THE TALE OF THE HAT
Going to sea in winter? Must have a hat. The hatman offers two. Blue or orange? Orange is good, orange is Dutch – we are in Rotterdam – and the orange one is tangibly thicker, feels warmer. ”This is nice hat,” says the hatman, doubtfully. But six is a lot of euro these days. You want to be absolutely sure…
They will see you better if you fall off the ship wearing this, you think. This hat could save your life. ”Good hat,” says the hatman, with a degree of consolation but more impatience. He needs to get back to his other job, behind the bar.
“Ye-es, no – the blue one please.” I will look and feel an idiot in the orange hat. A truncated conehead. A nit. I’m here to entertain, sure, but my shipmates will think I’m strange enough without this beaon on my head.
“US BASIC” says the blue hat, when I get it back to my room and interrogate it. It’s no millinery miracle, that’s sure. “100% ACRYLIC” “MADE IN CHINA” admits the hat, unnecessarily. Of course it is. It came here on a ship, like pretty well everything else.
TRAVELS OF THE HAT
This hat shipped from Ningbo or Shanghai. It most likely took the southern route and travelled the South China Sea, traversed the Singapore strait, crossed the Indian Ocean, dodged the pirates in the Red Sea, came up through Suez, crossed the Med, beaten the Biscay and made it into port, possibly even here in Rotterdam. And no one, so far as I can tell, has even worn it yet.
ONE HAT, MANY HEADS
It left its factory in one of those containers, the steel building blocks of our world. A Chinese truck-driver positioned it under a crane, at the very second the crane was ready for it. The crane operator loaded it according to a scheme designed by the cargo planner. Chinese stevedores lashed the container into position. There is a good chance it was a European captain who took the ship to sea, perhaps my very own Captain Larsen of the Gerd Maersk, or perhaps a Chinese, on a COSCO ship. Five weeks later he brought the ship alongside in northern Europe, his crew (thank you, Filipinos seafarers) having worked round the clock to keep that hat afloat.
SINO-US RELATIONS, MY HAT
“US BASIC” basically means A) It basically looks like it could have been made in the US or B) In the US people need basic hats that basically keep their heads warm – voila. Or C) People around the world basically prefer US clothing to Chinese, and will plump for this hat if they only read large print.
But what’s this? Suddenly the hat starts blurting out unsolicited information, like a suspect pulled in for forgery confessing to more serious crimes – like poisoning. “AZO FREE” the hat announces. Oh really?
Azos are nitrogen-based dyes (azo from azote, French for nitrogen) used in a variety of clothing. They are the most common dyes of all – you are wearing azos now, unless you have the new iPad for reading in the bath. Some of these dyes were found to be carcinogens, particularly associated with bladder cancer. Some orange azo compounds (azos are particularly good at vivid reds and oranges) are mutagenic. I knew that orange hat was weird.
You are lying to me, hat. When you say “AZO FREE” you are presumably referring to those murderous azos that were banned in Europe twenty years ago – aren’t you? Because you’re not “AZO FREE” at all: you are blue because of your azos. Now why would you say a thing like that, hat? I hope you’re not protesting too much, and hinting that some of these banned azos might be back in use. What do you have to say for yourself?
says the hat, in full confession now. Cadmium pigments are highly toxic. I get all my toxins, including cadmium, from smoking. I need no additionals. Most Cadmium pigments have been replaced by azos, but because they are especially good at orange, yellow and red, every now and then someone uses too many and there are product recalls. (Viz 2 million “Shrek Forever After 3D Collectable Drinking Glasses” which fell rather short of their ambitions, being issued and hastily regathered by good old Ronald McDonald in 2010). Cadmium exposure is related to cancer of the kidneys. Definitely glad I left the orange one where it was – no offence, hat.
WITH MY INVESTOR’S HAT ON
You can own one of these intriguing hats for £1.79, a definite saving on 6 Euro, if you order 250 of them. You might well order them via Alibaba.com, which saw a gap for a website for fast shipments from small manufacturers, intra-China and abroad. This proved to be such a wide gap that when Alibaba made its IPO it was the second largest tech offering ever, after a website called Google. Alibaba tags our friends with “Competitive price, fashionable, excellent hand feel,” – then in a burst of frankness refers to them as ‘”These popular-looking hats…” Indeed.
My hat was made by someone who works for Tonglu Kenai Knitting Company in Zhejiang, China. The manufacturer calls it a ‘basic acrylic beanie hat’ – now we’re talking. Tonglu, a private company, says it employs up to 200 people who are capable of turning out up to 500 000 dozen products a year – six million beanies, if there’s a sudden run on popular-looking hats. Whoever made my hat was working very, very hard. Judging by Tonglu’s website, she was probably a woman in the knitting workshop. To meet that production target, even with a full complement of colleagues, she would have to make 30,000 units a year.
LEGEND OF THE HAT
There are photographs of the factory, which specialises in gloves and scarves as well as you-know-whats. Prominence is given to safety: here are two fire extinguishers. Here is a first aid kit, here is one fire alarm, and here a small suggestions box. In the background of some of the thumbnail pictures you can see the blurred shapes of the workers… I wonder what share of my six euro they paid you. I would like to thank you for the hat. It is a fine hat, all in all, perfectly warm. We are off to sea tomorrow, heading for the big blue between Land’s End and Labrador: this hat is voyaging again! I think I’ll take better care of it than I might have done, now that I’ve read the label…