JIANGSU, East China — Even though all four of Lei Congrui’s lingerie warehouses were flooded when a typhoon hit Guanyun County in August of 2012, he has one fond memory of that time: After the storm, he enlisted villagers to help him launder his drenched stock with their washing machines. They then laid the seductive garments out to dry on clothes lines strung above their corn stalks, turning their fields into a kaleidoscope of corsets, chemises, and camisoles.
By then, Lei had already made a name for himself. He had pioneered lingerie production and e-commerce sales in Guanyun — a lucrative business that grew from practically nothing about a decade ago to 1 billion yuan ($150 million) in sales for the whole county in 2016. Guanyun has become China’s largest lingerie production base, according to local government figures that claim 60 percent market share. Lei himself owns the county’s largest business, employing some 200 people — many of them from farming families — in around 20 workshops that churn out sexy tops and bottoms around the clock.
Despite their bemusement, Liu and her 20 or so colleagues — all women treadling sewing machines to produce baskets full of lace kimonos, sheer bralettes, and strappy bodysuits — are glad for the work. Lingerie production staff earn about 3,000 to 4,000 yuan per month, making it a more lucrative profession than county residents’ traditional livelihood of growing wheat or rice. Rural residents’ annual per capita disposable income in Guanyun was just over 5,000 yuan in 2008, according to government figures. In 2016, this number had risen to 13,000 yuan.