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Red carpet, pomp and speeches at opening of a shampoo plant
By Emily Ford

IT is early in the morning and I'm on my way to a city called Taicang in Jiangsu Province to visit a shampoo factory. The factory is about to be formally opened and the company that makes the shampoo has invited a group of "distinguished guests" along to celebrate.

"Distinguished guests!" I think when I read the invite. "How nice of them! And I've never seen shampoo being made before!"

Leaving Shanghai is not particularly easy, which means I don't do it very often. Sometimes I forget that the place I live in is actually a city of 23 million people. As the vast skyscrapers melt into farmland, I realize that China is a very different place to the country I think I know.

Taicang, by the sea, is a small city with not even a million people. It feels like the end of the earth. "This is nothing like Shanghai," I think, ashamed. "I really need to get out more."

No shampoo pics

When we arrive at the factory, we are introduced to David, our guide. He gives us white coats and hats to make sure we don't contaminate anything.

"You must under no circumstances take photos," David tells us sternly, looking directly at me, the only foreigner in the group. "No photos," he repeats. It hadn't occurred to me before that I might want to take a photo, but now I am curious.

"Why not?" I ask him.

"Because what you are about to see is a trade secret!" David says, horrified. "You might tell someone about it!"

As we go round the factory I watch green plastic bottles being placed on conveyor belts. It doesn't look particularly secret, but every time I look at my phone, David appears at my side, ready to pounce. "Maybe I'll just take a little picture of him," I think slyly. "He can't get cross about that."

After the visit we get to the real point of the trip, an inauguration ceremony to celebrate the new factory. I have come to appreciate the love of ceremony in China, which is taken much more seriously than in the West. Red and gold plants line the roads leading up to the inauguration hall.

A red carpet has been rolled out especially for the distinguished guests to walk on. Although is only 10am in the morning, girls dressed in evening gowns and diamonds stand ready to greet us. "People think the Beijing Olympics was a special occasion," I think, impressed. "They should come to Taicang."

Inside, a huge stage is being filled with flowers. Photographers in black jackets dart about, taking pictures of distinguished guests. A canon stands ready to shower the stage with confetti. Rousing music begins to play.

"This is more like a wedding than a factory opening!" I think excitedly. "Or the Oscars!"

The ceremony is led by an effervescent presenter called Dingding. I have been to several of these events before and know the routine. First everyone is welcomed, then everyone welcomes everyone else with speeches they have prepared.

"Now we welcome our honorable guests. Please welcome!" Dingding says. We clap as they get up on stage.

It takes more than an hour for the honorable guests to be welcomed. A company executive talks, misty-eyed, about the miracles that will happen at the new factory. We watch a video showing pallets being lifted miraculously into the air.

After the welcoming, there is the signing and the handshaking, then a stone is unveiled to commemorate the new factory. Lastly, there is the thanking, when everyone who was doing the welcoming goes back on stage to thank everyone they have just welcomed.

"Now we thank our distinguished guests," Dingding says. "Please thank!"

The whole thing takes nearly three hours. By the end my hands are red and I am starving. I look down at the program to see what's next. "Ooh," I think, "I can't wait for the celebratory lunch to start!"

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