Look at Wilfred Young — nattily dressed in his polo shirt and khakis and speaking impeccable English — and it is hard to imagine that you're standing in the middle of a plastic tooling operation in mainland China. Pass through his thoroughly modern mold shop, full of the latest processes and equipment, and witness another reason why East is coming closer to West. Young's firm, Ace Mold Co. Ltd. of Shenzhen, cuts more than 600 injection molds a year for such brand-burnished products as Motorola cellular phones, Remington shavers, Skil power tools and Epson printers.
"Whoever finds us wants to marry us," said Young, Ace's flashy president.
The new China is chock full of the unexpected. A delegation from 13 companies, predominately toolmakers, found that out during a Jan. 25 to Feb. 1 trade mission to Asia. The delegation, sponsored by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the Department of Commerce, visited China and Singapore.
China holds much potential. Lord knows, it has the labor force. Within the Pearl River Delta area of southeast China alone — including its industrial heart in Shenzhen and another major city, Guangzhou — there are 25 million people, tall skyscrapers and traffic congestion that would make New York proud.
As many as 5,000 tooling factories work in the province, said several local associations. Most are not of Ace's stature, but many are looking to grow with support from Western companies, said Qi Zhen-Li, chairman of the Guangzhou-based Mould Industry Association of Guangdong Province, which includes Shenzhen.
"We need to upgrade our industrial structure quite rapidly by opening up to new technology," said Zhen-Li through an interpreter. "We're now making molds in highly sophisticated industries."
He added that more than 200 of the Fortune 500 U.S. companies now work in the province, and many buy molds locally.
Yet, U.S. mold makers on the trip did not find China to be the threat to their livelihood that one might expect. Most Chinese tooling companies do not export outside Asia, nor do they have the means to do so.
Also, although tooling prices can be 30 percent cheaper in China due to bargain-basement labor costs, price isn't the only factor that buyers consider. Proximity to customers and quick delivery also are important.
China has not quite shaken its Third World tics. Outside Young's factory, chickens run free in the streets and people drive atop rusted tractor-trucks that look like they could have been ridden by the Beverly Hillbillies.
Whenever the toolmaking delegation of mostly white males got off its day-glo yellow bus in Shenzhen, a group of locals gathered to stare blankly or giggle uncontrollably. The visitors might have been part of a traveling circus or just arrived from Pluto, for the attention they received.
Yet the Chinese mold makers are anxious to partner, a skill American tool shops have not perfected. Many Chinese mold makers began in Hong Kong and either moved operations there or found Chinese partners. Ace includes 17 investors, all from Hong Kong. Now, China wants partners in America. Will we be as willing to extend an outstretched hand?
Or will we be quicker to remember the country's political abuses and shaky relations — even if it means turning our backs to a geyser of opportunity just starting to burst?
Pryweller is an Akron-based senior reporter for Plastics News.