‘Touring the joke shop factory’

The investors had not been sure what to expect when their coach pulled up in front of the imposing row of warehouses. Assembly lines, perhaps. Moulds. Shiny robot arms plucking, packing. This was how factories worked these days, especially ones that had received such generous funds from the West.

William Wu, the factory manager, spoke no English. The visitors spoke no Chinese. To welcome them, he smiled and nodded frantically. In his eyes: subservience, apprehension. He gestured at a box of brand new white boiler suits: the disposable kind. The visitors put them on. The tour began.

The warehouses stretched like an endless rack of ribs into the distance, separated from the highway by mesh and razor wire. “Security’s no joke, then!” one of the party quipped. It would be the last joke anyone made that day.

William Wu paused before they entered the first building. He pointed to the sign above the door, where a string of Chinese characters were written in marker pen. Underneath, in small careful letters, it read ‘Itching Powder.’ He led them in. Several hundred metal pens were crammed into the space. Inside the pens, men. Men who stood, swaying between the bars; men slumped on the grille of the floor, their eyes distant and half-closed. Quiet groans occasionally slipped out of their mouths. The strangest thing? They were completely naked, and hairless.

After a few minutes, a buzzer sounded. Each man stood to attention. The floor, perhaps the entire building, began to vibrate. Each man reached out and took an electric shaver in his hand. The whirring machines were tethered to the bars, presumably so they could not be thrown. Then, each man proceeded to slowly pass the shaver over every part of his body. The hairless figures before the audience grew even paler; shinier. A large system of conveyor belts beneath their feet hummed quietly.

“They’re collecting the hair,” whispered one horrified onlooker, his hand over his mouth. Nobody else dared to speak.

They left the first warehouse in silence and approached the second. The sign on the door read ‘Whoopee Cushions’. Collectively, the visitors took a deep breath.