Reporting by Zach Hyman
Since I made the observation about protecting one's cards in Myanmar and China, I've noticed another example of the personalized/expensive solution versus the one-size-fits-most/affordable solution that related directly to my research on resource-constrained approaches to mobility in China. The challenge was, "How do I protect myself/my cargo from the elements while driving my three-wheeled vehicle?"
In Jiangkou, a small and remote city in Guizhou province that is accessible solely by road, a thriving workshop fabricates cargo shelters and cab covers specifically for three-wheeled vehicles. I had spent some time trying to locate this shop, as its fame for producing high-quality covers had drivers traveling from as far as the next province over to have covers made for them. Depending upon the size, a custom cover costs between 700 and 2400 kuai (US $111–$382) and requires 6–14 hours of labor. The result is a durable shelter for one's three-wheeled vehicle, with the option to add several other security and performance-enhancing innovations, such as additional in-vehicle storage, electric windshield-wipers wired directly into the vehicle's circuits, and "lock-rings," as seen in this piece for Ethnography Matters.
Meanwhile, a different solution is available for the residents of Tongren, Guizhou, a larger city and the county seat. Tongren is linked by rail and highway to other cities and provinces, and is better connected than Jiangkou to the rest of the country. However, there exists no comparable means of getting a custom-fabricated cover for one's vehicle there. The only comparable service I was able to find was a repair shop that offers to attach a front cover to one's three-wheeled vehicle, modified (usually using a combination of a saw and power drill) to fit a vehicle's particular dimensions.
The shop in Tongren
The Tongren shop is a dealership for three-wheeled vehicles produced by the manufacturer Dongfang. On the day that I stopped by, a customer driving a different brand of vehicle asked to have a shelter installed, and I watched the mechanics struggle to adapt the pre-fabricated shelter to the other vehicle's frame. Since they are one of the only places in Tongren that offer such a service, they must often creatively modify the shelters made for Dongfang-brand vehicles to accommodate the different dimensions of other vehicle brands (with varying degrees of success). Although the quality of the custom-crafted covers from the Jiangkou shop was clearly superior—not to mention the mechanics' pride in their work and their offerings of additional modifications that came from a deep knowledge of the vehicles they were working with—the price of having a prefabricated cover installed in Tongren was hard to beat at just 500 kuai (US $79.50).
Although on the face of it this disparity may be an issue of market segmentation as China collectively attempts to evolve from "global workshop" to "global innovator," these issues of how to direct creative energies are, in fact, paramount. Vendors increasingly must choose whether to focus on lowering costs and simplifying distribution models—as with the pre-made plastic document sleeves sold on the train—or to focus upon developing higher-value services, as in the case of the Jiangkou shop.
Zach Hyman is a Fulbright Scholar based in Chongqing, China. He is currently researching resource-constrained creativity, particularly with regard to mobility. Have a glimpse into his research across China and Myanmar at squareinchanthro.com