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Around China: Hemp shoes a hit in foreign markets


11:09, April 14, 2013

LANZHOU, April 13 (Xinhua) -- In northwest China's Gansu Province, hemp shoes, which used to be a must for local farmers, have made their way to the fashion world.

At the foot of the barren hills of Gangu County stand a cluster of workshops. An array of colorful hemp shoes displayed on shiny glass shelves looks out of place against the shops' dusty surroundings.

From slippers and sandals to sneakers, the hand-made hemp shoes seem even stranger when Wang Yingwu, a workshop manager, said they were originally designed in Italy, France and Japan, even though many of the local craftsmen know little about these countries.

Hemp is widely grown in China's northwest regions, especially in Gansu, where locals make rope with hemp fibers or weave hemp strands into sandals.

Chinese mythology says Fuxi, an ancient king born in Gansu, was the first to use hemp to make ropes and shoes. The Red Army also made and wore hemp shoes during the revolutionary era several decades ago.

"But the old-style hemp shoes don't match today's clothes," said Wang. "So we try to combine traditional craftsmanship with modern design."

"My shoes look the same as the fashionable ones in big stores. The only difference is that mine are made of hemp," he said.

Wang started his hemp shoe business in the 1990s. Sales were limited to nearby counties until a U.S. businessman saw his shoes at a local fair.

Wang named his shoe brand "Damoxing," meaning "walking in the desert," and sold 10,000 pairs to the United States in 1996 in cooperation with the businessman.

Since then, the factory has received more overseas orders and Wang has hired three designers from Italy, France and Japan to work for him.

Wang said his shoes have the advantages of being light, airy and the capability to kill germs due to the hemp's alkaline nature.

The shoes have been a hit at shopping malls in Italy, the UK, France and Japan. The factory made 2 million pairs of hemp shoes in 2012, with more than 90 percent sold in overseas markets. The factory raked in more than 3 million U.S. dollars in foreign trade last year.

The hemp shoe business has also fattened local wallets. The factory employs more than 200 local farmers, with each earning around 1,000 yuan (159 U.S. dollars) a month. The annual net income for farmers in the province was less than 5,000 yuan in 2012.

However, a strengthening Chinese yuan is slashing the profits of the U.S. dollar-priced hemp shoes, according to Wang.

"We used to focus on overseas markets. But now we want to pay equal attention to domestic demand, although advertising at home may cost big money that small companies like us don't have," Wang said.

Wang is now spending more time taking photos of his shoes to put online, as well as running an online store, in order to promote his shoes domestically.

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