Tying the knot

Updated: 2011-05-27 11:00

By Alice Xiang (China Daily European Weekly)

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Danish couple's high-end macrame export business takes off in the mountains of Yunnan

Soren Thisted and Astrid Hansen are an active link between two unlikely places. Both from Copenhagen, Denmark, the couple now call the patch of Yunnan province that is Dali home. There, 2,200 meters above sea level in the foothills of the Himalayas, they run OpiumOne, a thriving high-end macram jewelry business that employs more than 750 locals.

Macram is the art of decorative knot weaving, and dates back to 13th century Arab weavers. After spreading through Europe via sailors and traders and then to China, zhongguojie (Chinese knots) can now be seen everywhere as good luck ornaments.

Thisted's longtime fascination of Eastern cultures, minorities and handicrafts is what brought the 40-year-old, who was previously studying language in Japan and sourcing gemstones in India, to Dali.

His passion shows through in the company, whose pieces are all handmade, and whose diverse staff is encouraged to introduce their own expertise. Drawn mainly from the Bai, Yi, Miao, and Muslim ethnic minorities, OpiumOne's workers grow up steeped in rich handicraft traditions, with some "making their own wedding dresses."

The company's most complex designs require up to 16 hours of handiwork, and senior employees know over 100 different techniques.

Tying the knot
Astrid Hansen and Soren Thisted operate the company, which has expanded from a staff of 35 to more than 750 workers. [Photos Provided to China Daily]

Recently landing several large accounts with private label brands, the enterprise has witnessed incredible growth, from 35 workers in October last year to currently nearly 800.

However, as glamorous as 'incredible growth', 'jewelry' and 'the Himalayas' might sound, 'challenging' is a word that crops up often when the couple speak about their experiences in China.

The sheer cultural and physical distances between the makers and the buyers of the jewelry, for instance, present significant mental barriers.

"These are people who've come down to work from the mountains, from hillside villages," Thisted explains. "It's really challenging to make them understand: Your work might be sold on Bond Street, on Fifth Avenue, in Tokyo and what that means."

As proponents of fair trade, the Danish couple says they are committed to maintaining high standards of quality control while ensuring good working conditions and food, as well as regular recreational activities, for staff.

But sometimes even the best of intentions can go a little awry.

Hansen, 27, a yoga instructor, planned a sophisticated yoga scheme for staff, whose work puts extended stress on hands and shoulders. But things proved much more difficult in practice.

When she first demonstrated some exercises, the staff "just stared at me and found it very embarrassing and strange".

To the wholly uninitiated audience, "I just seemed like this crazy laowai jumping up and down in front of them"

Since then, Hansen has settled for a simpler set of exercises. Good things come of such situations, too: The very oddness of yoga to the workers is guaranteed to "get a smile on their faces", she says, and the added humorous element makes it even more of "a good way to be together".

There are plenty of other ongoing challenges, from providing alternatives to local food ("I didn't grow up on rice and chili," Thisted jokes), to the absence of environmental consciousness amongst the workers, as well as Dali's lack of infrastructure.

Living in such beautiful surroundings, Thisted and Hansen are keen to cultivate in their staff a respect for and understanding of how the environment works.

"They've never had any eco-system education," Thisted notes, "so they don't realize where garbage goes. If it goes into the water they think that's OK."

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