Your sneakers.

The plastic spoon that came with your soup.

The zipper in your pants.

All the stuff at the dollar store.

Your smartphone.

Just about everything advertised in magazines.

What do they have in common?


They are yours only on their way to the landfill.

And they were almost certainly made in China. There, they make the products we buy – but first they make the cities that make them.

Sonaxia City makes 350 million umbrellas a year.

1/3 of the world’s socks are made in Datang.

Chenghai is the City of Toys, with more than 5,000 factories.

40% of the world’s neckties are from Shengzou and 70% of the world’s cigarette lighters are born in Wenzhou.

Buttons: Qiaotou.


These factory towns sprout pretty fast.

Here, a description from National Geographic:

“At 2:30 in the afternoon, the bosses began designing the factory. The three-story building they had rented was perfectly empty: white walls, bare floors, a front door without a lock.

On the first floor, we were joined by a contractor and his assistant. There was no architect, no draftsman; nobody had brought a ruler or a plumb line. Instead, Boss Gao began by handing out 555-brand cigarettes. He was 33 years old, with a sharp crewcut and a nervous air that intensified whenever his uncle was around. After everybody lit up, the young man reached into his shoulder bag for a pen and a scrap of paper.

First, he sketched the room’s exterior walls. Then he started designing; every pen stroke represented a wall to be installed, and the factory began to take shape before our eyes. He drew two lines in the southwest corner: a future machine room. Next to that, a chemist’s laboratory, followed by a storeroom and a secondary machine room. Boss Wang, the uncle, studied the page and said, “We don’t need this room.”

They conferred and then scratched it out. In 27 minutes, they had finished designing the ground floor, and we went upstairs. More cigarettes. Boss Gao flipped over the paper.

“This is too small for an office.”

“Put the wall here instead. That’s big enough.”

“Can you build another wall here?”

In 23 minutes, they designed an office, a hallway, and three living rooms for factory managers. On the top floor, the workers’ dormitories required another 14 minutes. All told, they had mapped out a 21,500-square-foot (2,000 square meters) factory, from bottom to top, in one hour and four minutes.”

Three months later the factory was producing bras.

Here are the photos from the article:

These factories are cities, with hospitals, schools, huge dormitories, internet cafes, banks, TV stations, and fire departments. Foxconn City, the Taiwanese-owned facility where iphones are cranked out, has 420,000 workers. It’s in Shenzen, which grew from a fishing village of 280,000 to a city of 14 million in 30 years. Shenzen is in the Pearl River Delta, established as an anything-goes trade district in 1980. The Delta has 200,000 factories. With the loosening of trade, foreign investment, and mobility regulations, 30 million rural Chinese picked up and moved to these factory cities.


Now, escalating land prices, increasing environmental protection, and increasing competition from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other regions within China have led to abandonment.

china polluted factory

According to “Factory Towns of South China, an Illustrated Guidebook”:

“The 2008 financial crisis saw a hollowing out of 600,000 workers from the Pearl River Delta at one stage. Smaller towns formed with more than 75% of migrant worker residents would be transformed into ghost towns overnight… One factory owner even imagined his factory to sit on a boat, so that it could sail from country to country depending on minimum wage fluctuations. ”

These cities are like the products they make: cheap and disposable.

Let’s go back and visit that bra factory:

“The former Yashun factory was unlocked. Inside, bra rings were strewed everywhere— bent rings, dirty rings, broken rings. There were crumpled cigarette packages and used rolls of tape. An empty diaper bag. A wall calendar frozen at November 22. A good luck charm with Mao Zedong’s face on one side and a bodhisattva on the other. And throughout the dormitories, on the white plaster walls, graffiti had accumulated over the months. Next to his bed, one worker had listed numbers: winning lottery combinations.”