Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
International

Chinese 'Button Town' Struggles with Success

"Buttons are my destiny," says button millionaire Wang Chunqiao.  They've been responsible for his rags-to-riches rise.  Now he owns two button factories and is building a third.
"Buttons are my destiny," says button millionaire Wang Chunqiao. They've been responsible for his rags-to-riches rise. Now he owns two button factories and is building a third.
Wang Chunqiao's button factories produce millions of buttons every year. The small town of Qiaotou has cornered the world's button market, bulldozing established markets like Italy.
Louisa Lim, NPR /
Wang Chunqiao's button factories produce millions of buttons every year. The small town of Qiaotou has cornered the world's button market, bulldozing established markets like Italy.
Factory workers manually swirl the paint to make multicolored buttons.
Louisa Lim, NPR /
Factory workers manually swirl the paint to make multicolored buttons.

Look down at the shirt you're wearing. Chances are the buttons came from Qiaotou. The small Chinese town, with about 200 factories and 20,000 migrant workers, produces 60 percent of the world's supply.

But Qiaotou's button manufacturers are victims of their own success; their global domination means there's no place left to go and now they're cannibalizing one another at cutthroat prices.

Legend has it that Qiaotou's button boom began on the town's dusty streets. The story goes that three decades ago, three brothers were walking along the street when suddenly it caught their eye that some buttons had been thrown away and landed in the gutter. They thought "there's money to be made here" so they picked up the buttons and decided to sell them. That simple action launched the town onto its trajectory as the button capital of the world.

Poverty and the scarcity of land actually led to Qiaotou's success. Inhabitants had to depend on trade rather than farming, according to Wang Chunqiao, the owner of two of the town's button factories.

"When we started building factories like crazy, it was for our own survival," Wang says. "We had no capital. Everything came from the work of our own two hands."

Huang Changmu, 25, earns $120 a month at Wang's button factory, where he has worked for four years. But many workers are now starting to look beyond unskilled jobs, and a labor shortage is emerging.

For bosses like Wang, that means offering extra enticements.

"Now workers are demanding more," he says. "They want food, accommodation and cultural activities on top of their salaries. We're planning to build a library and sports facilities."

His factories are facing other difficulties, too. Wang complains that profit margins are too low on such a low-tech product, so he's diversifying into lace borders. And last year, the cost of commodities soared worldwide -- in part because of demand from China. Copper button prices doubled.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.