Reporting on China's
'black gold'

New Zealand Herald investigative reporter Olivia Carville and investigative photographer Mike Scott travelled to China late last year to cover stories including the billion-dollar global hair trade. The trip was made possible with the help of an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant. In this article, Carville describes the trip and some of the difficulties they encountered.

Whether or not the trade in hair is exploitative was debated extensively when Carville and Scott's piece was published in the Herald

I tried to order sweet and sour chicken with fried rice via an iPhone translator app in Huaibei.

I failed.

I tried to act cool while accepting a breakfast cigarette with a bunch of Chinese businessmen in Taihe.

I failed.

I tried to turn the lights off in my hotel room in Guangzhou.

I failed.

I tried to blend into the background and inconspicuously bear witness to the industry I was investigating in rural China.

I failed.

In October, photographer Mike Scott and I travelled thousands of kilometres across China to investigate the billion dollar global hair trade, with the financial support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

The story was a success: it ignited a heated social media debate, was rated as one of the world’s top “12 incredible photo stories you absolutely can’t miss” on Buzzfeed and our video was viewed by more than one million people, making it one of the Herald’s most popular videos of all time.

But, as Bill Gates once said: “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Before I start diving into the details of our many failures, I wanted to acknowledge that this trip was an amazing, eye-opening experience. It exposed me to the nuances of a culture I had never really understood before.

I’d always found the Chinese community in New Zealand to be relatively private and reserved. But, over there, particularly in the rural areas beyond the buzz of big city life, the people were friendly, inquisitive, helpful and warm.

Thank God, because never before have Mike and I felt more ignorant or more completely dependent on other people -- which brings me to our failures.

One night we tried to order sweet and sour chicken via a translator app and were served a plate of fried egg crust sprinkled with sugar and hundreds and thousands. The chefs in the kitchen all stopped cooking and watched, laughing amongst themselves as the plate was delivered to our table.

We sung Britney Spears ‘I love rock ‘n’ roll’ in English in a karaoke bar in a small town. I recall turning around as Britney was grinding in her underwear to find the whole room watching us, stunned into silence.

We suffered toilet crises in rural villages, we both fell asleep in inappropriate locations, including the subway, a hotel lobby and a cell phone store.

We missed every significant tourist landmark we passed on our 2000km journey.

Much of our trip was spent on trains, almost 36 hours in total. On every trip, we arrived to the platform so late we missed a seat. The first time it was comical, we sat in a booth in the restaurant carriage drinking beer with locals and trying to communicate via the aforementioned translator app.

The last time it was not so funny. The 14-hour overnight train from Fuyang to Shanghai was spent sleeping on our hands, pinned into a restaurant carriage booth, sans air conditioning.

This may all sound like a tame version of a teenage backpacking trip, but Mike and I had a job to do. I had spent months researching the hair industry, we had a jam-packed itinerary, multiple interviews in different cities, a hell of a lot of camera gear to lug around and a story to crack.

As journalists, we want to bear witness to daily realities without influencing them. We want to document, photograph and film the world while blending into its backgrounds.

But this was impossible while reporting from remote, rural areas like Taihe County where we were a clear minority in a not very diverse world.

Large groups of locals would gather around us at every stop, watch, point, laugh and photograph us photographing them.

During this journey, we saw extreme wealth crudely juxtaposed with extreme poverty.

Watch a slideshow of images taken by Carville and Scott while on assignment in China

The owners of the hair factories we visited wore brand new Nike sneakers and drove luxurious BMWs; the workers sat hunched over on small wooden stools, breathing in toxic peroxide chemicals and earning as little as $2 an hour.

We witnessed child exploitation and saw little girls having their hair hacked off on the side of the road.

Following the publication of our Black Gold investigation, we were flooded with feedback. Some people congratulated us; other criticised us, asking why they should care when hair is a renewable resource that grows back.

One reader commented: “On the scale of exploitation, this is a (negative) -10/10.”

I feel differently.

It’s true this wasn’t an investigation about death or corruption. It was an investigation into a by-product of global capitalism, into sacrificed beauty, into a product that is grown in Third World conditions and worn by First World consumers.

I wonder where that little girl with the shorn hair is now. I wonder what she thinks about us, and whether she will ever see the photos Mike took of her.

If anything, we hope our story leaves readers thinking about the invisible chains of labour behind consumerism, and about how much we are willing to pay to indulge our own vanity.