still clueless about business operation and marketing. Zheng Chuanjiu says of their earliest phase: “We had guts, but not business knowledge.”

In July 2007, their factory started production as planned. But most workers did not know where to start. All they knew was that they were supposed to be making guitars. But what kind of guitars should they make? What do customers want to buy? And where are these customers? A bunch of questions and problems seemed to hold up production.

“I would find some customers, but then they wanted to see what we had already produced,” explains Zheng Chuanxiang. “So we should start production first. We needed samples for customers to see and test, at least floor models.”

After a month, a friend helped land an order for 200 guitars, but the burst of elation did not last long. The customers were not satisfied with the quality and bought only eighty of the lot. Devastated with shame but even more determined, the Zheng brothers burned the rest in front of the entire staff.

Surviving Crisis

After fighting through domestic difficulties, in 2008 the brothers managed to secure an order for over 10,000 guitars for a guitar company in the United States. Unfortunately, the guitar industry was also consumed by the financial crisis and the American company went out of business. The brothers suddenly had a massive surplus of guitars, major hurdles to get any money for the work, payroll problems and rent due.

Some friends suggested they participate in expos for musical instruments to communicate with foreign buyers face to face. A large musical instruments exhibition was scheduled in Shanghai, so the brothers began selecting products to bring, making new guitars and inviting guitar players to assess their products. In October 2008, the brothers brought their best guitars to the Shanghai expo.

They finally met an ideal customer, Tagima from Brazil. “I can’t believe a Chinese factory is making such great guitars,” gushed a Tagima representative at the expo. “How many people work in your factory? How many guitars can you produce in a month?” Making sure not to miss the opportunity, Zheng Chuanjiu told them that they can produce four to five thousand guitars in a month. The number was exaggerated, but possible if they were at full capacity. Tagima ended up placing an order for 2,000 guitars.

Today, 2,000 guitars would be no big deal for the brothers, but as Shenqu was struggling to survive the financial crisis, the order was a godsend. That order marked the start of continuous cooperation between Shenqu and Tagima.

Following Tagima, Fender from the United States sought cooperation with Shenqu. At the time, Fender was battling Tagima for market share in South America, and it discovered Shenqu through researching Tagima guitars. Their competition won the brothers another big deal with a foreign company.

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A worker processes a guitar in Zheng’an International Guitar Park, Guizhou Province.

Country Roads

As the guitar company was gaining steam, the brothers’ hometown Zheng’an was also seeking change.

In 2012, the new head of the Zheng’an County government ventured to Guangzhou to invite the Zheng brothers to bring business back to Zheng’an. The brothers hesitated because they were doing quite well in Guangzhou and taking the risk of moving back seemed unnecessary. They told him they would “think about it.”

The county government rolled out a long list of preferential policies to attract businesses to come back. But nobody knew how a factory making guitars in the mountains would fare. The brothers finally devised a plan to give it a try: Zheng Chuanjiu brought acoustic guitar production back for a trial in Zheng’an while Zheng Chuanxiang kept electric guitar production going in Guangzhou.

In 2013, Zheng Chuanjiu arrived back in Zheng’an and opened a small factory, with manufacturing equipment transported by truck from Guangzhou. Zheng’an did not enjoy solid paved roads back in 2013, so trucks hauling 17-meter trailers could not even get into the county, and Zheng had to move them with smaller trucks. The move ended up taking 37 nine-meter trailers.

Zheng Chuanjiu expected setbacks but not so many obstacles.

The most glaring issue was transit. Guangzhou was still the transit station receiving imported guitar materials and delivering the finished products, so transportation costs ballooned. And production was less efficient. Before the move, equipment maintenance and accessory supply were just a phone call away, but now such things had to be relayed through Guangzhou to Zheng’an. For an easier supply of paper boxes for guitar packaging, the brothers even built a carton factory in Zheng’an.

But perhaps the biggest challenge was the people. Zheng Chuanjiu brought back only a handful of key people and had to hire locals as the factory’s main production force. However, after training and pilot production, few products passed quality inspection. Even the products that were delivered to customers were not as good as they had been in Guangzhou, and the orders became smaller.

Feeling a bit of déjà vu, Zheng Chuanjiu started burning rejects again. He accepted that local conditions were worse than in Guangzhou but could not accept that his fellow villagers were “worse.” Zheng Chuanjiu began to train staff personally. He divided the workers into groups of 30 and taught them in the evenings after work. After months of training, the quality of Shenqu guitars improved significantly.

Zheng Chuanjiu devoted all his efforts to adjusting and coordinating the factory, the conditions and the workers. Fortunately, his elder brother who stayed in Guangzhou maintained the smooth operation of the entire business by optimizing production of electric guitars. Thanks to his brother’s backing, Zheng Chuanjiu found the confidence to make the Zheng’an factory a success.

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A worker works on the surface of a guitar in Zheng’an International Guitar Park, Guizhou Province.

Take Me Home to  Zheng’an

In 2015, the brothers finally decided to merge the two arms of the business in Zheng’an. This time, Zheng Chuanxiang brought the production line for electric guitars on over 60 semi trucks. With all production in Zheng’an, Zheng Chuanxiang would still handle exports and imports from Guangzhou while the younger brother supervised production.

In the spacious new factory, the workers on the assembly line performed amid automated laser cutting and automatic painting. Master luthiers were placed in special handmade guitar workshops. Zheng imported precious East Indian rosewood and Honduran mahogany, and the luthiers would spend an entire month lacquering a single guitar in rigidly maintained temperature and humidity. All these efforts were targeting the high-end market.

Booming Shenqu served as a magnet for Zheng’an. Many other guitar companies and factories moved into the small county thanks to the brothers’ persuasion. More businesses operating in Zheng’an made every aspect of production cheaper and more efficient for Shenqu. The virtuous circle finally culminated in Zheng’an International Guitar Park.

Guitars produced in the park are exported to more than 30 countries and regions in the world and now account for 20 percent of the Asian market, 30 percent of the U.S. market and 40 percent of the Brazilian market. In addition to OEMs producing guitars for international brands, more than 30 independent brands work in the park. The Guitar Park is welcoming more and more businesses and the economy of Zheng’an is now booming.

Alongside economics, the county is welcoming other improvements. A county-level highway building project of Guizhou Province has upgraded the transportation of Zheng’an, enabling locals to easily and quickly travel outside the mountains. Seventeen-meter semi trucks are finally shuttling along the highway between Zheng’an and Guangzhou.

Changes for Zheng’an People

With the development of the guitar businesses in Zheng’an, local people’s lives are also changing.

Zheng Pinghui is a 44-year old Zheng’an native. In the past, she was caring for her sick husband and small child and could only earn money by planting a few crops and raising chickens. In 2014, Zheng was hired by Shenqu to help shape the guitars. Now, she can do any job on the shaping production line and earns over 4,000 yuan (US$560) a month. She works a stable schedule with same colleagues doing familiar work. She never saw such stability in her life before guitars arrived.

Dai Hongxia hails from Ruixi Town in Zheng’an County. She used to work in a factory in Guangzhou, and married Wang Xuejun in 2015. Wang also worked far from his hometown Zheng’an after retiring from the army, but the couple ended up back to Zheng’an working in the Shenqu factory. They moved into the house offered by the company and began earning around 8,000 yuan (US$1,120) a month. They are quite content with things now in the small county.

Ye Qianyu returned to Zheng’an and joined Shenqu in 2016. Contrasting her previous work in an electronics factory in Guangzhou, her job in Shenqu is stringing guitars. Ye became so skilled at the work that she can now install all six strings on a guitar in less than a minute. She can do it as fast as 10 seconds on a bet.

Zheng Pinghui, Dai Hongxia and Ye Qianyu were all once registered impoverished villagers.

The guitar brothers prioritize hiring the county’s poor villagers and households. They offered a job to almost every impoverished person recommended by the county government as well as an extra subsidy of 200 yuan (US$28) a month. About 70 or 80 percent of employees of the Shenqu factory are female because many women stayed in home villages to take care of families while their husbands work in cities. In the past, their lives consisted only of caring for their parents and children, but now they also earn wages nearly comparable to their husband.

Every two or three days, a truck full of Shenqu guitars leaves Zheng’an bound for Guangzhou. Uniformed women workers load 20-kilogram boxed guitars onto the truck with joyful faces resembling farmers collecting a good harvest. They insist that they will work in the factory as long as it exists.

Far from West Virginia

In 2018, Zheng Chuanjiu finally decided to learn to play the guitar after making them for over two decades. The decision was not made on a whim. As development of the local guitar industry washes over much of the area, the instrument is no longer placed only on the truck. Guitar-related culture has sprouted all over: More and more people in Zheng’an started playing the product of their work. Classes are offered to train guitar players. In the center of the county is Zheng’an Guitar Culture Square, where amidst guitar-themed fountains and green patches, locals rest while strumming away the days.

On one side of the square, Guitar Street is still under construction, but guitar-themed restaurants and bars have already opened. Bands and solo artists alike rehearse for nightly shows. The place is so buzzing with guitars that it would be strange if Zheng Chuanjiu, the godfather of guitar production in the area, couldn’t play.

Elder brother Zheng Chuanxiang now visits Zheng’an for several days each month. The guitar brothers meet regularly to discuss the business. But the distance and busy schedules never undermine their bonds. Sometimes the brothers still chat as late as three o’clock in the morning. In the office of Zheng Chuanjiu, the brothers talk and play the guitar. Their skills may not be great, but the beautiful sound of their guitars echoes far beyond the mountains, luring ears from around the world and providing opportunities for their fellow villagers to seize a better future.

Layout by Tian Yuerong

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