Greeting from somewhere in China, the middle of nowhere.. where I can safely say I am the only Englishman. And it's great :)
Actually when I'm the only western face in town, that's when I'm happy - that's when I have made it well off the tourist/hippie/backpacker trail. And if I can locate beautiful products from family businesses then I'm ecstatic!
So it's still happening - Chinese New Year.. it's not over until the dragon dances. and that's a few more days. And enough CNY.. you can read about it in last weeks news: Right Here (if you missed it).
I had my haircut yesterday, it was fun. Everyone in the hairdressers wanted a selfie with me. They were so happy to have a tall englishman in their salon. I thought.. yes now I know what it's like to be Brad Pitt. Lots of questions like, can I have your QQ address (like a facebook address), are you married?, do you have a brother?, is he married?, can we have his QQ address? how big are your feet?... and so on :)
Now, do you remember Alastair Cooke, and Letter's from America? You do? Then your getting on a bit old, old bean.. those honey tones coming down the radio, colouring in pictures of far away places and peoples. Well I want to tell you about my "Letter's from Indonesia" .. not what you think. I mean LETTERS - as in ABC.
I have been looking for letters, for ages. Not just any letters, but letters the right size, typeface, colour and most importantly at an acceptable price. I figured letters are a no brainer for gift shops, so many rich and varied gift applications. Everything from spelling your loved ones name, making "I LOVE YOU", MR&MRS (wedding gifts), naming your house, making a rude word, house numbers, heck there are endless uses for letters.
I had been looking in China, India and Indonesia for a long time. Actually tried to get one or two companies geared up to make them but in the end quality or price was always an issue. Then one day talking to the magic box guys in Bali, I asked if they would be interested, they told me no.. but in a village near by they knew a guy who used to make letters.
So we went to see. We met a lovely guy, who turned out to be the head of his village. It was the usual Bali set up, a compound of houses with a shared work area, temple and farm yard. The village was high up the mountain, so from the bosses house terrace was the most amazing views. He told me they used to have a contract to supply vintage letters to an American company, but the orders had stopped coming. (I googled it and found letters at much too high price point - I reckon there's a limit to how much you will pay for your wifes name in wood).
So we sat crossed legged in the raised pagoda they always use for meetings, with his wife and daughter and I explained my concept to them. Must be, letters about 15cm high (check), rustic hand carved (check), must stand up on their own (never done that but, check), vintage typeface (check), our target price (without a blink..check) and from our research/experience by far the best selling items are whitewashed, shabby chic style. What's white wash? they asked, what's it mean? - Goodness me, no clue about whitewash? where are these guys living? Ah.. yes, up a mountain in the middle of nowhere.
So we started to train them in white washing, it took some time and several samples. The guy came to see us in our Ubud office, and I was impressed by his attention to detail, every letter style he tweaked to look good and stand up, they worked hard to perfect the white washing technique. You have to paint it white, let it dry just long enough, and then wash it it off. Then sand and polish to get the right feel.
Several times the guy said to me, please sir we want this business it will be so good for my village. He promised me they would do a careful and good job.
Finally we worked out an order, OK, there's 24 letters, 10 numerals, and we got to have an "&" and a "@" - we are gonna need a few ready made sets "I LOVE YOU" and so forth.. and I think we need enough stock to supply half the gift shops in Europe, so I did the maths, and then did the order.. Our agent Ringo opened his haversack of cash and we counted out a deposit, it was a massive stack of cash. Indonesian money is bulky, even so it was bank robbery big. They looked happy.
On my next trip to Bali (last December) - Ringo and I went to visit. That sleepy compound was no longer sleepy, now a hive of activity. Some guys were cutting shapes, ladies were carving, some were painting and washing. In the house every room was full of letters, even the steps of the temple were full of shabby chic letters in big wicker baskets. Even now as you read this in that far off village, folk are beavering away making letters for your customers. The daughter is a bit fed up, because her bedroom is a barcode labeling area but our man of letters in Bali is a very happy chap.
And it's been eight months since that initial meeting (pun intended), but those letters have finally started arriving. There are one or two letters missing from the first shipment, but they are on the way, and we hope to keep up a regular supply of letters from Indonesia, now the village is geared up they can make quite a lot.
So... do I have to spell it out for you? ORDER SOME LETTERS TODAY! (see below) and keep a whole village happy.
Any suggestions... let me know - I'll be back there in about three weeks.