Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The unsolved mystery of paper cocktail and ice cream parasols

During the course of my life a lot of questions have been answered, like if the earth is round why don't the people on the other side fall off? Or why do we have lightning and thunder? Where is the end of the universe and other mind bogglers people have been wondering about since their very existence.
Thanks to modern education all has become a bit more comprehensible. Well, at least I'd like to think so.

On a personal level one great mystery still remains, namely paper cocktail and ice cream parasols.

At the time when Mao Zedong had just finished his little red book, my elder sister and I aged 5 discovered after reverse engineering several ice cream parasols they revealed a big secret.
When we occasionally visited the local Chinese restaurant we both never passed the ice cream desert.
As far as I remember this was the only place in our city which decorated their ice creams with this complimentary artifact.
The most interesting parts were the small top and bottom paper cylinders which each had a piece of Chinese newspaper hidden inside.
As long as I can remember it has struck me as akward that one would take the trouble to use recycled newspaper rather than custom made parts for such small components, but at the time it just seemed funny and a bit mysterious since we were in fact more intrigued by the strange characters and the idea that people in China would actually be able to decipher those weird hieroglyphs.
And hey, this was a Chinese restaurant, so as children it made kind of sense that they used weird stuff from China. Or for all we knew a grandmother in the back of the kitchen was creating these decorations just to please children like us. Well, at least such thoughts must have crossed our minds.
As a matter of fact as I grew older, paper parasols continued to intrigue me and sampling wise kept on disassembling them now and then until current age. Surprisingly I found out that in more than 40 years not much that I know of has changed. I vaguely remember that the ribs used to be made out of wood instead of thin carton, but during 4 decades that must have been the only major innovation.
While traveling during the years, I noticed all cocktail and ice cream parasols seem to come from one area or perhaps even one factory, since without exceptions they are all constructed in the same way.
So far, nobody I met or whom I showed it to had ever taken the trouble to dissect it in a way my sister and I did. So in retrospect we were kind of the first Western discoverers of an Eastern secret hidden away in the billions of pieces produced and globally exported for almost half a century and possibly even longer.

A paper cocktail and ice cream parasol.
The top consists of a small strip of rolled up newspaper.
The end is glued together and dipped in chalk.

The bottom which also consists of a strip of
newspaper is covered with a piece of white
paper glued onto it.
The disassembled version:
Twist the top and bottom paper cylinders off, carefully remove the cover and unwrap.
If you don't succeed, use a hobby knife.
Regardless of the place you got it from,
you will be able to see these kind of strands from
Chinese newspaper.
The question is where and how are these parasols actually being produced?
A few facts:
1. The paper parasols cost a few dollar cents and even less at wholesale prices.
2. Since each top is slightly different they are most likely dipped in liquid chalk by hand.
3. Because of it's irregular distribution, the carton ribs are most likely glued to the paper cover manually as well.
4. Who collects Chinese newspapers and who cuts them up into small pieces. The paper strips are not 100% straight, so again manual labour (using siccors)?
5. How are the paper strips rolled up? The rolling looks irregular when you take different samples, so it seems to be done by hand.
6. How is it possible that the manufacturing process has hardly changed during the last 43 years?
7. Due to the great consistency of the product over the years, are they made in just one place?
8. Even with the relatively low salaries in China, the product seems too labour intensive for such a low sales price. And now with China's growing welfare this almost seems impossible.
9. Are perhaps thousands of Chinese prisoners doing this tedious job?

In the mean time I have asked several Chinese trading companies these kind of questions, but so far my attempts were in vain. So I would appreciate it if someone happens to know anything more.



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