China’s Swimwear Capital Can’t Wait for You to Go Back to the Beach

There may be no place on earth that had been looking forward to summer more than Xingcheng, a laid-back seaside town dotted with the occasional high rise.

Hot sun, cold drinks. Long, languorous days at the beach.

But, most important, swimsuits.

Xingcheng (pronounced SHING-chung), an out-of-the-way factory town on China’s northeastern coast, makes swimwear that is exported to the United States, Germany, Australia and dozens of other countries — in total, a quarter of the world’s swimwear, it estimates. This year, though, when China forced its people to stay home to stop the coronavirus, Xingcheng’s production of trunks, bikinis and one-pieces ground to a halt.

Then, just as China started getting back to work, the epidemic became a pandemic, and the rest of the world began shutting down. Demand for Xingcheng’s swimsuits dried up. Factories and workshops that reopened — masks, disinfectant and temperature checks in place — had very little to do.

Some thought about making other stretchy products instead: yoga clothes, scuba diving suits, wrestling outfits. But that would have meant buying new material, finding new suppliers, maybe even investing in new machines. Starting over, basically.

“Nobody was working. Nobody was earning money,” said Yao Haifu, 42, who has worked in swimwear factories in Xingcheng for more than a decade. “In a word? It was difficult.”

Mr. Yao runs neon-colored cloth through his sewing machine with nimble, practiced hands. The motor whines; thread dances and shakes as it unspools and is sucked into the machine. His colleagues at the factory sit in rows, heaps of half-finished swimsuits by their sides.

The global contraction is hitting all of China’s giant export sector hard. The country’s exports were up only 0.5 percent in June from a year earlier, even as the overall economy rebounded more strongly. But as Chinese industrial towns go, Xingcheng may take longer than most to recover.

Across the globe, pools, beaches and water parks are reopening only cautiously. Travel and tourism are still mostly nonstarters. Perhaps never in recent history has so little of humankind had any need for new swimwear.

But for people living nearby, Xingcheng is a pleasant enough place to watch the waves roll in. The summer temperatures are mild. The morning air pollution wafts away by midday. There are 2,600 hours of sunshine a year — not Miami, but not Edinburgh, either.

There is khaki sand and green-blue water and a wide wooden boardwalk that lights up in the evenings. People set out tables and chairs on the sand to eat fish and drink beer. A pretty pavilion catches the breeze at the end of a long walkway that juts into the sea. The factory zone is a short drive away.

Mr. Yao, whose broad, boyish face is topped with a curly pat of hair, sews swimsuits in a small factory — 40 or so workers — above an auto repair shop. He is busier than he was a few months ago, when orders seemed nonexistent. Many evenings, he even works overtime.

But Mr. Yao’s sense is that the garments he is helping to produce are largely going into warehouses instead of being sold right away. Swimwear brands are still just stocking up for when customers want to buy again, he said.

“Once there’s demand, they can sell these orders and make up for the shortfall during this period,” he said.

For Zhao Yang’s company in Xingcheng, which employs around 70 workers and designers, swimwear orders are starting to trickle in again, though business is not exactly growing. No new customers had approached him lately, he said. He is still working his way through a huge stock of fabric he bought before the Lunar New Year, in anticipation of a busy spring production season that never was.

Mostly, he is spending time at home with his family, waiting out the economic dislocation.

“A slower pace of life is not a bad thing,” Mr. Zhao, 39, said.

The swimsuit industry in Xingcheng took its first steps in the 1980s, at the dawn of private enterprise in China.

According to “This City and Swimwear,” a book by a local journalist, Han Wenxin, residents of the nearby village of Beiguancun sewed bathing suits at home and began selling them at Xingcheng’s beaches. In time, factories were built and merchants started selling farther afield — in Beijing, in Russia, in South Africa and beyond.

As business grew, Xingcheng hosted swimwear expos and runway shows set to thumping club music. If you were in New York’s Times Square last year, you might have looked up and glimpsed a short propaganda film about Xingcheng’s swimwear industry.

Xingcheng sells internationally with the help of people like Ms. Hao, the trader, who works in the southeastern wholesale hub of Yiwu.

She is spending her days reading news about the pandemic on her phone but not doing much business. A customer from Dubai expressed interest in buying some swimsuits but never made a down payment. A buyer in India hinted at an order but didn’t pull the trigger.

Qi Lei employs around 10 people in his airy Xingcheng factory, where industrial machines cut fabric on room-length tables for factories that stitch the pieces into swimsuits. All around his factory there is cloth in great bolts, cloth stuffed into giant plastic bags, cloth in a riot of colors and patterns, from turquoise and snakeskin to tropical flowers on a chevron background.

Work is finding its way to Mr. Qi — he is cutting a lot of bikinis, he said. But he can see that many factories in town are not as lucky. Some workers are still idling at home.

“Because of the epidemic this year, if you’re doing business, you’re by and large losing money,” he said.

Mr. Qi is proud to help Xingcheng make swimwear for the world. But he worries about the industry’s future. Young people do not want to sew swimsuits anymore, he said. They are not as willing as their forebears to grit their teeth and work hard — to “eat bitter,” as people in China say.

“Pretty much everyone who works in this industry was a young girl 20 years ago,” Mr. Qi said. “Now they’re getting on in years.”

China’s factory sector was built over the past four decades on its people’s ability to move quickly and adapt. People from the countryside poured into cities and towns, ready to take whatever opportunities their skills afforded them. The demands of the world market changed so rapidly that it helped not to get too tied up in any one job or industry.

Today, in factory belts around China, the pandemic is testing that resilience anew. What if summer comes and goes and swimsuit sales still don’t pick up in a major way? What happens to Xingcheng then?

“Supposing there’s no work for another year, I guess I’ll just have to scrimp and make do,” Mr. Qi said. “I don’t have any other ideas.”

Wang Yiwei contributed research.

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