The Chen's workshop is a two-bedroom apartment one floor above Mr. Chen’s home.
Equipment: Home-made stretching frames, pots of silk dye, brushes and some squeeze bottles for the resist.
Owned by . . . . Chen Zhiguang, Yin Zhi Zhen (his wife),
Chen Ya (his son), Yan Yong (his daughter-in-law)
Location . . . . . China
Number of Employees . . . 2 Founded in . . . 1991
I was in Hong Kong in 1991 for a wedding and went up to China to look around. There were hand-painted silk scarves on sale in a hotel, and Mr. Chen had put his name and phone number on the label. I called him and we drank tea at his three-room Qing Dynasty house in the old part of Suzhou. I tried to explain the concept of Invisible World to see if he could embody that in a scarf. I think he thought I was a little strange, but I made an order and we’ve been friends and trading partners ever since.
Mr. Chen was studying to be an aeronautics engineer; a patriotic young man who wanted to build Chinese warplanes. But it was 1970’s China, and Mr. Chen’s father got on the wrong side of the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Chen was kicked out of the University, and had to find another way to make a living.
In his words: “Just graduated to repair the car and tractor on a farm, and later participated in the establishment of a gourmet powder factory, and then to the Suzhou watch factory as an engineer, in 1979 in a TV University to teach calculus, in the meantime, trying to invent something, such as a storyteller doll, other gadgets, and flower cultivation...”
In 1991 he turned to silk painting. Distributing his scarves to hotels and gift shops, with his wife’s help, he built a small business. Invisible World is his only export client, and about half his income. Every year we are invited to his simple house for a homemade meal, and we talk about life and politics and business. Mr. Chen’s English is cautious, but he has a good sense of humor. He reads Readers Digest in large print to practice his English. In his retirement he and his wife take the cheapest possible package tours on buses filled with Chinese tourists. In his late life, he’s becoming a well-traveled man.
His son and daughter-in-law took over the business. Their son, Chen Yihao, is the exact same age as my older son. He is finishing up his major in Artificial Intelligence at a top Canadian University. He probably won’t go into the family business, but whatever he does, the foundations of his life will always be made of silk.
Stuff we Talk About: His Grandson, his package tour to Europe (“How was it?” “Beautiful!” “How was the food “Food, not very good.”) The Chinese stock market, their online sales in China. Invisible World’s plan for business. I call him “Lao Chen” (Old Chen) and he calls me “Lao Ke.”
Every piece is painted one at a time. First the design is outlined in a rubber cement-like resist that the dye can’t cross. After it dries, the colors are painted in, along with brushstrokes of water to make the dye spread in a pleasing way. When it’s finished, the scarf is steamed and then sent to the countryside to be hemmed. For clothing and bags, every single piece is outlined on silk and then painted, one by one, before being steamed and then sewn together in a factory. The amazing thing is that of the tens of thousands of items we’ve ordered from Mr. Chen over the years, I estimate that we’ve had less than ten defective pieces. That’s quality control.