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China sculpture boomtown goes bust from global slowdown

world Updated: Mar 26, 2009 11:01 IST

Greek and Roman gods languish in crates, Caesars and saints line quiet showrooms, angels watch over an idle street, waiting for the buyers who stopped coming to this dusty Chinese county.

Quyang, capital of China's once-thriving sculpture export industry, has fallen on hard times since the global slump snuffed out orders for the European-style statues, busts and carvings that this barren corner of Hebei province has made its specialty.

Ornate statues of Jesus and Mary, ancient deities and Roman Caesars and generals now far outnumber the workers who chisel and grind away without masks despite the thick dust.

This county 240 kilometres (150 miles) southwest of Beijing flourished by cheaply remaking antiquity, and now it faces its own endurance test during a long sales drought.

"We're just trying to survive until the crisis passes," said Cao Jinming, watching as masons in his workshop finished two reliefs of Christ's Last Supper destined for Europe.

Cao and many residents of Dangcheng Township, the centre of Quyang's sculpture exports, bore scarred hands and prematurely wrinkled faces coated with talcum-like dust, the price of a life spent handling stone.

"We've cut workers, we've cut prices, we're making pieces that are simpler. But it's still difficult," Cao said, picking around saints, bishops and busts of the late Pope John Paul II on his floor. "The profit margin has disappeared to near zero."

But if Quyang (pronounced Chew-young) is a microcosm of China's trade woes, it also shows the hardiness likely to help many companies here survive a downturn that would probably force their Western counterparts into bankruptcy.

Sacked workers have often retreated home to nearby farms, receiving no welfare or pay-offs while waiting for orders to pick up, locals said. Managers are turning to domestic customers, and hope the central government's spending plans will bring business from cities using the money to spruce themselves up.

"I used to sell to Italy, Russia, Japan, all over the world," said Peng Aiyi, a 41-year-old sculpture trader. He has won no orders from abroad so far this year. "Now we're trying to open up the domestic market. That's how I'll survive."

He was preparing to send off a dozen Romanesque statues of bare-breasted men and woman in robes, clasping grapes, which he said had finally found a buyer, a small city in northeast China.

"Selling to domestic customers isn't so easy," he said. "Tastes differ here and some folks find this style a bit strong."