Memories of Stoke-on-Trent people - Ken
Life in the Ceramic Tile Industry
previous: Hong Kong (1982-84) | Interkiln (1984-86)
Training and Familiarisation of Chinese Delegations (1987-88)
During my time in Labuan, East Malaysia, there was continuous contact with, and visits to, Interkiln’s technical and commercial offices in Bournemouth and London, to meet clients. I was mainly involved with the Chinese personnel planning the Shanghai tile plant and accompanied them during several visits to Italy, Spain and UK. They were from Shanghai Refractories, which manufactured ceramic refractories for the steel industry. Ceramic wall and floor tile had not been made in China for several decades according to Chinese national planning. The new tile plant was to be called Tai Shan, the name of a tile plant that had been operating, before war caused it to be closed.
Tai Shan was to use the latest generation roller hearth kilns. This necessitated very clean fuel such as natural (methane) gas. Therein lay the first problem, because the only fuel available to us was coal. We needed a plant to convert coal into perfectly clean gas. The ready availability of natural gas in Europe and North America had removed the need for in-factory gas plants producing a clean product. The necessary technology had to be found elsewhere. It was found in South Africa, where technology had developed, because anti-apartheid sanctions had denied clean fuels to that country. Tai Shan started up using clean gas, made in-house, from coal. Nowadays, of course, clean fuels such as natural gas and liquified petroleum gases are widely available in China.
The training of staff was an integral part of the joint venture contract between Tai Shan and Interkiln and I was responsible for the training. There were two groups, each of eight people and including two females in each group. All of them were engineering graduates which, at the time, seemed, and was, over the top for one tile plant. Subsequent growth of the Chinese tile industry perhaps shows why (see Section 6, location and scale of production.). The first group also had an English language interpreter, but the English of the other members made his services unnecessary. Each group spent a week in UK, a month in Italy and a month at Ceramica Solare in Labuan, East Malaysia.
I met the first group at Rome Airport and we spent a few days in Rome where we were joined by, and had Interkiln’s owner and chief executive, Elmer Salgo, as our guide, and very good he was too. Elmer had studied ceramic engineering in Rome in the late 30’s and early 40’s. The group’s training and familiarisation in Italy was carried out at Welko in Spino d’Adda (near Milan) and later at a tile factory in the Apennine Mountains, near the small town of Frassinoro. During the weekends we toured the surrounding areas in a hired mini bus, usually with a local guide, and visited many places including Florence, Venice, Modena, Bologna, Sienna, Pisa and San Gimignano. Training was well funded and it was good to be able to follow up the hard work and diligence of the group with good quality leisure time.
I left the group in good hands for a couple of days at the end of their period in Italy, to visit home. I had arranged for us to next meet at Frankfurt airport and thence to Labuan, East Malaysia. Before I left Manchester Airport for Frankfurt I was asked to telephone Interkiln. I did so, to be told that the visas for the Chinese nationals to enter Malaysia (obtained at the Malaysian embassy in Rome) had been cancelled. I met the Chinese at Frankfurt and their senior member and I decided that we should continue the next leg of our journey to Singapore and take our chances. I asked an officer of the Lufthansa flight to contact immigration at Singapore with a request for eight Chinese nationals from Shanghai, en route to Labuan, to be granted permission to stay in Singapore for a few days. It should be explained that whereas now, 2005, most nations are extremely desirous to have contacts with China, it was very different then. Suspicions and bureaucracy were rife. Visas were granted very sparingly.
Immigration officers at Singapore met us with great courtesy. They questioned me as to what the group was going to do in Labuan. I told them everything except that neighbouring Malaysia had verbally cancelled the visas in the Chinese passports. Maybe they already knew. I have always wondered! They asked why the Chinese wished to stay in Singapore and I truthfully answered “ because of Singapore’s enviable reputation for doing things well”. They then questioned the Chinese in the dialect of Shanghai. For a few minutes it sounded serious but it soon lightened and it was obvious that they were getting on well together. They all originated from, or had connections with, Shanghai. I was to come across this pride in origin on many occasions. Permission was granted to stay over in Singapore and we enjoyed a few relaxing days as tourists in the City-State.
In the meantime I contacted the Malaysian immigration authorities in the State of Sabah, East Malaysia. I informed them of our stay in Singapore and when we would arrive in Kota Kinabalu and thence, hopefully, in Labuan. Three days later we were met at KK by Shanghaiese speakers and were again given a courteous reception. We were informed that we were to be accommodated at the Labuan Golf Club “so as to be together”, and that our group would be joined by a security policeman. The Golf Club was comfortable, beautifully located and our policeman, who spoke the Shanghai dialect, turned out to be a good facilitator and tour guide.
Golf was a novelty to the Chinese and they spent time in the evenings with the some of the club members; learning and writing down the rules of the game and practising on the range. I had spent many hours during evenings and weekends on that same range during the previous year, attempting to attain the proficiency sufficient to get a handicap. I never succeeded and I admit to a little chagrin when some of my trainees in tile technology, who had never before handled a club, showed a natural aptitude for the game and a genuine willingness to show me how. We had an interesting time at the Golf Club. It was the first time that the “mainland” Chinese members of the delegation had had regular contacts with “overseas” Chinese and vice-versa.
The staff of the Ceramica Solare tile plant included Chinese who spoke various Chinese dialects. Communication with the delegates was, therefore, relatively easy and training went ahead with few problems. Their factory had only been commissioned during the previous year and they had not yet had time to develop bad habits. The period of training was followed by a few days relaxation during which period the group chose to visit Mount Kinabalu ( 4101 metres and the highest mountain in South East Asia) and the surrounding forest and National Park. We did this in the comfort of a well-appointed minibus and accompanied by a good tour guide. We bade our farewells in Hong Kong.
The second Chinese delegation were headed by Madame Zheng, who was to become General Manager of Tai Shan Ceramic Tile. I met them on their arrival in Rome towards the end of September 1987. We first attended the ceramic machinery fair in Rimini and the ceramic products fair held in Bologna. Thereafter, our programme in Italy was similar to that followed by the first delegation; it was a mixture of work and enjoyable travel. If possible, we dined in Chinese restaurants; Madame Zheng was an authority on Chinese cuisine and she was very interested in listening to the histories of the expatriate Chinese working in the restaurants. We again travelled on to Sabah and Labuan but this time without visa problems. Once again we enjoyed being accommodated at the Labuan Golf Club, but the delegation was disappointed not to have a friendly security policeman allocated to them. Nevertheless, the programme of work and play was the same. The second delegation chose to spend the final days of their tour in the West Malaysian peninsula and, in particular, in Kuala Lumpur and surroundings. We parted in Hong Kong satisfied that Tai Shan Ceramic Tile would be more than adequately staffed.
You get to know people when you work with them and when you live with them. We did both and got on well together. I was privileged to have been with such interesting individuals with such varying backgrounds and experiences.
14th March 2005
[Ken Green passed away on the 17th July 2008]
previous: Hong Kong (1982-84) | Interkiln (1984-86)