Grass weaving and the knitting industry have a longstanding tradition in dg, but with industry comes change. It has faded from an economic staple, replaced by plastic, to holding an important page in history for the city.
In the old times, when plastic didn’t exist, grass weaving products were widely used in daily life. Surprisingly, many of those products were made in Dongguan, because it once had the best raw materials growing in the Dongjiang estuary. The so-called “guan grass” was such an important economic resource for the city that it was named after the plant. “Dongguan” literally means “the east (Dong) of Canton is full of guan grass.”
The prosperity of the knitting industry continued to the 20th century.
The two-meter-long white grass grew only at the edge of fresh and salty water and was the most common plant seen in the waters of Shatian and Humen town. However, Daojiao town was the place to make the actual products. A local joke says “Houjie rice noodles, Daojiao women.” Everybody knows that Houjie makes the whitest and tenderest rice noodles, Daojiao women are as white and tender as the rice noodles because they always stay indoors weaving mats, pads and baskets.
The prosperity of the knitting industry continued to the 20th century. Even when the P.R.C. was established in 1949 and no private businesses were allowed, manufactures still operated under state-owned factories. Daojiao Grass Weaving factory and Daojiao Craft factory were the biggest businesses in town, hiring over 1,000 employees from the 1960s to 1990s.
The production process was simple. When grasses were harvested, a special thin knife was used to cut the triangle grass into three long strips. They were then dyed and dried. Then shipped to Daojiao, ready to be turned into strong and beautiful mats and pads by the skillful hands of thousands of women.
Ye Xiaoling, a 58-year-old Daojiao local, started to learn the craft from her mother and grandmother when she was 7 years old. When she graduated from high school, she was enrolled in the famous Daojiao Grass Weaving factory, earning 24 RMB a month, three times more than regular farmers at that time. She stayed in the factory for nearly 20 years until it closed in 1993.
Due to her rich experience, she was appointed the official inheritor of the skill, now a provincial level of intangible cultural heritage. Instead of knitting all day long like before, now she goes to schools and cultural centers to teach kids the most basic patterns once every couple of weeks. The government has been trying hard to save and promote the craft. Still, the old women are no longer willing to put their heads down to knit for 10 hours straight and the young aren’t interested to learn anything deeper either.
Ye has successfully invented new patterns and products such as bottle covers, and lamp covers. According to her, it’s hardly worth the efforts to make any innovation because the market is gone. A basket will take her 15 hours to weave and she only asks for 600 RMB. Still, rarely she makes a sale.
Only 40 years ago, grass weaving crafts made in Daojiao were largely exported to Southeast Asia, Europe and America. It is said that weaving products made by guan grass wouldn’t grow mold, even in Dongguan’s crazily humid weather. The invention of plastic was a deadly blow to the industry. In addition, labor costs soared, and the breeding grounds of guan grass have been taken for building factories and apartments. It took less than 10 years to kill an industry which had been thriving for over a thousand years.